The following hopes to be a unique method of analysis in an attempt to live up to the unique genre-defying character of its subject, the latest film by Bong Joon-ho, “Parasite.” In this film, the director, of “Okja” and “Snowpiercer” fame, weaves together what I can only call masterful storytelling. It’s not a term I use lightly, and, in light of this, the following analysis has no intention of limiting itself. This is one of those movies that to discuss at all would be to risk with near certainty spoiling the incredibly tight and intricate structure in which this film unfolds. It is a steady stream of revelation, and that’s not even mentioning the cinematography. So, consider yourself warned: go no further if you have not watched the film. I don’t care about your official stance on spoilers — this is as much about respecting the sanctity of thought that this director put into this film’s composition, and the rate at which information flows, constructs and closes. This is one of those rare movies that — because of how it was paced, independently of its rich story — I never felt the impulse once to check the time. I repeat: do not read this if you have not already seen the film. If you do, curses upon your head. (If the seriousness of my tone doesn’t already translate into a stellar review, I recommend eighth grade remedial English.)
Okay, so what am I intending, if not your typical review? In short, a measure. What bothers me about the typical review is that it prioritizes the stylistic challenge of drafting an elongated but considerate response to the film — which is dandy, but it often neglects just how much underlying material both comprises that response and also is neglected for it. I have and will continue to do this method where I see fit — but here, I see the opportunity to do otherwise. This film, I think, has an extraordinary amount of diversity in the experience it offers, intellectual or otherwise. So what I’ll leave below is what I think is the vastest extent of observations I have come to possess, the intention being that it will give a starting vault for others to compare and contribute; and then, ultimately, drawing from the collective pool, so to speak, we all can then begin a more considerate, attentive and charitable interpretation of the film, instead of the usual exploitative, typically political fanfare.
First things first: the title. Rare is it to come across an excellent title. Who is the parasite, exactly? If anything, this is the first question that both introduces class consciousness and also criticizes it. Are the poor con artists parasites upon the singular rich family? Are the mountain-king upper class parasites upon the labors of the working class? Is the husband in the basement the parasite? Is this a ring of parasites? This movie offers a reflection of parasitism in manifold layers, and for this alone demands multiple rewatches.
That in mind, I would say this movie features a fair-handed class consciousness. When the old nanny and her husband suddenly have leverage over the family of con artists, people of their own class, what is the first thing they do? Dominate them. Specifically, as my Korean friend informed me, by using a punishment delivered to disobedient children. On the flip side, perhaps the worst thing you can say about the wealthy family is their gross ignorance about the harshness of the outside world and the extent to which they take the working class for granted. They face their own struggles, and by no means are lazy people — the father is an accomplished technocrat, and the mother, however naive and imbecilic, clearly cares a great deal for her children.
Tonally, the film is complex, which is an impressive feat indeed. Tone is the most ambiguous — and therefore the most delicate — part of film, and usually a “complex” tone translates into a muddle or confused tone. To borrow the handy musical allegory, think of waves that compliment vs. waves that negate. Director Joon-ho manages to accomplish a tone elevated by its richness. The first two thirds are nothing but thrills, beauty and awe. The deftness of the schemes, the mischievous pleasure of pulling one over the “man,” relishing his house on the mountaintop, and throughout learning his family’s greater dreams — all amount to a story within a story that melts the heart and alone evokes a life worth affirming. In contrast, the last third leaves multiple dead, including a young boy’s father and his art therapist, who was the con family’s sister. And, meanwhile, the con-father basically spends his days in a makeshift tomb, leaving his son to fancifully dream (against his father’s wishes — “never make plans: life always thwarts them,” he tells him) about one day buying the cursed house that secretly holds him. The beauty is that these two ends are inextricably bound; both are only possible by the same conditions — and yet our feelings aren’t wrong, despite the seeming contradiction. The film would seem to suggest to us, in redeeming with horrifying clarity an old cliche, that with great joy comes dire, dire consequences.
What goes up must come down, perhaps? Elevation is a foreground character in this film, and it bestows to us the most beautifully shot sequence. Having narrowly evaded alerting the host family as they return early from a camping trip, we see the family dart down what seems to be a near fantastical number of flights of stairs. Perhaps this is a magic quotidian to the Korean, but to me, a person who has never been closer to Seoul than at least 6,000 miles away, the stairs, in type, light, shape and color, vaulting over cliff face, rooftop, street and alleyway, suddenly illuminated to me how in ancient myths something might take three days to fall from heaven to the underworld.
And into the underworld, beauteous, wax-lit and grimy, they went. With the rain, another key personality in this film, we are graced with the best metaphor for class difference possibly ever devised. Prior to this rat race down the mount, we see the storm from the perspective of the rich on the summit. On the terrace of their prim and proper yard, the rain is gorgeous, a bastion of sound and light more lulling than a choir, pleasant enough for a young boy to camp out under, which he does. But, meanwhile, as we descend down 10,000 stairs, we see how this rain accumulates. Like a pup become a raging feral hound, the streams bulk and seethe, until we reach the slums at the foot of the mountain, in water as filthy as the city’s bath. It sweeps away homes; and while a wealthy couple on the summit in a dry home fuck each other to the fantasy of being drug addicts in filthy clothes, that same rain which makes their house an instrument of romance — that which we all envy — is a deluge uprooting the poor.
