' ' Cinema Romantico: Parasite

Tuesday, November 12, 2019


“Parasite” begins in a dingy Seoul basement apartment belonging to the Kims, a family of four, as the college-aged children, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), seek cellphone reception, moving from room to room, holding their phones up higher and higher, eventually making contact. It evokes modern life, yes, but just as aptly epitomizes all ages and eras, the circumstances necessary for being connected to the outside world, the Elois and the Morlocks all over again. That speaks to the class commentary director Bong Joon-ho is fond of, like 2014’s “Snowpiercer”, though the divide here, while no less explicit, contains a more vicious bite, not least because of Bong’s immense command of his craft, so effortlessly and electrically blending comedy and suspense that you don’t even realize when he’s led you right into an emotional trap.

At the suggestion and inflated recommendation of his friend, Ki-woo takes a job as English tutor to the moody daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), of a wealthy family, the Parks, living in an avant-garde mansion, its wide-open design and expansive window looking out onto an immaculate lawn juxtaposed against the Kims cramped abode with a window looking up and out into an alley where drunkards urinate. Do you know how much a Malibu view costs? This incites a larger scheme where through phony recommendations made by each successive family member, all the Kims wind up working for the Parks. Ki-jung becomes art instructor to their son, Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun); the father, Ki-taek, (Song Kang-ho) gets a job driving for Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun); the mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), becomes the Parks’ new housekeeper. Bong has said “Mission: Impossible” inspired these passages and it shows, a gathering of the team, in a manner of speaking, their mission, which they choose to accept, infiltrating the lap of luxury. Though they never sport latex masks, each one is nevertheless in disguise, never more humorously than Ki-jeong who demonstrates how merely expressing brisk attitude makes you seem like you belong.

If the Parks are never exactly faceless villains, neither are they presented as well-rounded people with whom we empathize, Bong deliberately playing up the cocoon in which they reside. Da-hye is only being tutored in English to make eyes at whoever her tutor happens to be; her brother’s ostensible art genius is outed as a fabrication. Their exceptionalism, in other words, is just sort of assumed and then automatically confirmed by the size of their bank account. It’s the bubble, in fact, that makes it so easy for the Kim family to dupe the Parks over and over, though it’s also the bubble that keeps them insulated. When a family camping trip is ruined by rain, the Parks simply come home, calling ahead for Chung-sook to prepare noodles, which clashes obviously but no less ferociously with an astonishing sequence in which the Kims return home that same night through the driving rain, descending staircase after staircase, so many sets of stairs, under grimy freeways and down hills, returning to their poverty-stricken neighborhood to find it flooded out, desperate characters floating along on makeshift life rafts. Bong introduces this unstoppable inundation from above, suggesting a God’s-eye view, though in this case it’s hard not to read the Rich as God, looking down on all the rest. Even the idiom that Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall cuts across class lines; more rain falls in some lives than others.

The sequence ends with the Kims packed into a gymnasium alongside hundreds of others who have been flooded out, like survivors of a sinking ship, the S.S. Titanic all over again. Not that Bong is consumed by that “Snowpiercer”-ish populism. While his sympathies clearly lie with the Kims, frequently framing them together while showing the Park family in separate rooms and places, apart, stressing the importance of that community, he also tweaks that community and the idea of their moral relativism, and ours. We become complicit, the “M:I” homage designed to rope us right in to their side even as their tactics skew dubious, never more than an invented case of T.B., the capping shot to this semi-comic sequence making me laugh out loud until I realized what I was laughing at. If the Kims are tight-knit, this tightness becomes their own kind of cocoon, and the ensuing brooms Bong sticks in his own cleverly designed narrative wheel, illuminates this idea.

When the Parks go camping, the quartet that has figuratively taken over their home takes it over literally, eating and drinking in their living room, sleeping in their beds. The tension here seems obvious – when the will the Parks come home? But Bong has something else in mind. What it is, this review will not say, but it brings out the diabolical nature of the Kims own actions, how most anyone, rich or poor or in-between, will sacrifice the greater good to protect their own. It’s an age-old divide, one for which Bong sees no solution, taking sides in his sentimental ending as one of the two families fades from view, even as he lays the truth of that divide bare. In the climactic scene, right before things take a gruesome turn, the two patriarchs kneel inches apart, staring right at one another even as the look in each of their eyes makes it clear they can’t see each other at all.

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