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Cannes Film Festival 2019: ‘Parasite’ is a Crowd-Pleaser for the Class-Conscious

A black-comic thriller from South Korean director of Memories of Murder and Snowpiercer

Parasite combines the broad satire of Bong Joon-Ho’s recent output with the fascination with power structures of South Korean society that was central to his early work. Beginning as a class-conscious dramedy, then abruptly turning into an upstairs/downstairs farce, and finally transforming during its final act into a paranoid thriller, Parasite may initially seem like a mess, but Bong handles the shifts in tone exquisitely; it’s not until the rapturous final moments that you realize just how deeply you’ve come to care about these broad caricatures of characters. Nothing about Parasite is subtle or particularly incisive, but as far as maximalist, crowd-pleasing, big-budget storytelling goes, it’s the cream of the crop.

The film beings with a comically mundane family predicament: Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), son of the unemployed Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), is distraught to discover that the lady in the apartment above their cramped, dilapidated basement has changed the password of the wi-fi network they leech off. Ki-taek’s solution is to hold his phone as close to the ceiling as possible to try to make even a faint connection. Shortly afterwards, we are introduced to the entire family (which includes Ki-taek’s daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and wife, Chung-sook (Hyae Jin Chang)) as they sit around the dinner table, hoisting their tablets in the air. “So we are gathered here today to celebrate the reconnection of our phones,” proudly quips Ki-taek. On one level, it’s a damn funny sight gag; on another, it’s a poignant perversion of the idyllic nuclear family image.

The family lives in near poverty, scraping together a meagre living by constructing cardboard boxes for a local pizza restaurant — a simple task that they miraculously screw up by scuffing a quarter of the boxes, prompting their uncaring boss to dock their pay. A chance to draw in some extra income presents itself when Ki-woo’s educated friend leaves the country to study in America and offers him the opportunity to fill in his position as the English-language tutor of Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the high school-aged daughter of obscenely wealthy businessman Mr Park (Lee Sun-kyun). Ki-woo’s friend has developed an infatuation with Da-hye, and wants to find the most pathetic substitute possible to ensure that she won’t set her sights on another.

In order the secure the role, Ki-Woo must fabricate official documents and qualifications. Despite being woefully incapable of fulfilling the position, Ki-Woo easily blags his way through a trial session, delivering a ludicrous speech on the existential state necessary to pass an exam paper. Learning the facts isn’t important, he insists; what’s important is reaching such a state of zen-like calm that you can essentially power through the answers on autopilot. It’s pure bullshit, but the matriarch of the household, Yeon-kyo (Chang Hyae-jin), laps it up, eager to find easy solutions to her problems wrapped in pleasant, vaguely New Age-y rhetoric. And this introduces one of the film’s key satirical themes: the pitting of the practical, home-spun wisdom of the poor against the naive fantasies of the cloistered upper class, who are so sheltered from the mundane business of day-to-day living that they have become completely out of touch with reality.

Recognizing this fact, Ki-Woo encourages his wily sister to join him in working for the family by posing as an arts therapist. Yeon-kyo is concerned that her young son’s standard childish play is actually the product of a disturbed mind, and hence latches onto Ki-jung’s ridiculous psycho-analysis of his drawings. “This,” she says, pointing to a small corner of the canvas, “is what we call the schizophrenia zone” — a kernel of wisdom which gets her hired for an extortionate wage. From there, an elaborate set of schemes are used to exploit the rich family’s naiveté to get the rest of Ki-Woo’s clan hired — at the expense of a few of the existing domestic staff. The poor family now find themselves bringing home healthy sums of cash and enjoying the pleasures of a luxurious working environment — a modernist mansion with an open floor plan, carefully manicured garden, and elaborate system of sensors.

And yet, their integration into the moneyed class comes with constant reminders that the gap between rich and poor in South Korea is unbridgeable, that they will always remain outsiders only enjoying brief slithers of the high life. After having a heart-to-heart talk with Mr. Park, Ki-taek (who works as his new driver) overhears the banker complain to his wife that Ki-taek omits an off-putting smell that reminds him of the subway. Also, a burgeoning flirtation between Ki-woo and Da-hye is tempered with the awareness that a marriage between two citizens on such different ends of the social divide is unlikely;

What’s more, in buying into this fake allusion of luxury, the lower-rung family have become class betrayers, edging out former members of the house’s staff in order to further their own monetary interests. This fact becomes painfully clear in the second half of the film, which is catalysed by the arrival of the former maid, who Ki-taek’s family cruelly pushed out. To reveal more would be to spoil a plot rich in gear shifts, but let’s just say that the second act becomes a riotous farce which uses every detail of the house space, so carefully mapped out in the first, to its maximum potential. What emerges is a blistering critique of the myth of meritocracy, and how this myth encourages the poor not to band together, but to work against one another while joining the side of their oppressors.

It is vital that the central family never plan to overthrow the wealthy one, but rather to pathetically curry their favor — to ruthlessly battle it out with those on their own level in order to ascend to the top of the social heap (or, at least, to the top of their designated class). This mentality, of course, supports the capitalist structures that keep them subjugated rather than deconstructing them, and registers as even more tragic considering that the film has already established that its impoverished characters are far more intelligent, resourceful, and hardworking than their bourgeois counterparts.

Parasite, then, uses the codes of high-concept genre filmmaking to tackle an issue central to another, apparently very dissimilar film in the competition line-up: Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You. In the throes of the current economic recession, when the revolutionary ideal seems dead and the notion of class transcendence no longer seems attainable, to what extent will the proletariat debase themselves in order to get by? Loach’s film is concerned with self-sacrifice, focusing on those willing to completely give up their health, their time, and their relationships in order to sustain the most meagre of living circumstances; Bong’s is concerned with the betrayal of others, focusing on the ways in which the desperation of the poor is exploited to pit them against each other in service of those who enjoy a life of material luxury.

The 72nd Cannes Film Festival runs May 14, 2019 – May 25, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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