dir: Bong Joon-ho
The thing about parasites is… how many are too many, and what should I do to get rid of them, lickety split?
Nah, but Parasite, the latest flick from the deranged and brilliant mind that brought us Okja, Snowpiercer, Mother, The Host and Memories of Murder, all of which are remarkably solid films, all of which are fairly unique, is probably the most outwardly conventional of all his films.
Not only that, but it won the Palme D’Or this year at Cannes! Can you imagine caring about such a thing? Surely if something wins the Palme D’Or it means it’s a pretty great film, if not the greatest film of all time, or at least that year thus far? I mean, look at all the other great Palme D’Or winners, like Pulp Fiction, Barton Fink, The Piano and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
I didn’t make up that last one. On the list of winners there are a lot of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh films, and films from many nations, with no obvious bias towards the films of any region. Mostly, they have nothing in common, though one could be tempted to imply that the jury likes flicks where class is addressed, or plays a part thematically, or is indeed called The Class, which won the Palme D’Or in 2008.
Parasite, the South Korean director’s latest flick, is pretty much about class, but it’s also about the struggles of a family of grifters, and their travails. The least charitable application of the title would be to say that what this family does is become a parasite burrowing its way into the body of another, wealthier family. When we meet our grifters, they’re living in a basement, fighting to find the right spot in which to use someone else’s wi-fi connection in order to connect for some data. Calling the place a hovel would be an insult to squalor.
But they’re tough, and resourceful, as are most petty crims who need to survive on their wits. The father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, who is not only in most of the Bong Joon-ho or Park chan-wook movies I’ve seen, but also in the majority of all South Korean flicks I’ve ever seen) is a fairly quiet, fairly optimistic chap. He supports all his kids in all their attempts to grift. He seems like such a likable guy. The mum, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) is a former athlete, and gives the least amount of fucks of any in the family (being exactly zero), often threatening to bite the hand that feeds or actively biting it especially when it’s not in their interest. Then there’s the gentle and retiring son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and the daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), with some serious Photoshop skills that she puts to work in service of the plan.
It’s a friend of Ki-woo’s that starts the ball rolling – he is the tutor to a wealthy couple’s daughter, and, as he’s going overseas, he wants Ki-woo to continue tutoring her, because he wouldn’t trust one of his uni peers to do it without slavering over her. But Ki-woo, he thinks, is too lame / trustworthy to abuse her trust.
Once sis fabricates some credentials for Ki-woo, he works his way into the Park family, a tick burrowing under their privileged skin. He hits it off with the mum and the daughter, but, most importantly, starts creating opportunities to trick the Parks into hiring the other members of his family without knowing they’re all related. Each new hire is more complex, requiring more subterfuge. It requires ruining other people’s employment and lives in order to achieve their goals of making fat bank.
It's in Ki-woo’s eyes, dubbed Kevin by the wealthy family, when he first sees the expanse of the home, the yard, the vast internal spaces, the elegant and minimalist interior design. He is awed by it. When he starts teaching the daughter, and she starts to show her feelings towards him, he’s just delusional enough to think that she may be his way in to permanently become like his betters.
His sister, renamed Jessica, starts tutoring, or providing ‘art therapy’ to the youngest child, who seems to be a hyperactive brat that the mother is convinced is some kind of genius, but Jessica’s strategy is to play upon the mother’s fears, stoking her terror that her golden boy child is somehow damaged beyond repair. The kid is, to use the technical term, a dingbat, but it behoves no-one to have that pointed out. So Jessica suggests 2 hour sessions 4 times a week at a high rate, which the family readily agrees to.
Mrs Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) isn’t portrayed as being particularly stupid, but the grifters don’t actually have to try that hard at their particular grifts or agendas in order to Jedi mind trick her into doing exactly what they want. She seems somewhat attentive to the needs of her kids, but only so far as feeling assurance that an appropriate service industry person is taking care of the requirement.