In my opinion, controversial perhaps, this is more tragic than the bittersweet complexity around which the film hinges — to me, both the grime and the pristine are eye-achingly lovely. The sensations of the rich melt the heart with hunger, and the skill and craftiness of the poor inspire to such stunning degrees that it might just be proof enough that life does, in the end, conquer despair. The former possesses luxury and the latter, glory.
But there’s a lack of reciprocity here that perhaps is the cause for the plot’s eventual tragic undoing — namely, that though the poor recognize the wealthy, coveting their rarities and their treasures, the wealthy barely recognize the working class at all, often bemoaning trivialities like their smell and thinking of them in terms of their occupational expediency. I think it is on this line that the artist, he who views (or attempts to view) from the unpolitical, perspectival margins, ends up more often than not siding with the working class. The artist above all values beauty, and it is his hard sworn loyalty to depict it with utmost extensive clarity. What that clarity reveals is that though both the rich and the poor are beautiful, only one of those groups recognizes it in the other. And at the end of the film, in this lens of the politics of failed recognition, when I see the con-father stab to death the conned father, I see the vague shape of a romance gone wrong, a spurned lover killing an unfaithful partner.
When does he decide to stab him? When, though clandestinely her father, while holding her dying in his arms, the rich father screams at him for the keys, remarking that the girl was already a goner. He couldn’t see the beauty, and therefore the sudden loss of it; and for this, he became the impoverished hand and instrument of revenge for the poor, a community that sacrifices perpetually, so that this other community can present to society at large the beauty of delicacy and hope — and instead just so blatantly, insultingly squanders it.
Meritocracy also comes to mind – or, rather, the myth of meritocracy, something us Americans know so well. The con-family is a talented group of fellows, each and every one cunning actors and strategists. So, it must occur to the observant view at some point – why this way of life? Why go through all the effort of duping a wealthy family to a near absurd extent? There is room for skepticism here; that it’s vindictive, a sort of petty revenge that precedes the gruesome final revenge; or it could be claimed that this family was an easy target, almost too good to be true, like a church wall for kudzu vines. It could be that they liked it – which I’m sure is partly true. For one, they are good at it, and, regardless of dubious ethics, we all feel pride in what in which we excel. But I think these all miss crucial evidence presented by the film, and so I’ll offer what I think is the most charitable position: it’s the most aggressive form of pretend, the greatest form of acting possible. I don’t mean only in terms of the practical skill – sure, they manage to form a ring of incognito identities that completely obscures their family status, but these disguises preserve their identity as working class. This is, though more elaborate, the more trivial level of acting. Rather, the great pretend to achieve is when they get ahold of the rich family’s house for themselves. If I may be so bold (where the film has been bolder), I introduce inanimate personality #3: the house. This might be the aspect of the film most foreign and unrelatable for young people, but out of my own odd, twisted, ancient soul I found a deep resonance when these con artists start to daydream about the day they’ll have their own gigantic window with a beautiful garden in its frame. The wealthy have a great deal – money for special education, whether in languages or the arts, exotic foods, vacations, helping staff – but consistently, the prize in the minds of these working class people was simple and singular – a nice home. In fact, so caught up in this fantasy are they, while admiring the storm as though they were indeed sheltered and pampered by nature like the rich, secretly, their neighborhood in the slums is being vigorously washed out of existence. And when the illusion is forcibly brought to an end – not only by the revelation of another parasite in the house, but also the sudden return of the true owners of the home – you can see the bitter truth dawn upon their faces as they scramble to salvage what little they still possess from the flood. We see this concretely expressed at two haunting points. The first is the con-sister, who, sitting on a toilet to keep it from jettisoning fecal matter into the floodwaters below, herself caked in filth, retrieves a cigarette from its hiding place in the ceiling vents, and begins to smoke it, her contemplative face doused in a harsh orange light. The second is when they have found shelter among the masses at a gymnasium – as I mentioned before, the con-father tells the con-son not to ever make plans – which includes dreams – for life’s rule is to crush them. The next day, con-father will end up killing a man, and he himself will disappear from the world, swallowed by the earth like a Levite.
So – meritocracy. To return to this point from this tangent, and to summarize – I think a rather unique injustice brought to the fore in this film is the clear waste of talent by way of the gross blindness of the system, of the way things are. Watching this film, I’m reminded of anthropological accounts of prehistoric hunting parties, nomads whose mythologies contained fantasies of paradise. What exists in the modern world is a civilization which has no longer evaded or repelled nature, but mimicked and reproduced it. We forget that parasites in the wild do not carry the negative social connotation that they do for people – they are just another manifestation of creatures striving for survival. It is an ugly existence, but inescapable. A parasite is not a person – it cannot dream of anything higher. What is heartbreaking about the world of Parasite, which is unfortunately the same world we, too, inhabit – is that we’ve somehow found ourselves back in nature’s hostility towards dreams – but on the other side. An original parasite would never begin to dream – what’s the point? But our parasites are hounded with their taste – or not even their taste, but the fragments conjurable by concepts, scant notions, ideas – mirages, in the cold light of the blue torch, imagination…
Logan Zelk | firstname.lastname@example.org