Sunday, January 19, 2020
[NB: spoilers for the film's first act, but not for the remaining two.]
If you dig back into your memories of high-school biology class, you'll recall that symbiosis is a relationship in which two distinct organisms coexist in what is usually—but not always—a mutually beneficial way. An example of this might be bees and flowers. Parasitism is a form of symbiosis in which the parasite is the sole beneficiary, usually harming its host. Think of a mosquito sucking human blood.
This quick trip back to biology class is enough to make me wonder whether Bong Joon-ho's 2019 movie "Parasite" (Korean-language title: "기생충" or "Gisaeng-chung") has been misnamed. While there's a definite sense in which the poor, struggling family shown in the movie is leeching off the rich family that is its host, the manner of the poor family's parasitism seems more like benign symbiosis: a mutual exchange of benefits. This isn't merely a terminological quibble: this is an important point that I'll return to later in this review.
"Parasite" is the story of a poor family, the Kims, headed by father Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Park Chung-suk (Chang Hyae-jin).* They have two young-adult children who still live with them: gentle-hearted son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and cynical, streetwise daughter Kim Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). Ki-woo has a friend named Min who has been tutoring Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so), the daughter of a very rich family: the Parks. Min is leaving Korea to study abroad, and he offers the high-paying tutoring gig to Ki-woo. Min, a twenty-something, has a romantic interest in Da-hye, who is only a high-school sophomore; Min says that he can feel secure knowing that Da-hye will be in good hands if she's with Ki-woo. Min also gifts the Kim family with a "scholar's rock," a natural rock that serves as an objet d'art and supposedly brings prosperity to its owner.
Ki-woo's sister Ki-jeong is artistically gifted, and she forges a document to make it look as if Ki-woo graduated from Yonsei University, one of South Korea's most prestigious schools. Document in hand, Ki-woo goes to the Park residence for his job interview. Min has warned him that the mother, Choi Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), is nice but a bit "simple." It turns out that "simple" means "gullible," as Yeon-gyo barely looks at Ki-woo's forged Yonsei credentials and insists on watching him teach his first English lesson with Da-hye. The daughter immediately warms up to Ki-woo, especially after he gently clasps her wrist to feel her racing pulse. "The heart never lies," he tells the girl, ostensibly talking about the stress associated with taking tests, but in truth laying the groundwork for his own romantic attempt.
Yeon-gyo is impressed with Ki-woo's "teaching" technique, and she pays him his monthly sum right away, "plus a little extra for inflation." Ki-woo discovers that Da-hye has a younger brother: a wild, kinetic little boy named Da-song (Jeong Hyeon-jun). Yeon-gyo laments that she has tried to hire art tutors for Da-song, but they never last. Ki-woo seizes the opportunity to say that he knows of an in-demand art therapist named Jessica whose methods are unconventional, but who gets results with kids. Yeon-gyo is interested, so another interview is arranged. In this way, Ki-woo insinuates his sister Ki-jeong into the Park family—and it turns out that Ki-jeong, despite bullshitting her way through her art-therapy session with the boy, both captivates the kid and wins over the mom.
And so it goes: the Kim family members all eventually end up working for the rich Park family. Father Ki-taek becomes Mr. Park's (Lee Sun-kyun) personal driver after Ki-jeong plants her panties in Mr. Park's car to make it seem as if the current driver has been having sex in it; mother Chung-suk takes over the job of housekeeper after the Kims discover Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun), the current housekeeper, is violently allergic to peaches, and they quietly sprinkle peach fuzz on her to make her seem as if she has tuberculosis.
Up to here, I've described only the first act of what is a three-act story. The tone of this act is comic, and the comedy does bleed into the second act, but the second act is more of a thriller, and the final act is characterized by horror and tragedy. Korean films can be tonally consistent, like "Oldboy," or they can shift radically in tone, like "YMCA Yagu Dan" (a film about baseball in Korea that also stars Song Kang-ho) or "Parasite," the film under discussion. In the case of "Parasite," the shifts in tone do no harm to the story being told; if anything, they provide us viewers with clues as to which phase of the story we're in.
So what is "Parasite" about? It's a multifaceted film that includes two of director Bong Joon-ho's favorite themes: politics and the environment (cf. his "Snowpiercer"). Climate change, resulting in torrential rain, plays an important role in both the plot and the aesthetics of "Parasite": the rain shows us just how different the lives of the rich and the poor can be. The Parks live in a ritzy hilltop neighborhood; when the rain falls, they suffer few consequences because the rainwater all drains downhill. The Kims, meanwhile, live just below street level in a ban-jiha, which literally means "half-underground," i.e., a semi-basement apartment. Their neighborhood has no proper drainage, so the rainwater from the storm that happens around the middle of the film comes sluicing downhill, right into their windows, flooding their home to shoulder height with foul runoff and sewage.
