One of my co-workers is Korean. Well, Korean-American. OK, he’s an American but his parents are from Korea. He’s the polar opposite of The Boy and I, movie-wise, in the sense that he doesn’t generally like movies that don’t have a lot of CGI, and he’s also very particular about the CGI. He had gone to Korea recently to visit his wife’s family and when he came back, he mentioned having seen this. (I’m sure he downloaded it, so he didn’t even need to be in Korea but there you go.)
The reason I mention it, is that he thought Parasite was a very good movie, and there is no (noticeable) CGI in it at all. This is a drama from the guy who brought you Snowpiercer and The Host, and it’s very interesting indeed. I actually saw it the same night I saw Joker, and it, too, is about Society.
We start with the Kims, a family of losers. Bottom rung (but still part) of Korean society living in a basement apartment (which is serious because Korea has torrential rains and, yeah, the water goes right where you’d expect). Mom and Dad are middle aged. Bro and Sis are young adults, but not in college. (The reverence Koreans have for establishment education is…interesting.) They’re trying to make some money folding pizza boxes, but they half-ass the job and don’t get the money they expect—even as they try to angle getting the current part-timer working for the pizza company fired so one of them can take his place.
They’re kind of likable, though. They’re not unintelligent. The young people are attractive, and the mother and father seem to have a certain amount of wisdom and dedication. So when the brother, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi, Train To Busan), gets an opportunity from a friend to get a job with just a little lie, you’re thinking, “OK, this will be a good break for them.”
The deal is, the Ki-woo’s friend is tutoring this sweet young girl, and he’s going off to America to study for a year or two, but when he comes back the girl will have graduated from high school and he’ll propose to her. He wants Ki-woo to tutor her in his absence, and you think, well, maybe Ki-woo is trustworthy but it’s fairly apparent the “friend” doesn’t view Ki-woo as a threat.
His sister, Ki-jung (So-dam Park) forges the papers and we’re immediately impressed by her skills and initiative, even though they’re being applied in a criminal fashion. Maybe, we begin to think, the problem really is that Society doesn’t give these obviously talented people a chance.
Ki-woo aces the interview with the scattered-brained mom (Yo-jeong Jo) who doesn’t (or claims she doesn’t) care about whether or not he’s in the university, and anyway she’s obsessing on her son, a little boy who’s just being a little boy, but that’s apparently pathologized among the Korean elites as well. Ki-woo sees an opportunity for Ki-jung and suggests her as an art teacher for the boy.
Well, this goes off pretty well, too. Again, Ki-Jung is shown to be talented, intelligent and energetic and she easily gets the boy under control. But now we have another lie, which is that Ki-jung and Ki-woo are pretending not to be brother and sister. And it turns out that Da-hye, the girl that Ki-woo is tutoring, is jealous of her. Which leads to the revelation that she’s attracted to Ki-woo. (It’s not long, actually, before Ki-woo starts talking like his absentee friend about how he’ll propose to her when she graduates high school.)
OK, so far, so good. A few little lies, some likable, if roguish, characters. Director Joon-ho Bong doesn’t get lazy, though: Our rich family is not bad. In fact, we see through little glimpses that while their lives are comfortable materially, they have the same general issues as everyone else. In other words, where a modern American director (modern, hell, Paul Mazursky’s sleazy Down and Out In Beverly Hills was over 30 years ago) would make this a mockery of the gullibility of the rich, Bong isn’t going to give a simple message like that. Oh, no.
In fact, if this film has a “message”, I do not know what it is. I know it has a story, though, which is a thousand times better.
Here’s where the film starts to get dark. Da-hye sees an opportunity for her father when the driver taking her home hits on her. She rebuffs him, but slips off her panties and tucks them under the seat where they’re sure to be found. Before you know it, Papa Kim is the driver for the family.
Getting rid of the nanny is the hardest part, and at this point, we’re starting to see exactly how selfish and short-sighted the Kims are. But not, interestingly enough, that they are not hard workers who are capable of doing the job. The Parks seem pretty happy with the Kims overall. (And, good lord, these last names are like the Korean “Smith” and “Jones”.)
Anyway, the Park’s young son’s “emotional issues” come from having seen a ghost and having a seizure as a result. The Parks therefore go away for his birthday every year, and when we see the Kims have a chance in the house, you begin to realize how awful they are. Why they are where they are. It’s never cartoonish, but it’s very disrespectful of private property, of others, of just basic truth. Ma and Pa Kim scheme how they can keep the facade going if Da-hye and Ki-woo get married.
They don’t despise the Parks, exactly, but their deceptions keep them from forming normal human attachments to them.
Then things turn even darker. The last act of the film is a series of (essentially) sitcom tropes, but treated seriously instead of as wacky adventures.
It’s getting a lot of buzz in the critical circles, but don’t let that dissuade you: It’s actually very good. Now, the Flower and I went to see this, and she is just not a fan of the dark stuff. This doesn’t rank anywhere near a Korean reveng flick, like, say, I Saw The Devil. But, well, let’s say a similar movie made by Ernst Lubitsch, where little lies are no barrier for True Love—those are more her speed. (The Boy saw it later, also on a double-bill with Joker and liked it a lot, too.)
What I liked about it the most, though, was what I took to be an utter lack of message. It wasn’t “poor people are saints” or “rich people are wicked” or “society is bad”. However you frame it, the actions of the Kims result in tragedy, and there’s no way the Parks “deserve” any of it. There are innocent victims, and even when someone “deserves” punishment, it tends to be outsized.
I suppose you could get “lying is bad, regardless”, from it, but I’m not sure even that’s true. If I look back at Snowpiercer, which could be seen as a clear allegory for “rich people oppress the poor”, I remember liking it because it was so beyond anything you could tether to a current reality. It was very much “Well, yeah, if entire population of the world was on a non-stop train, that’s how it go.”
The Flower noted that the family in The Host was similarly dysfunctional to the Kims, and she’s not wrong. Anyway, bound to collect some awards in February, and actually be worthy of them.