Movies

The Film Sufi: “Parasite” – Bong Joon-Ho (2019)


One of the most lauded films of the past few years has been the South Korean thriller Parasite (Gisaengchung, 2019) by the popular writer-director Bong Joon-Ho.  The film portrays a bizarre set of interactions between two families of vastly contrasting wealth statuses and social standings.  One family (the Park family) is wealthy and refined, while the other family (the Kim family) lies, from just about any perspective, at the bottom of the social heap.  Over the course of these interactions, we would expect the lower-standing family to be hopelessly disadvantaged.  But they have an arrow in their quiver that can always be used to counter the often-prejudicial social norms of those in power – duplicity.  And this is what seems to fascinate so many viewers of this film.   

Indeed Parasite has been almost universally praised by critics [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8] and has amazingly won just about all the top awards.  In particular, it won the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival; and at the 92nd U.S. Academy Awards that year, it won Oscars for Best Picture (the first non-English Language film to do so), Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film – making only the third time that a film won both the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Picture.  

Nevertheless and despite all these accolades, I feel Parasite is somewhat overrated.  True, the film has lots of plot twists (based on Bong Joon-Ho’s original story and the script by Bong and Han Jin-Won), dynamic cinematography (by Hong Kyung-Pyo), and good acting.  But it takes  more than that to make a great movie – in particular it takes a compelling and meaningful narrative.  In this connection, it’s noteworthy that many viewers find close similarities between Parasite and Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2018 Palme d’Or winner, Shoplifters, although I think there are distinct differences in the tones of these two narratives and the way the characters in these two films are portrayed.

 

Parasite’s narrative has two major segments.

1.  The Kim and Park families

At first we are introduced to the impoverished Kim family living in an urban basement hovel.  They are father Kim Ki-Taek (played by Song Kang-Ho), mother Chung-Sook (Jang Hye-Jin), and their two early-twenty-something offspring – son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-Shik) and daughter Ki-Jung (Park So-Dam).  They work in temporary, menial jobs folding pizza boxes for a food delivery company, but they still don’t have enough to make ends meet.  

Then, however, Ki-Woo’s college-educated friend Min-Hyuk pays him a visit before leaving to study overseas and offers to recommend that Ki-Woo take over his job as the English tutor for a wealthy family’s teenage daughter.  Min-Hyuk has romantic interests in the girl and doesn’t want anyone else to move in on her.  So even though he knows that Ki-Woo will have to lie about his educational qualification, Min-Hyuk trusts his friend.  But as we will soon see, trusting anyone in the Kim family is a dubious proposition.  

Soon Ki-Woo gets the job and  is tutoring the daughter of the affluent Park family, Da-Hye (Jung Ji-So), and arousing romantic fascination from both Da-Hye and her innocent mother, Choi Yeon-Gyo (Cho Yeo-Jeong).  Continuing his activities in deception, Ki-Woo manages to get the unsuspecting Park family to hire his sister Ki-Jung, who uses an assumed name and poses as an art teacher, to tutor Da-Hye’s kid brother, Da-Song (Jung Hyeon-Jun).  Before long, Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung have finagled the Park family into firing both their chauffeur and their live-in housekeeper, Gook Moon-Gwang (Lee Jung-Eun) and replacing them with their father (Ki-Taek) and mother (Chung-Sook), again using assumed names and pretending to be unrelated to the other members of their family.

So now, by means of their relentless deceptions, the Kim family has embedded itself with posh positions working for the Park family.  When the Park family goes off on a camping trip, all the Kims come over to the Park mansion to feast themselves.

2.  Another Parasite

But while the Parks are still away, the former housekeeper Moon-Gwang shows up at the door  of the mansion, saying she left something in the basement.  When she is given permission to look downstairs, it is revealed that there is an underground bunker below the house that was built by the original owner and architect of the mansion, unbeknownst to the Parks when they moved in.  Living secretly in this bunker for the past four year has been Moon-Gwang’s husband, Oh Geun-Sae (Park Myung-Hoon), who is hiding out from creditors.

This sets up a conflict.  The Kims want Moon-Gwang and her husband out of the mansion, but Moon-Gwang discovers that the Kims are frauds and that their lies were responsible for her getting fired.  She says she will inform the Parks about this if they force her out.