My own take on the about question, though, is that "Parasite" is fundamentally a Marxist tract and needs to be understood from that perspective. As with "Snowpiercer," an unsubtle movie about class warfare after Earth's climate has gone crazy, "Parasite" argues that the rich will always be rich, and the poor will always be poor. No matter how much you struggle, you cannot rise above your station. Marx argued much the same, and I think the argument is demonstrably false: Koreans themselves constantly and consistently prove that hard work, smarts, focus, and dedication can lead to social mobility—at least if they move to somewhere like the United States and put down roots there.** But whatever my opinion on the matter, Bong is arguing that the poor, if they want to escape their situation, have little choice but to cheat in whatever way they can.
And herein lies one of my major problems with the movie. I wrote, above, about parasitism and symbiosis. The Kim family (and, it turns out, another group of people) is supposedly parasitic upon the rich Parks... but are they, really? The movie makes it clear that each member of the Kim family is, in fact, quite smart and talented. They might be using their powers for evil, after a fashion—Ki-jeong forges documents, and everyone else is basically a poseur—but they are all, to some degree, legitimately skilled. Ki-woo (despite his slimy, disgusting romance with high-schooler Da-hye) proves to be a competent English tutor. Ki-jeong, despite not being a real art therapist, proves to be an actual positive influence on wild, unfocused little Da-song. Ki-taek is a bona fide smooth and professional driver who does indeed know all of Seoul's dark corners, and his wife Chung-suk is a ferociously talented cook and Jane-of-all-trades, which allows her to be perfect in her role as the new housekeeper. So the Kim family, far from simply mooching off the Parks, provides the Parks with the things they need to live their high-class lives. There's a trade-off, here, so this isn't true parasitism: it's more like biological mutualism. And the fact that the Kims are so talented leads to my second question: why the hell hadn't they been able to find decent work up to now? My third question, a side question, would be: why, if the Kims are so all-around competent, are they so bad at folding pizza boxes early in the story?
So something is missing from this tale—some sort of explanation for why the Kims have been unable to get and keep steady jobs. Bong, the Marxist, facilely assumes that it's because the system or society or capitalism is what's keeping them down. This is typically leftist thinking: it's never about personal responsibility and always about forces and networks and systems. Bong's film also falls in line with a particular tradition in Korean storytelling, in which a protagonist finds him- or herself in a losing struggle against larger cosmic powers, e.g., nature or fate. This isn't unique to Korean storytelling, of course: just look at post-World War II German cinema if you want to see some dark, depressing fatalism and disaffection.*** If I'd had a chance to rewrite the script for "Parasite," I'd have included something, some personality problem or tic or neurosis, that was keeping each member of the Kim family from succeeding. These flaws would have played a role in the Kim family's eventual troubles once they had all insinuated themselves in the Park family: maybe Kim Ki-taek, the father, would have ended up betraying a frightening personality quirk in front of Mr. Park (something does happen in the actual film, but it's only a momentary flash of anger that Mr. Park ends up dismissing). Maybe Ki-woo, despite falling in love with Da-hye, might have a secret porn addiction that ends up poisoning his relationship with the girl. The result of my rewrite would be a much different story, but the story would make a bit more sense.
Those are my major complaints about the film, so let's move on to the film's many virtues. Bong, whatever his political views, is an amazingly talented director. He's good with his actors, all of whom give stellar performances (special praise to Cho Yeo-jeong, a.k.a. Mr. Park's wife, for doing a hilarious job as the beautifully clueless, credulous, and perpetually harried spouse... although her English accent was so horrible that I initially thought she was still speaking in Korean during those moments when she was attempting to speak in English). Bong was also the creator of the film's story, and he has managed to weave a tale that is part comedy, part thriller, and all parable. I might not agree with the lesson his parable is trying to teach, but it's an inarguably fascinating and horrifying tale. "Parasite" is also well edited; the story moves along at a smooth pace, and it never flags in energy or loses our engagement with it. Bong has a Tarantino-level knack for building tension (the escape-from-the-living-room scene is the finest example of that) and for injecting random violence and death into the proceedings. Bong also chose well when he picked Hong Kyung-pyo as his cinematographer; together, Bong and Hong make the most of all available light and shadow, weaving these elements smoothly into the plot and using them deftly for their symbolic value.