She has a kind of trusting benevolence that only comes from almost complete insulation. Mr Park (Lee Sun-kyun) is neither overly trusting nor insulated, but he too has expectations that can only be provided by the lower classes knowing their place and delivering as required.
The grifters eventually get in as best they can, and even reach a place where they feel almost benevolent towards their hosts, as they hoover up their expensive hooch and eat their snacks. You almost feel like there’s a balance achieved, a harmony where the rich bastards no longer fear the poor scum, and the poor start to see life from the other perspective, understanding that just because they have material wealth, it doesn’t mean they’re entirely insulated from the other elements of life that can go wrong.
That’s not where this film is going, you see. The rich bastards may be just regular people with money, but the poor will never even be really human to these people. The host may come to expect that it cannot be rid of its parasites, but that doesn’t mean they ever see the parasite as an equal.
It’s the smell, you see. It’s first detected by the youngest boy, a smell that all of the grifters share, but then Mr Park can’t stop smelling it. At first the grifters wonder whether it’s the laundry soap they wash their clothes with, or whether it’s the fact that they live in a mouldy sub-basement. But later on, when Mr and Mr Park wonder out loud, within earshot of a humiliated Ki-taek, whether it’s the smell of boiled rags, or radishes or some other element of the poor world that can’t help but pervade their existence.
It’s something they can’t fake their way out of, or explain away, or cover, or dodge. And it’s maddening.
To avoid spoiling the film irredeemably by spoiling it too much further (with something I’d almost argue isn’t even really a spoiler, because it’s just so fucking out there, but every review I’ve read talks around it like it’s a revelation that everyone’s dead or an alien or alien ghosts, none of which is remotely close) the film takes an even more bizarre and, I would argue, goofy turn, to ensure that events hurtle towards a catastrophic end.
Natural disasters have a way of impacting some way more than others, but the aftermath of a particular night of flooding will be felt by multiple families. Because the reality is, hosts can sometimes entertain multiple sets of parasites.
This is described as a comedy, or a dark comedy, but it’s not really a laugh out loud experience, at least not for me. Perhaps if I’d watched it with a Korean audience, or at least a Korean-Australian audience, I might have found it a more raucous experience. Unfortunately for me, I saw it in the whitest of white locations, so no cross-cultural understanding was entered into. Class stuff I can get, across cultural lines and national borders. That the poor envy the rich is not a stretch, and that the rich loathe the poor is nothing new in human history. That both sets of people would have their illusions that they need maintain in order to justify their beliefs is also unsurprising. But the directions the film eventually goes transcend those simple understandings, where, eventually, I’m left not even being sure what the film was trying to say. At the risk of generalising further, it almost seems like the film is saying different groups of parasites left desperate will attack each other more than the host in competing for the same drops of blood or leftovers or whatever. Or that once the distance between the haves and the have nots becomes insurmountable, neither group will see the other as human, and death will come swiftly for our enemies.
The film manages to reach a bizarre but touching bittersweet ending which somehow manages to have its cake and eat it too, by showing how limited the mobility of the impoverished is, or how trapped by the house they remain, even long after actions that cannot be undone have been taken. Prisoners remain prisoners.
That being said, there were at least three moments in the film where the plot required characters to take actions of such staggering dumbness that I felt like I was watching a much dumber film. Like, if a crucial plot development is dependent on three characters eavesdropping on a conversation and then falling into the scene like they’re the fucking Marx Brothers from a hundred years ago, you’re not really talking about masterpiece theatre no matter what the reviews say.
It’s still a really interesting and enjoyable film, though. I don’t know if it’s one of the year’s best. It’s not even the best Bong Joon-ho flick I’ve seen recently (I liked Okja far more, mostly because it was so out there). But it’s pretty strong all the same.
7 times the song Eat the Rich by Motorhead is never sung or referenced but should have been out of 10
“If I was rich, I would be nice too. Money is an iron; it smooths out all the wrinkles.” – I wouldn’t know, I’m too busy trying to increase my collection of Faberge eggs – Parasite.