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Film Review: Parasite

Parasite (2019; Directed by Bong Joon-ho)

South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho has made films about the socioeconomic disparities of capitalism before. Snowpiercer, obviously, with its horizontally-inclined train-car metaphor for the pyramid of wealth and privilege, but monster movie The Host and the unpredictable meat-production polemic Okja likewise respectively critiqued capitalism’s controlled chaos and institutional incompetence and its marketing-obscured reduction of animals (and people, too) to pure products of consumption. But with Parasite, Bong Joon-ho crafts his richest, most compelling and layered exploration of the social and personal costs of capitalist economic assumptions. This film, the Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is among the most urgent, persuasively uncompromising, and hard-to-shake portraits of the operational effects of class in 21st-century cinema, and perhaps in cinema of all eras. It’s also tense, shocking, frequently hilarious, and never anything short of remarkably entertaining.

Parasite is a story of two families (although one of its later-act twists slots in a third, but we will say no more about that). The Kims are barely-employed, scratching together barely enough money to make ends meet in their semi-basement apartment. They watch drunks piss on their rubbish bins through their ground-level window, wander the apartment with smartphones held to the ceiling in hopes of latching onto free wifi from a neighbour, and flick away insect infestations, allowing the smoke of fumigation crews to drift through the open window while they’re home in hopes of gaining free extermination services. The Kims are poor.

This begins to change, however, but only through the chance magnanimity of Min (Park Seo-joon), a friend of the family’s young-adult son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). Min is a student at university (which neither Kim child can afford to attend) and has been tutoring Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the high-school-age daughter of the wealthy Park family, in English while also carrying on a secret relationship with her. Min is going abroad to study, but fears another horny young male university student tutor taking his place and his underaged girlfriend. Ki-woo has good knowledge of English, having taken several university entrance exams, and Min feels that he can trust his friend not to take advantage of her while earning good money from the Parks.

Ki-woo isn’t a university student as such English tutors in Korea are evidently expected to be (there are numerous details in Parasite that proceed from cultural assumptions of South Korean society that may not be immediately intelligible to foreign audiences, but it doesn’t detract from the film overall). But his talented, art-school-aspiring sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) forges official-looking college documents for him and he gives a fake name – Kevin – to the young mother of the Park clan (Cho Yeo-jeong), whom Min labels as “a bit simple” and sure enough hires Ki-woo/Kevin practically on the spot. Ki-woo does not live up to Min’s lofty expectations of his conduct, as he soon becomes Da-hye’s new secret boyfriend.

From there, the Kims inveigle themselves one by one onto the Parks’ payroll and into their luxury modern home, designed and dwelled in but vacated a few years before by a renowned architect. Ki-jeong wins a spot as art therapist to the Park’s excitable, unfocused son Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon); patriarch Ki-taek (played by frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho) becomes the family’s new chauffeur after Ki-jeong frames their current driver for sexual deviance; and matriarch Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) takes over as live-in housekeeper after displacing the prior long-tenured one Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) with a fiendish plot involving a peaches allergy, a packet of hot sauce, and a hospital waiting-room selfie. This final link in the employment chain proves to have dire consequences for the Kims (who keep their family relation secret from their employers) and the Parks, however, when the former housekeeper turns out to have been hiding a secret beneath the house.

These events unspool with clever writing, sharp editing, and keen performances, words and ideas and images planted in fertile cinematic soil in early stages sprouting and flowering productively as matters become darker and more terrible in the film’s later movements; it’s a witty confidence-scheme caper comedy before transgressing into full-blown and urgently resonant social horror. The cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo absorbs the cluttered, grimy detail of the Kims’ flat and takes full advantage of the sleek reflective modernism of the Park home. The latter in particular becomes a progressively more familiar and thus unsettling setting: the doorway to the basement, source of the conflict and horror that consumes both families in the film’s latter half, is a black portal set in the middle of a tastefully-illuminated feature wall of decorative objects, into which characters vanish and out of which characters emerge without a hint of warning.

Parasite sees the horizontal orientation of Snowpiercer‘s forceful metaphor for the socioeconomic hierarchy turned back vertical. In contrast to the poor Kims’ lowly basement premises, the wealthy Parks’ mansion is on a geographic height, requiring literal physical ascension (as well as figurative economic/professional ascension) in order to reach it: the Kims approach it by moving up a hill, then taking stairs at the property gate and again after ingress at the front door. The secret that the previous housekeeper concealed in a hidden bunker below the storehouse basement requires a descent to reach, and the violent chaos of the film’s last half stems from what comes out of that subterranean realm. When returning to their semi-basement home in a torrential rainpour after spending a dangerous and fateful night trapped in the Park house, the father Kim and his children descend long inclined roads, metal staircases, and a long set of stone steps down which flooding rainwater cascades. In Parasite, the socioeconomic ladder is given literal form.

But Bong’s conception of class and privilege is far knottier and more fraught than this direct vertical visual arrangement suggests. The Kims are amazed at the gullibility of their rich marks and the ease with which they are able to gain access to salaries from the Parks and to the plenty of their home. But Parasite does not play out entirely like a gleeful, cathartic revenge fantasy of swindling the 1%, although Bong indulges that sentiment in moments. Ki-woo especially is consumed with doubt, not at the immorality of deceiving the Parks but of his own suitability and fitness in their world of wealth and ease. He worries that he does not fit in there, manifested not as nervousness that the ruse he kicked off will be exposed but as a deeper anxiety of social belonging.

Parasite also unfolds not in the direction of violent overthrow of the privilege of the rich, but of desperate, primal conflict between those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale for whatever wage labour income and other discarded scraps those on the higher end are willing to part with. Even while disingenuously acting as the titular parasites on the wealth of the Parks to survive (the film’s Korean title is 기생충 or Gisaengchung, which translates to English most directly as “parasitic worm”) the Kims and others relying on the wealthy family’s largess do not resent them, but pay them compliments (they’re all very “nice”) and even forms of ritual homage to the father of the family, IT company CEO Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun). When violence does climactically turn against the rich, it’s not predemitated or revolutionary in nature, but a sudden snap decision to bring about terrible, swift accountability rather than allow another unscathed escape from the wanton destruction that capitalism’s imperatives wreak upon the poor while sparing (and more often even benefiting) the wealthy.

But Parasite‘s greatness deepens and broadens and becomes more challenging and audacious when its subtext moves beyond class critique and into something more political. It’s hard to miss how Bong seeds his dialogue with casual but insistent references to North Korea: the bunker beneath the Park house was built by the august architect due to North Korean nuclear fears, Moon-gwang impresses with her imitation of North Korean state media broadcasters, and Kim Ki-taek tells Mr. Park that he knows all the roads in Korea south of the 38th Parallel that roughly separates the peninsula’s two very divergent states.

A probing critic may posit that the film’s title refers as much to the wealthy Parks as to the deprived Kims; capitalism presupposes a reciprocal but entirely unequal parasitic relationship on the part of both the haves and the have-nots. But by consistently, knowingly inserting the backwards communist North, with its starving, poverty-stricken population and authoritarian, wealth-hording government elite, into this story set in the prosperous capitalist South, Bong Joon-ho may be provocatively adding another (inverted) layer to his rewarding cinematic critique of vertically-aligned wealth distribution in his native Korea.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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