Parasite is a social satire focusing on class divisions in Korean society that starts as a well-managed comedy of manners before a jarring change in tone and genre take it off on a tangent. Never less than intriguing, but the radical gear switch compromises its coherence.
In common with much Korean cinema, Joon-ho Bong’s latest release Parasite focuses on class division in Korean society. Apparently Bong has issued a request that reviewers refrain from divulging the narrative content beyond the basics. That seems a bit precious to me, but being an accommodating type I’ll respect his wishes here.
Here’s the bare bones, then. An unemployed family of four comprising the parents and two adult children comes by an opportunity to con their way, one by one, into the employ of a wealthy couple with two kids who live in a luxurious mansion. Drawing on their expertise in lying and deception, they displace the privileged family’s driver and their long-serving housekeeper, casting them as morally unsavoury and contagiously unhealthy respectively. Over time, though, their plan unravels.
For the greater part, Parasite is light-hearted and farcical, working mostly through superbly managed dialogue off which the excellent cast thrives. There is bite to the comedy, which is usually at the expense of the wealthy couple. The mother, especially, is depicted as gullible to the point of stupidity, and trivial, consumed by the trifles of the rich (fancy food, clothes etc). She’s milked for laughs, as the wily family manipulates her to their advantage.
The father is not much less gullible, but far more obnoxious in his perception of his household staff. He asks his wife, for example, if she’s noticed the unpleasant body odour of the new driver, which he links to being working class.
Naturally, our sympathies are initially with the family of frauds, as we watch them make monkeys of the privileged couple and infuse themselves into their opulent household. Then, abruptly, the narrative takes a turn for the bizarre with the discovery that the house is harbouring a secret that poses a threat to the interlopers’ new cushy lifestyle. Any notion that these guys are lovable rogues is dispelled as they take violent, savage and merciless action to protect their hard-won territory. Forget about camaraderie between the working class. Self-interest is all that matters here.
This change in tone – and, indeed, genres – brings a curtain of darkness down over the film. The laughs dry up as what has been virtually a comedy of manners (an adroitly managed one, at that) becomes an unhinged thriller that culminates in an explosive scene of mayhem and blood-letting. Dramatically, I found this jarring and problematic. It seemed to me a miscalculation, a narrative and thematic derailment that detracted from the preceding highly disciplined, sharply focused work. And what of the carnage? Is it supposed to be an eruption of class-based rage? Probably, but the battle lines seem blurred.
That’s curious, since it’s clear that Bong’s main game here is to highlight the class-based inequity of Korean society, to which end he works in some rather obvious but effective spatial metaphors that leave no doubt as to where his sympathies lie. The poor family lives down in the basement at the end of a down-sloping rat and drunk-infested street, the wealthy one in a mansion in an elevated position. At one point, the poor family’s street is flooded with raw sewerage, which also bubbles out of their basement toilet. They are literally living in shit, while the rich parents, blissfully unaware, plan their spoilt young son’s extravagant birthday party.
In my view, Bong’s concerns with the plight of the economically disadvantaged and the gap between haves and have-nots would have been more clearly and palatably articulated if the takeover of the rich household by the fraudulent interlopers and the caustic class-based humour and farce inherent in that situation had been pushed to the limit, and the violence contained to comedic modes.
Still, Parasite has been much acclaimed, including at Cannes, where it was awarded the Palm D’Or, so once again I’m off-side with the critical consensus. Check it out and see what you think. You certainly won’t be bored.
Movie Website: https://www.madmanfilms.com.au/parasite/
Parasite (original title Gisaengchung features: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, Hye-jin Jang, So-dam Park
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Writers: Joon-ho Bong, Jin Won Han
Runtime: 132 min
Australian release date: Parasite screening at The Luna in Leederville and Luna-on-SX in Fremantle from 27 June 2019
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