PARASITE 기생충. South Korea, 2019. A Barunson E&A Co. Production, distributed by CJ Entertainment/NEON. Aspect ratio 2.35:1. 2 hours 12 minutes. Director: Bong Joon Ho 봉준호 . Screenwriters: Han Jin-won 하진원, Bong Joon Ho. Cinematography: Alex Hong Kyung Pyo 홍경표. Production Design: Ha-jun Lee 이하준. Costume Design: Choi Se-yeon 최세연. Special Effects Makeup: Hwang Hyo-kyun 황효균. Music: Jung Jae-il 정재일. Editor: Yang Jin-mo 양진모. Executive Producers: Miky Lee, Park Myeong-chan, Heo Min-hei, Bang Ok-kyung. Producers: Jang Young-hwan, Kwak Sin-ae, Moon Yang-kwon, Lee Joo-hyun.
CAST: Song Kang-ho 송강호 (Kim Ki-taek), Choi Woo-sik 최우식 (Kim Ki-woo ), Park So-dam 박소담 (Kim Ki-jung), Jang Hye-jin 장혜진 (Kim Chung-sook), Jo Yeo-jeong 조여정 (Park Yeon-kyo), Lee Sun-kyun 이선균 (Park Dong-ik), Jung Ji-so 정지소 (Park Da-hye), Lee Jeong-un 이정은 (Moon-gwang), Park Myung-hoon 박명훈 (Moon-gwang’s Husband), Park Seo-joon 박서준 (Min-hyuk), Jung Hyun-joon 정현준 (Park Da-song).
Note: Our intrepid editor Darcy Paquet is scheduled to contribute a formal review of this 2019 Palm d’Or winner for Koreanfilm.org, so be sure to check it out when it goes up. In the meantime, I have decided to write my own take on it from the perspective of a Korean culture/history instructor working in a US academic institution. Think of it as an alternative take!
I was intrigued but not really surprised to find interesting differences in the receptions of Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s seventh feature film, between U.S. and British (and presumably European) critics. Peter Bradshaw’s review for The Guardian, for instance, makes a reference to a “modern-day Downton Abbey upstairs-downstairs situation,” immediately connecting the film to the well-established genre in which the servant class and the aristocrats served by them are main pro- and antagonists. He calls the film “creepy” and “bizarre,” too, perhaps acknowledging that he primarily sees its unfolding story from the POV of the upper-crust Park family, clandestinely and insidiously being subject to an “invasion of lifestyle snatchers,” the hardscrabble Kims.
Is Parasite truly horror-film creepy in the way, say, Jordan Peele’s Us is? After all, it is a story about ruthlessly manipulative members of lumpenproletariat, conning and cheating its way into the various service professions— an English tutor for the daughter, an art therapist for the unruly son, a seasoned personal chauffeur, and a patient, efficient housekeeper— upon whom the Parks, ensconced in an architecturally prominent house with vast glass walls and blindingly green, impeccably manicured lawn, utterly depend, in order to maintain their so-called comfortable lives. There is no question about it: the poverty-stricken Kims do an impressively meticulous job in pulling the wool over the collective eyes of the Parks, and a large part of the film's (guilty) pleasures are derived from watching the gullible and attention-deficit Parks haplessly suckered into the Kim's web of deception.
And yet, what is refreshing about the Kims and Parks, and not at all odd given director Bong's disposition that does not necessarily sit comfortably with the traditional “left” designation, is that neither of them are monsters or even easily deridable comic caricatures. Kims, while seething with class resentment that manifest themselves almost unconsciously (including a jolting act of violence in the climax tied to that “subway riders's smell”), are actually competent (or could fake competency so well that, socially speaking, it is virtually impossible to differentiate between their “fake” skills and “real” ones) and end up genuinely helping the Parks.
Ki-woo, who starts the ball rolling by faking his college credentials to be hired as a fill-in for his high school buddy Min-hyuk, turns out to be a sensitive English teacher sympathetic to the ennui and anger suffered by Da-hye, Park's high schooler daughter. His wickedly sharp-tongued sister Ki-jung quickly deduces that her charge, Native American-obsessed preteen Da-song, had suffered a psychological trauma of sorts. Even the ordinarily uncouth Mr. Kim turns out to be an experienced chauffeur who knows how to put his boss at ease with the right mixture of flattery and flashes of genuine understanding. Despite their foul mouths and con artist's flair for supercilious grins and other acts of deference, the Kims, instead of blaming or lashing out as in a conventional Korean comedy or drama, display much appreciation and respect for one another, even when things inevitably go south.
The Parks, for their part, are indeed shallow and self-absorbed, but, Bong, without giving them sob-story backgrounds to force the audience sympathy, a standard tactic employed by Korean TV dramas, humanizes them through subtle characterization. The most attention-grabbing character is Mrs. Park, half-contemptuously (but stunningly accurately, as we find out) described in English by Min-hyuk as “young and simple.” She is abjectly ridiculous in her Konglish-spouting monologues, yet is in her own way attractively vulnerable and visibly struggling with internal demons: Mrs. Park is like a Disney princess safely deposited in a glass castle on top of a hill by her Prince Charming, befuddled that her Happily Ever After life is so boring and meaningless and entirely not sure what she could do to remedy this situation.
The film makes a couple of quite surprising turns (avoid spoilers!) in the narrative, yet it never hitches onto a finger-pointing, ideologically certified strategy of demonizing the wealthy and transforming the poor into tragic, heroic figures. Like in many great films about real life, we find our sympathies torn into many directions, often simultaneously feeling disgust and compassion toward its personages. In the end, neither Parks nor Kims really deserve what happens to them, yet Bong infuses his film with a clear-eyed sense of how denial of complex, often painful truths (“keeping it all smooth and wrinkle free,” as Chung-sook, the Kim matriarch, points out, is what wealth enables one to do: “money is the best iron you can buy”) could only lead to further problems, eventually escalating into real tragedies. Faced with the ugly, convoluted truths, we still resort to finding the right scapegoats, Bong suggests, rather than sorting through them collectively.
