Parasite (2019)

Parasite (2019)

Parasite (2019)

Of the two current movies in which a young man who has been severely harmed by the inequalities of money and power preys upon the wealthy, looks nihilistically at the social order, turns to violence, and is given to fits of compulsive laughter, the Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” is by far the better one, but the contrast between that film and “Joker” is nonetheless revealing. “Joker” takes off from a facile premise and descends into incoherent political trolling as a result of scattershot plotting and antics—its director, Todd Phillips, appears not to see what he’s doing. Bong, by contrast, is a far more skillful and thoughtful filmmaker. He has a very clear purpose, sees exactly what he’s doing, and does it with a directness that is itself deadening: his messaging is so on point, his rhetoric so rigid, that there’s hardly anything left untethered to allow the viewer imaginative freedom.

“Parasite” seems, for the most part, to fulfill Bong’s strong and admirable intentions. It conveys the sense that he made the movie with the desire, the will, to show something that he has in mind, that troubles him, and that ought to trouble viewers—and to show it in a form that’s sufficiently entertaining, sufficiently within the standards and codes of genre films, that significant numbers of viewers will trouble themselves to see it and make note of what they’ve seen. “Parasite” is a satirically comedic thriller about poverty, the contrast between the rich and the poor, about the injustice of inequality, that avoids the conventions and habits of realistic social dramas. The settings are crucial to the movie. Bong wants to show specific places that stand in for many others of the same sort. One is a cramped, substandard, subterranean “semi-basement” apartment in which a poor family of four lives, at the end of a dead end, where they’re vulnerable both to social and environmental hazards. He contrasts that with a rich and frivolous family’s lavish, well-protected, spacious, comfortable, architecturally distinguished, and aesthetically pleasing villa that, nonetheless, conceals and symbolizes the agony of the deprived and the despised.

The despairing young man, Kim Ki-woo, lives in the tiny semi-basement apartment, which yields a ground-level view of the street from a ceiling-high window. He lives with his sister, Ki-jung, a talented graphic artist; his father, Ki-taek, an out-of-work driver; and his mother, Chung-sook, a former star of track and field. The four members of the Kim family are all unemployed; their search for work is further thwarted when a neighbor slaps a password on the Wi-Fi that they’ve been piggybacking on. A piecework job folding pizza boxes come to naught; then Ki-woo’s friend Min, a college student, comes to the rescue. Min is tutoring a high-school student who’s the daughter of the wealthy Park family, but he’s leaving, to study in the United States. He offers the part-time gig to Ki-woo, who wanted to go to college, too, but couldn’t pass the rigorous entrance exams—because, it’s said, he was too busy working.

Ki-jung, a talented artist, goes to an Internet café and forges university certificates for Ki-woo, who’s hired by the Park family—the father, Dong-ik (who also calls himself Nathan), is the head of a software company; the mother, Yeon-kyo, doesn’t work outside the home—to teach the girl, Da-hye, who’s fifteen. Min has an incipient romance with her and hopes to marry her. But Ki-woo—who is introduced to the Americanophilic household as Kevin—lets a mutual flirtation develop, and he imagines ultimately marrying her and moving into the lavish home. Meanwhile, Ki-woo sees an opening: the Parks’ young son, Da-song, has emotional issues, and Ki-woo recommends his sister—passing her off as a friend—as an art teacher. Once she arrives (under the name of Jessica and in the guise of a one-time student in the United States), she sees another opening: she contrives to get Nathan’s chauffeur fired and her father (also presented as a friend) hired in his stead; then the three Kims manage to get the Parks’ live-in housekeeper, Moon-kwang, fired and replaced by their mother, Chung-sook. The Kims more or less take over the Park household—in the process, exposing underlying tensions and unresolved conflicts that lead to violence of a Grand Guignol extravagance.

The chaotic “Joker” feeds red meat to conflicting strains of political tantrum-throwers, from Bernie bros (by exulting in violence against the rich) to the alt-right (by exulting in a mainstream media figure being shot in the head), and to critics who mistake such button-pushing for seriousness. “Parasite,” by contrast, is consistent, all too consistent; it focuses its messaging to wreak a devastating twist on a dark truth of capitalism. Where the nineteenth-century robber baron Jay Gould infamously said “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half,” Bong suggests, in his whiplash-sardonic satire, that by hiring only one half of the working class, the rich are already in effect killing the other half—that, in the very search for work, the working class can be relied on to kill each other unbidden. The subject of the film is the nexus of unemployment, gross inequality of opportunity, and of a system of competition that is designed to be fiercest at the bottom, where those with the least also have the strongest incentive to claw against each other in a struggle for survival.

