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Parasite
(2019)

(SPOILERS) I had the ending of Parasite spoiled for me before seeing the film – it was difficult to avoid, given the time that has passed since its US release. Albeit, more in terms of the manner in which violence suddenly erupts than the specifics of who perpetrates it. Some of these mentions alluded to it coming out of nowhere, and thus being tonally inconsistent with the picture. It’s a view I can’t really get on board with, except in so much as there’s nothing so graphic hitherto. Otherwise, though, there’s an air of foreboding and dread running through at least the latter half of the film, however leavened it as points by Bong Joon-ho’s satirical swipes.

Has Parasite been overpraised? Probably, but that’s rarely not the case with a Best Picture Oscar winner (or nominee, come to that). More impressive is that a film so atypical of standard Oscar fare got within a sniff of the prize, let alone waltzed off with it. Sure, the Academy has swung the way of (broad) satire before, most notably with American Beauty this century (well, by a whisker; it was given the statuette in 2000). And sure, Bong’s tendency towards Hitchcockian suspense sweetens the pill. But there’s an unease at the heart of Parasite that’s much less common to feted fare, a sense of how the flames of social fragmentation, as depicted in this microcosm, might be fanned and suddenly explode into mayhem, given the right ingredients, and thus how the bastions of Hollywood themselves, in their ivory towers, might be infiltrated and suddenly dispatched. Perhaps the Academy thought, if they looked poverty in the eye, it will shrink away from them.

The satire in Parasite isn’t actually all that sharp, but it undoubtedly sustains itself much more effectively than the clumsy gesturing of Bong’s most recent efforts, Snowpiercer and Okja. I was expecting – dreading slightly – this film to follow course, and in its early stages, it does rather have a sense of an Ealing comedy by way of Mike Leigh. The Kim family are introduced as indolent types most obsessed with how they’re going to get decent (free) wi-fi signals and avoid habitual drunks pissing outside their window. But once son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) gains entry to the affluent Park household, posing as a university student so as to tutor their daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the rest of the family quickly follow suit in inveigling themselves, as art therapist (Park So-dam’s daughter Ki-jung) for haunted son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), driver (Song Kang-ho’s father Ki-taek) for dad Dong-ik (Lee Sun-Kyun) and family housekeeper (Jang Hye-junn as mother Chung-sook).

It’s thus a determinedly heightened mood Bong is inviting, one that resists too much probing analysis (the question of why they the Kims Lee Jung-eun’s original housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang in on that fateful evening is really as unrefined as: because there wouldn’t be a movie, or at least not one with such perverse twists, if they didn’t). The essential thesis, when, as is noted at one point, there are hundreds of job applications just for a menial position, is that all it takes is that one stroke of opportunity to show what the downtrodden are capable of (Bong flirts with a talismanic piece of rock as a harbinger for their success, only to reject its properties).

That said, Bong’s approach does, at times, reminds me of Leigh’s self-righteousness, where we’re supposed to empathise with the protagonists as actual people (who, thoroughly unscrupulous as they are, are crucially a family who spend time together and enjoy each other’s company) while the one-percent parasites are ignorant, bigoted fools who deserve what they get. Which is a take, but it’s a less than nuanced one. There’s no effort to by Bong to get to know the Parks, except in as much as they reflect the Kims, and in particular, the manner in which Dong-ik motivates Ki-taek.

That’s also true of the reveal that Moon-gwang’s husband Oh Geun-saw (Park Myung-hoon) has been living secretly in the Park’s underground bunker for the past five years. It’s a very literal depiction of the rich blithely living off the poor, imprisoning the poor, and then, the poor turning against each other in violence for the scraps left them by the rich. Again, it’s the visualisation here that carries the power, rather than the somewhat rote subtext; the very thing of the vast, unknown underground basement lends the proceedings an unsettling air, one that might be even more pungent if we were encouraged to see the Parks as human beings too.

I wasn’t entirely convinced of the necessity of Parasite’s epilogue. On the one hand, it provides the neat circularity of Ki-taek becoming the prisoner in the basement, now serving a self-imposed sentence for murder (notably, a murder committed by a man aware of his own emasculation, as his wife jokingly points out about him at one point, and as he – scarily – jokily acknowledges). On the other, it further emphasises the almost fantastical remove the picture is capable of, with its unlikely Morse code messages, both sent and received, and a new family taking over the Park house without – presumably – bothering, or the estate agents bothering, to glance at its architectural plans. There’s also that Ki-woo’s impossible dream is a little too routine. Mostly, though, I felt Bong was tying everything up too thoroughly, so allowing the impact of the climactic birthday party to dissipate.

And as is often the case, I came away convinced Bong is a better director than writer; he’s a top-flight genre director, and only a so-so social commentator. Fortunately, here the two dovetail much more effectively than in the last few efforts. The scene of the flood and its fallout, contrasted with the Parks’ oblivious luxury is perfectly rendered, while his execution of the suspense/comedy sequences prior to that (the Kims hiding under the coffee table, the slapstick of Chung-sook pushing Moon-gwang down the bunker steps) is masterful. And ultimately, Parasite makes for an unusual Oscar winner, not just for being – to Donald’s chagrin – one not in the English language, but also as the one that most deserved the prize out of the contenders.


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