At The Movies: “Parasite”

Well, this is a bit embarrassing. After making a better Cadillac than General Motors in the form of the Genesis G90, the Koreans have now gone ahead and made a better movie than Hollywood can. “Parasite” isn’t just a perfect antidote to the cultural poison of capeshit and Diverse Ghostbusters — it’s a forceful reminder that the most compelling art examines the human condition, not the superhuman. It is also a masterclass in how to create a film in which not a single frame is wasted.

WARNING: Spoilers for the first half of “Parasite” ahead, not much more than what you would get from watching the trailer.

This is a tale of two families, very much not alike in dignity. The Parks live in a hilltop stunner of a modern home ostensibly designed by its prior occupant, the “famous architect Namgoong.” (This is a nod of the head to filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho’s previous effort, Snowpiercer; in that film, “Namgoong” is played by the fellow who plays Kim Ki-taek here.) Mr. Park is a wealthy tech entrepreneur who is driven in an S-Class Benz and who simultaneously obsesses over “trashy girls” while demanding that his hired help not “cross the line”; his wife is a day-drunk who suffers from anxiety; their children are hothouse flowers.

The Kims, by contrast, are stuck in a semi-basement apartment on the literal wrong side of the track. The parents are unemployed scam artists, the son has failed the university entrance exam, and the daughter is a Manic Pixie Korean Dream Girl with a smoking habit and a supercharged superego. When young Kim has a chance to gain Mrs. Park’s trust as a tutor for her daughter, he wastes no time bringing his family in on the con.

The first half of the movie has the feel of a lightweight K-pop comedy, much like the disposable fare you can watch on the headrest screen of any Korea Air flight — but no sooner has the viewer been lulled into complacency than Bong Joon-Ho puts the pedal to the proverbial medal, at which point you realize that the whole thing was a setup in more ways than one. Make sure you’ve made your trips to the popcorn stand and the bathroom ahead of time, because there’s no rest until the very end, and the characters are handled with a lack of sentimentality that would give George R.R. Martin apoplexy.

Along the way, “Parasite” offers some genuinely gorgeous cinematography. Every shot is framed with precision, whether it’s a pan view of the (CGI-generated) Park home or the Kim daughter smoking a frustrated cigarette while sitting on an overflowing toilet. If you thought that “Joker” was carefully filmed — and it was — then “Parasite” will fry your brain. Nearly every scene could be an art photo by itself. The mood of the film is so powerful that it can’t even be shattered by the occasional bit of half-witted subtitling — you get a few directly-translated phrases like “fanboy personality” instead of their true English-language equivalents.

What makes the movie truly shine, however, is its unflinching look at the class and economic divide between the two families. Korea does not have the, ahem, blessings of diversity which have been showered in such incalculable magnitude upon the United States; there is little distinction between race, ethnicity, and nationality in the divided country, and a Korean citizen would treat the idea of a white person becoming “a Korean” as the setup to a joke of some sort. (See You’ll Never Be Chinese for details on a similar, but not identical, mindset.) Consequently, the Koreans are free from the modern American tendency to make race the center of every single conversation and concept. The Parks are rich, the Kims are poor, but the unsteady concepts of “privilege” and “entitlement” never enter into it. Both patriarchs are self-made, but Mr. Park made himself a success while Mr. Kim made himself a failure. “People who take the subway have that certain smell… That smell crosses the line,” Park notes, and Kim flinches. There’s a resentment here, justified or not, on both sides, and it will require action.

If the tension of “Parasite” comes from that inevitable class conflict, much of its joy comes from a similar push-and-pull between comedy and drama. There’s a bit of seriousness behind even the most broadly scripted scenes, while perhaps the most pivotal moment in the film occurs courtesy of a slapstick physical gag right in the middle of a potentially violent confrontation. No American film in recent memory can match this; one wonders if it is because of the broad variety of intelligence and acculturation in our modern moviegoing audience. The “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” both made a habit of placing comedy in the middle of drama and vice versa, but they had a much tighter demographic focus.

It’s not easy to see “Parasite” at the moment; its distribution is limited to arthouse theaters in Middle America and limited screening times everywhere else. For those of us who care about cinema, however, it is worth the effort. Give it a look.