Bong and Park Chan-wook by now maintain unshakable and wholly deserving worldwide reputations as not only master stylists but also brilliant actor's directors. Bong has always extracted amazing, unique performances from his non-star actors— Byun Hee-bong in Barking Dogs Never Bite, Park No-shik as a mentally incapacitated sex crime suspect in Memories of Murder, Ahn Seo-hyun in Okja, among others— but Parasite is a veritable banquet of great performances, all perfectly pitched to that level of slightly off-kilter realism. The actors are so good and so well attuned to Bong's guidance that they make the film's unusually clever and droll dialogue exchanges – like the “young and simple” description quoted above, even the film's supposedly cringe-inducing interjections of English phrases and words have added layers of meaning— come alive in the way that completely distinguishes it from other South Korean films.
Song Kang-ho, one of New Korean Cinema's essential stars and by now probably recognizable by many American art-house fans, is wonderfully subdued and, as he did in some other projects, generously provides bouncing boards for the young actors playing his children, Choi Woo-sik (Train to Busan) and Park So-dam (The Silenced, The Priests), as well as the veteran theater and indie actress Jang Hye-jin (Poetry) as his kick-ass wife. Among the Parks the critical consensus has predictably singled out Jo Yeo-jeong's (The Servant, The Target and numerous TV dramas) performance as a standout. An actress often typecast in “sexy adult” roles, Jo, under Bong's careful orchestration, conveys layers of inner complexity behind Mrs. Park's socially approved superficiality. She is so good, in fact, that we are genuinely disappointed that we never learn what happened to her character in the film's bittersweet, and some might say, surrealistic coda.
Even though Parasite is a relatively small-scale film in that it mainly takes place in two locations (the production budget is pegged at around 13.5 billion won or appx. 11 million dollars: in comparison, the 2018 South Korean average was 7.9 billion won), it boasts the kind of visual opulence and lived-in detail, masterminded by production designer Lee Ha-joon (Believer) and DP Alex Hong Gyeong-pyo (Burning, Snowpiercer), that we are used to seeing in a top-rank Hollywood production. Astonishingly, both the Park's glass castle on the top of the hill and the Kim's grimy sub-basement abode, both so strikingly realized that you could almost smell the herb potpourri fragrance from the former and the improperly dried wet rag stink from the latter, were not real locations but film sets constructed from the scratch. Even jazz-bassist Jung Jae-il's (Okja, Haemoo) keyboard-based score is suitably sophisticated and restrained, never directly mickey-mousing the emotional outbursts or suspenseful narrative turns.
Parasite is a supremely controlled piece of cinematic art, with Bong's characteristic attention to detail, stylistic innovation and compassionate disposition for his quirky personages all not only intact but upgraded to the next level. The film is hellaciously entertaining (and perhaps equally disturbing) for many South Korean viewers who might recognize one or more real-life figures around them very much like Kim or Park family members, but it clearly has a wider appeal, as polarization of economic classes and the accompanying modes of social conduct-- hyper-competition, denial of reality, both enforced through social media and pharmaceutically-induced stupor, and absurd, illogical ruptures of violence-- have become very visible global phenomena. Parasite is not necessarily more “serious” than Bong's other masterpieces-- Mother and Memories of Murder, to name two-- but it is indisputably a work of a master filmmaker, fine-honing his skills to the point where he, like a fabled chef, could eviscerate a fish so fast that it would swim around in a tub not realizing its guts have been taken out.
Can we use it in class? To start off, Parasite presents an opportunity to discuss the powerful sense of dual polarization (yanggeuk-hwa 両極化) between the haves and have-nots pervading the contemporary South Korean society, especially since the global economic crisis of 2008. It is open to academic analysis whether this type of severe inequality had really become so much more pronounced in 2010s compared to 1990s or 2000s, but many Koreans today subjectively feel that one's economic class is increasingly determined by their birthrights instead of talents or diligence. An ironic twist on the expression “born with a silver spoon in one's mouth” has given rise to the term “earth spoon,” indicating that some Koreans are born into families who simply could not rise up the ladder of social mobility, no matter how hard they try. The younger generation, Ki-woo's cohorts in the film, certainly appear to feel that their economic fortunes have declined in comparison to those of their parents: lacking the racial-ethnic minorities they could vent their frustrations and free-floating resentments toward, some of them alarmingly appear to target women, turning virulently anti-feminist and misogynist.
Bong and company's exploration of this issue, however, is never sensationalistic and impressively non-judgmental, all the while refusing to hide behind melodramatic conventions. At the same time, the film's acute and masterful evocation of the real-life details has the effect of drawing the viewers into the narratives of the Kims and/or Parks. While the film is primarily appropriate for teaching about South Korean society and cinema, I can easily see how its character dynamics and narrative would resonate with non-Korean viewers/students, especially those from the younger generation, who could be either “protected” from the harsher realities of the global economy as the Park children are, or very much exposed to them as the Kim children are.
Undergraduates could be assigned one or more academic studies, in the disciplines of sociology, political science or contemporary history, to contextualize the behaviors of Kims and Parks. In terms of cultural/cinematic studies, Parasite is such a well-designed film that one could also mount a visually-oriented class in which the starkly different two “homes” of Kims and Parks were compared and contrasted in terms of their spatial relationship to the film's themes and narrative strategy.