Rubbish tip of a world
Bong Joon-ho (director) 'Parasite' 2019, general release.
You can imagine why some people would call this film a satire or a farce, but I would call it a family comedy - one that, however savage at times, brings you surprisingly closer to the characters. The premise is partly inspired by a French crime scandal that also influenced Jean Genet’s play The maids (1947) and, like a Renaissance tragicomedy, it mixes ‘high’ and ‘low’ characters and has an ending neither happy nor unhappy.
We start with a family of entrepreneurs - though not ones that have been to Harvard or Lord Sugar. These are the Kim family in the city of Seoul, who have passed through shopkeeping and chauffeuring to their current home labour of folding pizza boxes and coming up with ‘get rich’ plans. These people do not lack effort or intelligence: they lack jobs.
Their son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) - several times a graduate - is offered the position of tutor to a rich teenage girl by a friend. Ki-woo (or ‘Kevin’, as he renames himself) is assured by his more educated buddy that he can pass as a private tutor. Ki-woo does manage to get this position with the Park family and the house he enters is a comfortable, modernist construction, where the smooth front lawn looks swish in both brilliant sunshine and driving rain. Ki’s own family, on the other hand, live in a cramped basement flat at the end of a urine-stained alley. It lies at the bottom of several flights of steps, where each level seems to acquire more rubbish.
Mr Kim soon comes up with a plan that the Park house must require even more servants from the Kim family and the quartet goes into action. The story is brisk, but not gripping, until all the Kims have conned their way into the Park household: Mr Kim as driver, his wife as a cook and housekeeper, and daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), as ‘art therapist’ to the Parks’ little boy. Then the humour and suspense take off with a story twist and people start turning up to scare and put to flight those who thought they were secure.
Unlike most straight horror films, you do not feel that the characters are being punished for being careless or egotistical. Pain comes from being in the wrong place at the wrong time or getting caught in the way of understandable revenge. As in recent TV fare like Breaking bad or Fleabag, these people are not born evil: they are desperate, and driven to often comic extremes. This may also be the first time that I can recollect where a cellphone is used as a weapon of deterrence. And not since George Orwell made his famous comment about how one class stinks has there been so much concern over the way people smell.
Ki’s father, played by Song Kang-ho, is a great one for schemes and his face alternates eager optimism with silent resentment and wily terror. Ki’s mother, played by Chang Hyae-jin, is a versatile cook, but not above a little panic. Her employer, Mrs Park, played by Cho Yeo-jeong, is mother-anxious for her children and the most gullible of the company. But we need not resent her for it - as Dad says, those born to wealth “have no creases”. If anything, we pity her for being so clueless. When she relaxes on the sofa with her husband (Lee Sun-kyun), we get a hint of turn-on fantasies which sound true to character and the usual way of exciting up a posh life.
Related to neither family is the Parks’ previous housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), who can equally well play degradation and aggression, depending on the switch of circumstances. Ki’s sister, Ki-jung, is wily, witty and the smoothest of the lot, but there is a moment of aching pathos when she sits among the debris of an ultimate disaster.
The novelist, Hwang Sok-yong, defined the reality of Korea as a “nationwide state of homelessness”. Koreans have had an insecure home life, to say the least, their homeland occupied by colonisers (Japanese since 1910 and then the Americans), continuing under indigenous military rule, punctuated by popular uprisings, and in the South many lives, especially the young, being deprived of independence by the current capitalist elite’s ‘economic miracle’ - plus a devotion, even more pervasive than in the UK, to diverting technology and culture (see ‘K-Pop’).
Major influences in east Asian life, like Confucianism and Taoism, reckon the world as ultimately a harmonious whole (which for Confucius required a hierarchy of human roles), while alternating yin and yang, negative/positive, receptive/active. The best approach is to be ‘philosophical’, calm and aloof almost to the point of doing nothing new. For who knows which state the cosmos (‘heaven’) will bless?
To be a Korean artist of the post-1945 period, however, is to be born into a condition that promotes suspicion as well as longing, a desire for unity, but an acknowledgement of division, an attitude hard and soft, active and receptive. But how far this goes towards pointed criticism and inspiring alternatives is still open.
Afterwards, outside the cinema (Curzon, West End), I noted what feeling the film left me with. It was sombre despite the laughs I had inside. I looked at the various passers-by. How many would end up in an emergency, their plans and dreams disordered, their life battered by loss of home or a loved one? Money does indeed make a difference, but who will escape the turn of luck in today’s competitive scramble?
However, the troubles of the Kim family as employees do not exactly amount to an attack on exploitation itself. Though class divisions are emphasised, a ‘get rich’ ethic goes not so much unquestioned as shown to lead to everyone suffering equally. This may be part of the reason for the film’s popularity with Oscar voters, despite being subtitled and from an Asian culture most westerners know little of.
It is swift and witty, but not facile, and has many touching images: it is ultimately concerned with underdogs - a favourite attraction for Academy voters. It reminded me at times of John Ford’s Grapes of wrath - winner of two Academy Awards in 1941. Critics have called writer-director Bong Joon-ho Shakespearian, For me, his movie has a touch of Dickens (Oliver Twist) and Brecht (Mother Courage): here too is a family group on a journey of survival, filled with cunning, but finding trouble. There is hope, but more as projection than fulfilment. The struggle continues.
While a Korean filmmaker like Kim Ki-duk (Bad guy, Pietà) focuses on stories of predatory relationships, especially criminal and sexual, in which some get hurt more than others, Boon Joon-ho presents us with characters that all end up in the same (leaky) boat. How satisfactory you think this is in evoking today’s competitive rubbish tip of a world will influence how close you feel to the vision of this movie.