Friday, October 18, 2019

Rooting Out (and Rooting For) the Parasites

Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, which picked up the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, put me in mind of a trip I made to Seoul, Korea in my long-ago student days. Coming from Tokyo, where families enjoyed a fairly high standard of living, I was mesmerized by the differences I found in Seoul. The city seemed vibrant; its swirl of colors was a welcome change from the much more muted Japanese palette. But amenities that were common in Japan (and basically obligatory in America) in the late 1960s seemed far rarer in Seoul. I spent the night in the home of a schoolgirl my own age, a student at one of Korea’s best universities. Her father was an architect, and I gathered the family was economically comfortable. But the tiny kitchen contained – in place of a refrigerator – a huge jar of kimchee. And there was a fish in the bathtub.

Cut to 2019. Today Seoul (I’m told) is a high-tech wonderland where everybody owns a smart phone, and pizza has apparently replaced kimchee as s mealtime staple. Some Koreans, especially those at the top of tech companies, live very well indeed by anyone’s standards. But there are also plenty of would-be entrepreneurs, far down on the social ladder, who are desperately scrambling to get by. It is in the contrast between Korea’s haves and have-nots that Bong Joon Ho finds his story. Such is the complexity of Parasite that even its title invites conjecture. Who are the true parasites in this film? Are they the members of the Kim family who, having failed at various lowly business ventures, try to rise above their basement existence by dreaming up jobs for themselves in the household of the Parks? Or can the Parks themselves be considered parasites, as they drain the nation dry while pursuing the fabulous lifestyle of the superrich? 

The action cuts between the miserable sub-basement of the Kims, where a heavy rain causes raw sewage to swamp the cramped living quarters, and the  architect-designed concrete and glass cube in which the Parks live a life totally cut off from the grime of the city. Partly Bong’s film seems a timely comment on what we’ve come to call income inequality. But there’s also something almost heroic, and very funny, about the way the Kims manipulate their social betters, inventing creative ways to make themselves seem essential to people who have money to burn. And yet, it would be wrong to romanticize the Kims as “the deserving poor.” They are not above hurting others of their station to get what they want, and the result is an unlikely but poetically justified twist that turns this outrageous comedy into something far different.

There’s so much going on in this thematically rich film, which comments in passing on Korean politics and on the passion felt by high-status Koreans for all things western, whether these be consumer goods or degrees from the University of Illinois. (Even a yen for things Native American finds its way into the story.)  But fundamentally this tale of two households is an arch comment on how money can’t buy familial love. The wealthy Parks, mildly discontented with themselves and with each other, aren’t quite clear on how to raise confident, happy children. The Kims (father, mother, daughter, son) are scoundrels through and through, but their self-confidence rarely falters and their loyalty to one another never flags. If it weren’t for that subterranean secret beneath their employers’ spectacular home, there’s no telling how far they might be able to rise. 

No comments:

Post a Comment