So now we have three levels of humanity in conflict.  At the top level is the clueless Park family, and below them is the deceitful Kim family, who are feeding off them.  At the bottom are Moon-Gwang and Geun-Sae, who want to feed off the upper two levels.

But now the narrative shifts from one dominated by deception to one overwhelmed by lethal violence.  What ensues is a series of incredibly brutal interactions between the various contestants, with a number of killings, the bloody violence of which seem to lack motivation.  In the end, many of the characters I have mentioned above are dead.  This shocking violence may appeal to some viewers, but I found it gratuitous.  I will leave it to you to watch the film and see how it all comes out.

In the end, with no truly satisfied characters at the conclusion of this story, we might inquire into any underlying themes in this film.  I would say that one could point to the following themes:

  • Deception
    The Kim family lives entirely by deception.  Everything that they do or claim to be is fraudulent.  One might wonder if Bong is suggesting that perhaps all the attributes people claim to have in society are not much more authentic and worthy of belief than those of the Kims.
     
  • Economic Exploitation.
    The Kims, Moon-Gwang, and her husband are all victims of an economic system based on winner-take-all exploitation.  This leads to severe inequality and desperation on the part of those who are at the bottom.  Our lower-class characters in this film innovatively came up with their own schemes, but they were exploitative, too.  What we really need is a social system built around teamwork and community – one that goes beyond the zero-sum-game mechanics of what largely prevails in today’s increasingly gig-economy.
     
  • No Planning
    Kim Ki-Taek believed in a life devoid of planning, and he explicitly advocated that policy to his son, KI-Woo.  Now it is true that being opportunistic and ready for change has its advantages, but Ki-Taek took this commitment to avoid planning way too far and into the realm of absurdity. And ini the coda at the close of the film, Ki-Woo expresses his determination to move in the opposite direction and commit himself to a hopeless plan that has no chance of succeeding.  What was Bong saying here?  I don’t know.

Altogether, Parasite’s most entertaining moments occurred, for me, in the early stages of the film when the Kim family members took advantage of off-the-cuff gambits of deception in order to worm their way into paid activities in the Park family mansion.  These scenes are probably what prompt some people to call this film a comedy.  But as I mentioned at the outset, there are some weaknesses that keep this film from reaching a top level:

  • Missing motivations for the murders
    There are a number of anger-filled murders that take place in the latter part of the film, but these are not well-motivated.  Even in cheap revenge films, there is more time and effort spent in developing an understanding of what fires the vengeful actions depicted than is done here in this film.
     
  • Aimless camera tracking
    Although Bong and his cinematographer Hong Kyung-Pyo are skilled in concocting elaborate moving-camera shots, this card is overplayed in Parasite.  In many cases these camera-tracking shots seem to have no purpose and are merely distracting.
     
  • Deflating Coda.
    The last few minutes of the film present a somewhat deflating coda depicting Ki-Woo’s hopeless long-term plan to buy the mansion.  But this closing segment seems only to detract from the dramatic intensity that has come earlier [7,8].         
     
  • No sympathetic protagonists
    A compelling narrative has to have at least one character that attracts the viewer’s (or reader’s) empathetic interest.  However, Parasite is devoid of such characters.  Almost all of the characters here are opaque and deceitful.  So the overall story has a random nature to it.

Thus, although Parasite has some individual scenes that are skillfully executed, for me, they don’t all come together to make an outstanding film.

½

 

Notes:

  1. Brian Tallerico, “Parasite”, RogerEbert.com, (7 September 2019).   
  2. Manohla Dargis, “‘Parasite’ Review: The Lower Depths Rise With a Vengeance”, The New York Times, (10 February 2020).  
  3. Richard Whittaker, “Parasite”, Austin Chronicle, (25 October 2019).  
  4. Justin Chang, “Review: Thrilling and devastating, ‘Parasite’ is one of the year’s very best movies”, Los Angeles Times, (9 October 2019).   
  5. Micah Bucey, “Parasite (Gisaengchung)”, Spirituality & Practice, (n.d.).   
  6. Peter Howell, “‘Parasite’ is a savage, surprising class satire that pricks the conscience”, Toronto Star, (17 October 2019).   
  7. Stephen Dalton, “’Parasite’ (‘Gisaengchung’): Film Review | Cannes 2019″, The Hollywood Reporter, (21 May 2019).  
  8. James Berardinelli, “Parasite (South Korea, 2019)”, ReelViews, (1 November 2019).     



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