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In “Parasite,” Bong dramatizes, with genre-contrived antics, the daily indignities to which the poor are subjected—cut off from digital society as if from society at large, deprived of educational opportunities by a pseudo-meritocracy that rewards the lavishly tutored, dilapidated surroundings that others think they can both metaphorically and literally piss on, unmaintained infrastructure that leaves them most cruelly vulnerable to the elements and to crises of sanitation and hygiene. He contrasts their lives with those of the rich, whose money buys elaborate defenses against a wide range of dangers, whose leisure and surfeit of wealth enables them both to devote outsized attention to frivolities and comforts while also indulging their children’s whims and idiosyncrasies to the point of stunting them—creating a new generation of the warped, the undeserving, and the incompetent to lord over a new generation of embittered and marginalized strugglers.

It’s precisely this plugged-in sense of spot-on messaging and calculated talking points, aimed at critics and viewers who share this clearly defined perspective, that makes “Parasite,” for all its cleverness, the art-house equivalent of the fan service delivered by studios to devotees of franchises. Which is to say that the action, alternating between surprising twists and blatant affirmations, is filled with shovelled-in details that, despite apparent peculiarity and singularity, link up all too perfectly—that are seemingly dropped in solely for the purpose of creating a plot point later on in the film. (A decorative stone that is seen in the first act will surely go off in the third.) “Parasite” is scripted to the vanishing point: for all the desire to show, its images are more like realizations of a plot point or a premise than events themselves.

In this regard, “Parasite” makes for an unfortunate contrast with the great satirical political comedies, whether classic or recent—whether any one of many films by Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati or Vera Chytilová, whether Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” or Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die,” Jordan Peele’s “Us,” Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” Maya Vitkova’s “Viktoria,” or Jia Zhangke’s short film “The Hedonists”: these films offer a radical sense of materiality, making their exaggerations and contrivances continuous with experience outside the screen. With “Parasite,” the machinery is composed in the script, and what’s filmed is so stringently and narrowly subordinated to realizing those plans—and doing so in a way that’s both designed to reach its audience and that weirdly undercuts the movie’s own tone and design.

On the other hand, “Parasite” offers a twist that’s too good to mention or even to hint at. Suffice it to say that the movie takes off in a direction that’s a shock of narrative inventiveness when it’s first introduced—and that also gets drawn into the movie’s plot mechanism and schematically illustrative direction in a way that undercuts its shock, even as it ramps up the dramatic tension. What’s more, “Parasite” admirably tweaks one of its crucial genre elements, a casually revealed yet significant imagining of a ghost. That spectral conceit has a strong emotional effect on one of the movie’s characters and turns out to have a basis not in the metaphysical realm but in the economic one.

The film is an elegantly realized movie that virtually flaunts its production values, its suave sophistication, its simultaneous knowingness regarding its own messages and its own techniques. Its characters lack density and substance because their traits melt into an unexceptional blandness except when they stand out for derision. There’s a ground state of simple normalcy, free of culture and free of substance and free of ideas, as if personality itself were a luxury; it’s the sort of benign condescension that working-class characters often receive in far worse films than “Parasite,” and that, no less than its elegant and creamy aesthetic, flatters the sophistication of its art-house audience. So, for that matter, does the underlying order that, despite the film’s obvious sympathies and valuable insights, Bong approaches with restraint and leaves largely unchallenged. “Parasite” is essentially a conservative movie, looking with bitter dismay at an order that falls short, a sense of law and of social organization that functions efficiently but misguidedly—that needs, in effect, more and better order.

“Parasite” is far from a comprehensive or complete vision of South Korean society or even of modern capitalism in its overall social and cultural sense. Rather, it’s a well-tuned mechanism for an ultimately modest and moderate lament, a reasonable filmmaker’s flirtation with extreme modes of expression and emotion that, nonetheless, relentlessly pull back to a moderate norm. It’s neither nihilistic nor utopian, neither revolutionary nor visionary; it wishes and shrugs. For the strength of its concepts and the bravado of its narrative ingenuity, “Parasite” is a good movie—in both senses of the word, both artistically and morally. Where it falls far short of greatness is its inability to contend with society and existence at large—or with its own conservative aesthetic; it doesn’t risk disrupting its own schema in pursuit of more drastic experiences and ideas. As for the young man’s compulsive laughter, it, too, remains incidental and undeveloped; that’s the only thing that “Joker” does better.

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