12 Replies to “At The Movies: “Parasite””

  1. Avatarsaboten.fighter

    If you liked that, you should watch some of Park Chan Wook’s work. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance disturbed me in ways I didn’t think I could be. I was a veteran of gore horror and weird shit before I watched that. It doesn’t feature explicit gore, but man…

  2. Avatarstingray65

    Movie World: Rich people have lots of free time to shop, hang out, and see their therapists, are generally not very smart or talented, and are unethical/uncaring/selfish. Poor people on the other hand, are hard-working and have their heads on straight, have lots of common sense and hidden smarts that save the day, are generally honest and giving, but even their few incidences of criminal behavior are for social justice and the greater good. In movie world, poor people are inevitably poor only because of selfish rich white people (i.e. Republicans who don’t want to spread the wealth around), and/or evil Capitalism, Racism, Sexism or some other ism that keeps all those capable and hard working poor people down.

    Real world: Rich people are generally workaholics that seldom take time to play (which is why none of the world’s exotic cars seem to have more than 5,000 miles), are mostly smart and invest in or invent almost all the things that make modern life so comfortable and safe, pay almost all the taxes and give much to charity, and are honest and ethical because they were raised right and to do otherwise would ruin their valuable reputations. Poor people on the other hand rarely work, are often drug addled or mentally ill with few good ideas and hence are likely to “invest” large portions their welfare and crime (which they commit in greatly disproportionate levels) derived income on drugs, alcohol, tattoos, smokes, junk food, and 300 buck sneakers, but they and their advocates blame their plight on the legacy of slavery, racism, patriarchy, or evil Republicans.

    Apparently the real world doesn’t make such entertaining movies.

  3. Avatarrambo furum

    I support any alternatives to the people currently running Hollywood, but I still think I should see “Richard Jewell” first.

    • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

      I saw it the other day. Richard Jewell is as well crafted as any of Clint Eastwood’s other films, but critics are unhappy because the triumverate of villains in the movie are an academic, a FBI agent, and a journalist – three groups that people working in the media put on a pedestal right now – and in particular that it’s a true story that can’t be denied. There’s also an implicit defense of the NRA – Jewell’s lawyer asks him if he’s affiliated with any fringe groups and specifically mentions the NRA and Jewell says, “The NRA isn’t fringe.”

      I find critics’ high dudgeon about a female reporter supposedly using sex to get a lead on a story to be amusing. There is a reason why car companies hire attractive people to work PR. I’m sure that Jack can name names.

      I have a 4K big screen tv at home and a nice stereo system so I don’t typically go out to movies and was going to wait until the DVDs came out for Ford v Ferrari, No Safe Spaces the free speech documentary by Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager, and Richard Jewell but as with Comicsgate I’ve decided to fight the culture wars with my wallet, so I bought tickets.

  4. Avatardejal

    Completely off this topic, but foreign entertainment with subtitles.

    “Gomorrah”. Italian Mafia Series in Italian, that is currently in US distribution purgatory. If it’s never shown again in US, I may wait it out until the finish and purchase Blu Rays.

    Supposedly at one time (maybe now) you can watch it on Youtube without subtitles. People have downloaded the scripts and read along while they watch it. That’s a bit too hard core for me.

    The US is not the be all/end all in entertainment. Just because they are “not us” doesn’t mean that they are not capable of quality creations. Considering the slop turned out in the US in the last few decades even B or B+ foreign entertainment may be better.

  5. Avatarhank chinaski

    The Peleton ad smacks of the Park household.

    You won’t be supporting their work as such, but raise the Jolly Roger and you’ll find this film.
    It deserves Best Picture, but they’ll probably give it to foot fetishist Quentin’s nearly 3 hour blow-job to Hollywood.

    Not a Wook piece, but I’ll chime in with ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Weird’, also starring Song Kang-ho.

    For the latest riff on manicpixiedreamgirl, I’ll leave this right here: YT is scrubbing these almost as fast as they are posted.

    • AvatarCJinSD

      Thanks for the video link. I was not aware of that song, or that anyone had the nerve to articulate that sentiment. Somebody figured out that fitting in is what young women do, and they used that knowledge to change the course of our civilization. It didn’t start with the current bunch of twenty-somethings; pop culture just got more traction because parenting has been in decline for so long.

      One woman I talk to is a pretty good example of a modern feminist. What gets me is how convinced she is that her way is the right way even when she’s complaining over the injustice of her FWB marrying another woman who he knocked up, or that she’s with someone who doesn’t have any interest in marriage or children as her clock is hitting zero. She’ll never draw any conclusions involving previous arguments we’ve had; the ones where she said how many abortions she’s had while daring me to condemn her. Which I didn’t do, because while you can win any argument you want against a brainwashed fool, some social interactions are more satisfying than others.

  6. Avatarscotten

    I’ve had zero exposure/interest in (South) Korean movies until Train to Busan. I’m sure no one would call it “art” but it was super well done.


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