Sunday, February 16, 2020

Who's the More Parasitic?

Class mobility comes only with blood, lies, and sorrow in 2019's Parasite (기생충). Like many of the best South Korean films of the past thirty years, it doesn't fit neatly into one traditional genre, having elements of black comedy, thriller, and drama. It could also be called a sort of dark fairy tale, certainly an allegory for social class relations. Like most Best Picture winners, it's good but leaves one asking, "Really? That was the best picture of the year?"

Also like most Best Picture winners, it's likely that politics played a big role. The Academy has received a lot of flack for not meeting the eternally unattainable level of inclusivity to make people stop complaining so it probably felt good to vote for the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture. But it also fits the more traditional political motivation of rewarding a director's latest, decent movie for the failure to recognise one or more of his earlier, much better films--like Shape of Water or Gladiator--in this case, Bong Joon-ho might have been better recognised for Snowpiercer or Mother.

Parasite is the story of a poor, chronically unemployed family and their successful scheme to get themselves all hired as a wealthy family's cadre of servants, only for everything to go terribly wrong. It starts when the teenage son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), gets a job as an English tutor for the wealthy family's daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). He's then able to recommend "Jessica", in reality his sister, Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), as an "art therapy" tutor for the wealthy family's rambunctious, pre-pubescent son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun).

One of the funniest moments in the movie is when Ki-jeong carefully asks the wealthy mother, Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), "if anything happened to Da-song when he was in first grade?" Like the sucker she is, Yeon-gyo immediately reacts in shock to this keen insight.

Soon the rest of the poor Kim family are employed with the father (Song Kang-ho) as the family driver and the mother (Jang Hye-jin) as the housekeeper. It's this last job that finally introduces a wrinkle when the previous housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) turns out to have been keeping her husband secretly in a bunker beneath the house. The rest of the film, while still having funny moments, becomes more of an action thriller where the conflict between the Kim family and the old housekeeper's works as a metaphor for the competition between members of a lower economic class for the rare opportunity of advancement. Do they just fight each other, or will the proletariat finally find some solidarity in conflict with the blissful and insensitive elite?

Despite several jokes at the expense of North Korea, there's certainly an unmistakeably Marxist philosophy behind the story, almost reminiscent of a Soviet propaganda film. While the story is entertaining and the actors give good performances, there's a lack of complexity to the protagonists and little in terms of distinct personality traits among them--aside from age and sex, there's little to distinguish the daughter and the father, for example. But this is often the case with allegory and propaganda, as is some improbability in some of the plot points, not to mention a climax that makes very little sense. But it works because there are plenty of good jokes and the actors all deliver good performances.

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