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“Parasite”: Scenes from the Class Struggle in South Korea

Parasite!

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Truth is in the ear of the believer.

From Bong Joon-Ho, the director of The Host, Snowpiercer, and Okja, a movie with a name like Parasite implies sooner or later there’ll be a monster and bloodletting and bigger, badder, wilder, all-out, off-the-wall, jaw-dropping pandemonium, because moviegoers expect escalation. Several words in that sentence come true and thus is the prophecy fulfilled, but with Joon-Ho it’s best never to think we can expect the unexpected. What most of us think of as “unexpected” is actually very expected because we think along a select number of unconsciously rigid tracks. We clench Occam’s Razor between our fingers and use it to sketch our predictions, drawn from among the most common forms of what average storytellers consider “unexpected” rather than unimaginable forms of unexpected. Preconceptions are a drag even when we think we don’t have any.

Parasite tinkers with quite a few of them. Among the most common and beloved in many a Hollywood tales of late: “Poor = good. Rich = bad.” As us-vs.-them conformist mentalities go, “rich vs. poor” has become among the most exploited. If that’s among your favorite simplistic conflicts, I’m pretty sure Hustlers is still playing in a multiplex near you. Go have fun!

Short version for the unfamiliar: Mom, Dad, and adult son and daughter live in South Korea in destitution because Dad is a lifelong poor planner with many failed jobs and businesses. They get along extremely well as a family and have no secrets from each other, not even their schemes. Son gets an offer from his best friend in college to take over his job as English tutor for an upper-class teenage girl. Son is, like me, a dropout with no degree or credentials. Daughter is a computer whiz and fakes them for him. Then he fakes his way through the interview and lands the job.

The girl he’s tutoring has a little brother with behavioral issues, who loves painting weird stuff but keeps driving his tutors away. Son recommends someone he “knows” as an art teacher. Daughter pretends not to be related to him, fakes her way through her own interview and lands the job.

Thus the con is on. Inch by inch the poor family keeps pressing their advantages and pushing their luck to see how much they can get away with, how firmly they can insert themselves into the rich family’s lives, and whether or not they can truly change their fortunes at their employers’ expense. It’s a bit like Leverage minus the fat-cat villains.

At first it’s all about survival. Soon it’s about comfort. Then there comes a point at which the entire film pivots, the battlefield tilts sideways, and Parasite becomes a very different animal that’s best looked in the eyes spoiler-free. The trailer contains clues, most of which will fly past you for now and mean a lot more after you’ve seen the film.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Keeping in mind this section is typically limited to my own experiences: Poor Dad is Song Kang-ho, the earnest bumbler from The Host and Chris Evans’ cohort in Snowpiercer. Poor Son is Choi Woo-shik, who I just recently watched on Netflix as a heroic baseball player in the surprisingly spectacular zombie flick Train to Busan. (He was also in Okja, which I have yet to watch because my son, who knows many of my boundaries, strongly advised against it.)

For now the rest of the cast are unknown to me, but I’ll be disappointed if I don’t see them again in future endeavors. Particular note must be made of Park So-dam as Poor Daughter, the boldest con artist on the team, who bedazzles Rich Mom in the interview with jazzed-up credentials from the faraway exotic land of Illinois and whose mnemonic to remember her fake backstory is now available as a ringtone.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:

  • Coexistence sounds pleasant, but too often our primary motivations are driven by competition against each other.
  • Not all lower-class citizens are saintly; not all upper-class citizens are demonic.
  • The higher the stakes, the higher your work standards need to be. No one really cares of you fold the perfect pizza box with absolute geometric precision, but when larger, more expensive objects are at hand, fully expect the boss to zoom in on the tiniest handling flaws.
  • It’s amazing how much you can learn from Google to get you through even the most challenging short-term projects.
  • Anyone who isn’t nice to a dog doesn’t deserve a happy ending.
  • South Korea has Boy Scouts just like us!
  • Morse code still has its uses.

…and maybe a few others than are spoilers. Money and class play the biggest parts, of course, but the gradations are subtle.

Nitpicking? All things considered, Parasite is nowhere near as gonzo as my other Joon-Ho experiences led me to anticipate. Not that I demand buckets of blood or outlandish fantasy-SF elements in everything I consume, but this had much less. I found myself a little underwhelmed when we first walked out of the theater, but the more time I spent dwelling on the nuances and the contrasts between the families, the more I found myself relishing just how contemplative it ultimately sent me…eventually.

Also, anyone sensitive to a view of any race as a merchandising brand may be taken aback at the rich li’l boy prodigy’s hobby of collecting gaudy “American Indian” stuff — war bonnet, tent-shaped teepee, toy tomahawks, etc. A keen reminder that some American perceptions are not necessarily shared worldwide.

So what’s to like? The first half is a sly comedy contraption, pleasurable as our slick, devious protagonists work their way into the rich family’s graces, rehearse their lines, and coordinate their efforts. There’s a certain joy in watching pros sucker easy marks, unless you begin questioning if they deserve it, not to mention what anyone in the film does or doesn’t “deserve”.

That quandary comes to the forefront as the second half free-falls into cat-and-mouse suspense, the viewer’s investment in the poor family wavers, stuff gets real, and negotiations between all sides get increasingly messier as the cast must decide what lengths they’re willing to go to for the sake of family.

I can’t say much more except that, even though the first half was more conventionally appealing, everyone’s questionable choices yield some harsh consequences with very few feel-good Hollywood escape routes in sight. Though it’s debatable how guilty any of the characters feel at the end, the audience is forced to question their own allegiance to the principals and their principles, and ask ourselves if we would’ve felt differently at the start of the film had we known we were dealing not with cardboard cutouts but with multidimensional people…much as we often do poorly in real life.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Parasite end credits, though you can stick around a listen to a new song, “Soju One Glass”, with lyrics by the director himself. Unlike the rest of the film, the song has no subtitles.

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