And let it be said that symbolism is a huge part of this movie. Several times throughout the story, Ki-woo says, "Wow... sangjingjeok inae!" ("Wow... that's so symbolic!"****). The "scholar's rock," given as a gift by friend Min, has symbolic value (as well as a frightening utilitarian purpose revealed in the third act). The aforementioned rain has a symbolic valence. Ki-woo's father Ki-taek, meanwhile, likes talking about how he always has "a plan"... until, during a particularly low moment in the movie, he sadly admits that having no plan is probably the best plan because when there's no plan, nothing can go wrong. It's a bleak moment, but one that makes us realize that even plans can be a metaphor for vanity and futility. One YouTube reviewer astutely noted that the omnipresence of stairs in this movie also symbolizes social status; the same goes for the physical locations of the Kims' and Parks' respective homes: the Parks live way up high; the Kims live way down low. Korean viewers will recognize the rich/poor clash represented by the bizarre ramen dish that Chung-suk cooks for the Park family: she cubes up some high-quality beef (beef is very expensive in Korea) and adds it to some cheap, jjapaghetti-style ramen: the dish embodies the intertwined lives of the Kims and the Parks.
One of the richest neighborhoods in Seoul is in Pyeongchang-dong, a hilly district that, when you're up high, can actually afford you a view of the Blue House, Korea's answer to the US's White House, in the far distance. I could have sworn that "Parasite" had been filmed in Pyeongchang-dong, a neighborhood I'm familiar with only because a friend of mine, rest his soul, used to live there. Pyeongchang-dong is where the houses look more Western; it's where you can find actual walls, gates, yards, and gardens that belong only to one owner, as opposed to the communal plots you can find elsewhere in and around the big cities. Walking through that neighborhood (which is difficult for us fatties because the hills there are very steep) is a surreal experience. "Parasite" offers us common folk, the proletariat, a tantalizing glimpse of where the Parks live, but it's enough to let us know that we're now among the upper crust.
I'll end this review with one more bit of praise: although "Parasite" had one moment where events were predictable, the story arc, as a whole, was utterly unpredictable to me. My hat is off to Bong and his crew for such clever writing, and for creating an engaging tale populated with colorful characters who are so well crafted that they elicit certain emotions in us and make us care about their fates. This is like one of Spike Lee's better films: an issues movie that will prompt discussion and debate about its significance. "Parasite" has been nominated for several Oscars, and deservedly so. It's going up against some stiff competition at the Academy Awards, and South Korea will go absolutely nuts if "Parasite" wins Best Picture and Best Director, but it may be enough for the movie to have been nominated for these awards. Let me back up a bit and say that, while I've compared Bong Joon-ho to directors like Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee, Bong is definitely his own man, with his own style and his own agenda. He is certainly someone to respect for the focus and surety of his artistic vision. "Parasite" is a lovingly crafted movie that marries comedy and tragedy, hope and desolation. It paints a picture of complex, even garbled, morality: who are the bad guys, and who are the good guys? If, like me, you disagree with the movie's Marxist thrust, I would urge you nevertheless to appreciate the movie's depth, its artistry, and the earnestness of its intent.
*In Korean tradition, the wife doesn't take the husband's surname when she and he marry. So Mrs. Park is part of the Kim family, but she's still a Park.
**Certain downtrodden people in Korea refer to their country as "hell Joseon," using the old dynastic name for the region. Trapped in office jobs and the drudgery of modern city life, earning barely enough while swimming in debt, these sad souls see their futile daily struggles as a form of hell. College students graduate into a crowded, hopeless marketplace, and they despair of finding decent work. Whatever "the Korean dream" might be, these people fail to see it, which is one reason why there is a steady trickle of Koreans who leave Korea forever to seek their fortune in other countries. My own take is that hell is inside your head, and you are an active participant in the fashioning of your own fate. See the following footnote.
***Post-WW2 French existentialism is, arguably, a bright light in the midst of all the postwar European gloominess. True: the existentialism of Sartre and Camus preached that the universe is ultimately absurd, but this philosophy also strongly affirmed that we are the sum of our own choices, and it's up to us to carve meaning out of the absurd cosmos if meaning is what we crave. That's a positive message, in my opinion.
****The English subtitles translate this as "so metaphorical!" Sangjing means "symbol"; a metaphor is a biyu.