Friday, February 7, 2020

Con Artists: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite

Choi Woo Shik, Song Kang Ho, Chang Hyae Jin and Park So Dam in Parasite.

Director Bong Joon-ho’s magnum opus Parasite is his first film to break through in a big way to American audiences. His creature feature The Host attracted some attention, and the presence of big-name stars in the (ludicrous) apocalyptic parable Snowpiercer and the (charmless and also ludicrous) children’s environmental parable Okja led to relatively big releases and a smattering of good reviews, but none of those films was taken as serious art. Parasite is being taken very seriously indeed.

Bong Joon-ho’s previous films possessed a cartoonish pulpiness, so it’s no surprise that Snowpiercer was based on a graphic novel. Its plot – an endlessly running train houses what’s left of humanity, divided by economic class – barges ahead like a movie storyboard followed too literally: nothing connects the independently drawn panels. Every new sequence raises all sorts of questions you’re not supposed to ask. The big leaps, broad strokes, and over-the-top “ideas” in his storytelling are meant to appeal to a fanboy’s unquestioning sensibility. His aesthetic could be summed up by a paraphrase of Nike’s motto: “Just go with it.” Parasite, however, aims higher. Here, Bong seems to be attempting a more realistic, more meaningful, examination of class in today’s world, where populism of both the liberal and conservative varieties is challenging the capitalistic status quo.

The Kims, an impoverished family living in a sub-basement flat infested with cockroaches and stinkbugs (we see only one, but we’re told there are many), are intelligent and crafty. When the son, Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), is offered an opportunity teaching English to the daughter of the wealthy Park family by a rich schoolmate who’s going off to college – a prospect that’s bypassed Ki-woo – he leaps at the chance, employing the Photoshop skills of his sister Kim Ki-jeong (the gorgeous Park So-dam) to forge a diploma to make himself a more attractive candidate. The Parks live in a modern horror of a house, all cement, wood, and glass, with plenty of sharp corners, as airless and ordered as a museum. Ki-woo gets the job, and soon puts the moves on his teen-age tutee Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), who reciprocates. (He’s betraying his friend, who’s also interested in Da-hye.)

Da-hye’s mother, Park Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) is young, pretty, and hopelessly naïve. She lives in terror of her arrogant, successful husband, Dong-ik, also called Nathan (Lee Sun-kyun), and is run ragged by her unruly son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). Yeon-gyo believes her baby boy has artistic talent, so Ki-woo, exploiting that faith, recommends an artist friend of a friend to teach the boy, but in reality he’s creating a job for his sister, Ki-jeong. Ki-jeong is practiced in the cold-read methods of sham psychics, and through a combination of imperiousness, bullying, and mild insights that astonish poor Yeon-gyo, she convinces the mother that she’s a gifted art therapist who can tame the little monster, for a highly inflated hourly rate.

Ki-jeong then schemes to get the family’s handsome young chauffeur (Park Guen-rok) fired, and suggests another friend of a friend as a replacement. This too is a scam: it’s her father, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) she’s putting up for the post. Pleased with their progress so far, the three enact an elaborate plot to get the Parks’ long-time housekeeper axed, and suggest another friend of a friend to fill the vacancy. This time it’s the matriarch of the Kim family, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin).

Now able to live in comparative ease, the Kims make full use of the Park home and family, and when their employers embark on a family camping trip, the Kims move in for the weekend, availing themselves of the Parks’ whiskey, food, and other amenities. Anyone who’s ever watched a movie knows that the Parks will return unexpectedly, but before that happens, the former housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) reveals a house secret that threatens to destroy the Kims and their new-found comforts.

Park So Dam and Choi Woo Shik in Parasite.

If the movie were about a group of scammers who insinuate themselves into the lives of a rich family, we might have been in for a good time. (And for a good portion of the movie that’s what it looks like it’s going to be about; the Kims are listless and slovenly when we first see them, but they perk up comically as soon as a good mark comes along.) But no, Bong believes he’s illuminating hard truths about the insularity and callousness of the rich and the desperation of the poor. None of it rings true.

There are plot elements almost as nonsensical as anything in Snowpiercer, including the house’s big mystery. Bong’s vision doesn’t include a coherent narrative, so when the Kims have to hurriedly clean up the mess they’ve made before the Parks return from their camping trip, they sloppily shove everything (including broken glass) under tables and furniture. There’s no way the Parks wouldn’t discover the Kims’ transgressions, yet they don’t. In another scene, Park Da-hong carries an insensate male twice her size on her back, and we’re meant to believe she’s done so up and down several flights of stairs, a feat that defies credulity.

But it’s not just the plot that’s unbelievable; it’s also the psychology of his characters that doesn’t hold water, much like the Kims’ apartment when it’s destroyed by an epic flood. (Except it isn’t. They’re back in it soon after, and it looks none the worse for wear.) Nathan Park is rich, arrogant, and not really in love with his pretty, subservient wife. He believes there are lines of propriety that the help cannot cross, and doesn’t like it that his new chauffeur smells of people who have to take the subway for their transportation. He also has a mild sexual kink, so we know he’s marked for destruction. Because he’s a straw man for the sins of the rich, not an actual human being, Ki-taek’s rage against him feels excessive and unmotivated. Bong ultimately wants us to see the Kims as the Oppressed Poor, doomed by the Injustices of the World, but they’re just too resourceful for us to buy this idea – they’re a family of clever grifters. (Chung-sook is also a former Olympic medalist in the hammer throw, an odd touch that’s tacked on so she can show her physical strength when the plot requires it.) They’re nobody’s victims, until, of course, they are. The film is being lauded for its shifting tone, but it requires talent – skill in both moviemaking and characterization – to be successful at radical shifts in tone, and Bong doesn’t possess it. He simply changes up the movie halfway through and assumes we’ll just go with it.

Bong loves pretty pictures and his cinematographer, Hong Kyung-pyo, who’s worked with him several times before, obliges. Everything in the movie looks handsome and luxe, including the Kims’ supposedly squalid neighborhood and sub-basement apartment. (Stairs and basements are symbolically very important to Bong. Yawn.) Even the stinkbug looks more like a jolly cricket. In the great deluge, the Kims’ toilet begins spewing what we’re told is raw sewage, but it has the consistency of weak coffee. And why does Ki-jeong sit atop it with the lid closed as the brown water spits out beneath her? Wouldn’t she get as far away from it as she could? And the next day, when the Kims have to make a command appearance at the Park house for Da-song’s birthday, they look surprisingly well put together for having just lost their home and all their possessions.

It’s disheartening to see the film so lauded and celebrated. Bong crafts his narrative with his usual comic-book sensibility (he co-wrote the screenplay with Han Jin-won), but this time he’s asking us to view it as profundity. But his ideas are just so much brown water spewing forth. The gothic narrative touches and hyperbolic set-ups that he’s unable to set aside, no matter how serious his subject, means that there’s nothing remotely realistic about this movie. Yet some audiences and critics are responding to it as if it were, while others see it as wickedly clever. I’m sure Bong is happy with either reaction, but Parasite works neither as realism nor as satire – it’s not remotely believable and it’s not witty enough to be a send-up of anything. It occupies some failed middle ground that provides no depth and no insight. This Parasite is of the sucking variety.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

No comments:

Post a Comment