When “Parasite” was initially released, it was one of a number of new releases at that time, and as time went on, as much praise as it garnered, I figured it wasn’t fresh enough to …
When “Parasite” was initially released, it was one of a number of new releases at that time, and as time went on, as much praise as it garnered, I figured it wasn’t fresh enough to warrant a review.
Fortunately for me, “Parasite” won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, which has given it a new lease on life in theaters, so now, all I have to do is avoid saying anything that every other critic has already pointed out about this film.
For starters, while every other critic has correctly pointed out how profoundly class-conscious writer-director Bong Joon-ho is, it’s worth noting how adept he is at code-switching between what American and non-American audiences expect from their explicitly “class-conscious” films.
In 2013, Bong’s “Snowpiercer” posited a post-apocalyptic future in which the only survivors of humanity were all passengers on the same globe-spanning super-train, with the wealthy few living luxuriously near the front of the train, while the huddled masses of the hungry were packed tightly into the cars at the back of the train.
Even when American audiences are willing to acknowledge the yawning chasm that separates the haves from the have-nots, they still crave a Horatio Alger narrative of a lone hard-luck hero, pulling himself up by his bootstraps to ascend to the ranks of the more fortunate, and “Snowpiercer” cast no less than Captain America himself, Chris Evans, as the square-jawed underdog who finally makes it to the front of the train.
By contrast, “Parasite” shows the mostly unemployed but tirelessly laboring Kim family, searching for an escape from their squalid poverty by employing their ingenuity to ingratiate themselves with the affluent and indolent Park family, and yet, while Bong clearly decries the gulf between rich and poor, at no point does he encourage us to feel any empathy for the desperate, aspiring Kims, who are too devious and grasping to engender our sympathies.
After his multiple Oscar wins, Bong told interviewers that the seemingly absurd grotesqueries portrayed in “Parasite” are an inevitable consequence of capitalism, which makes the film’s worldview even more dire, because he’s essentially saying that capitalism turns us all into something less than fully human, whether it’s the oblivious yet nit-picky Parks, pampered to the point that their basic household skills have atrophied, or the remorselessly manipulative Kims, twisted into vulture-like scavengers by their cramped, unhygienic living conditions.
While there have been more adaptations of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” than I can list here, I submit that Bong is the only filmmaker to fully, successfully recreate the nightmarish scenario envisioned by Wells, of beautiful, mindless Eloi basking in the idyllic tranquility of their veritable Garden of Eden, while down below, the grubby, misshapen Morlocks toil out of sight, to make those creature comforts possible.
I’ve seen this film referred to as a fairy tale, but anyone who’s seen “Married … With Children” or “Seinfeld” should recognize it instead as a pitch-black sitcom, with the scheming, filthy Kims as the trashy Bundys and the father of the urbane Park family demonstrating many of Jerry Seinfeld’s finicky fixations, including an oft-repeated obsession with people who “cross the line” that actually could have been a sequence of dialogue in a “Seinfeld” episode.
Bong casts his good-luck charm, the craggy-faced Song Kang-ho — who appeared in Bong’s “Memories of Murder” in 2003, “The Host” in 2006 and “Snowpiercer” in 2013 — as the father of the Kim family, and as buffoonish as his behavior can be through much of the film, there is a tragic grace in the scene where he quietly concedes to his son the futility of making plans, whether for self-improvement or for a better future.
Indeed, it’s only because Bong keeps us a shuffle-step emotionally removed from the struggles of the Kims that we can appreciate the surreal, ghastly loveliness in some of the film’s most cringe-worthy scenes, from the devastation wrought by a deluge of rain on a working-class neighborhood, to a laugh-out-loud moment of a young woman savoring her hidden cigarettes, even as she sits on a toilet that belches out black sewage water.
An American treatment of this material would be more likely to come across as a didactic polemic, stridently advocating some solution or another, but for all the Horatio Alger-esque aspirations of the son of the Kim family, Bong appears to have arrived at the conclusion that the system is already irreparably broken, so the least we can do is appreciate the spectacle of the wreckage.