In the world of Parasite, a housekeeper prepares ram-don with seven minutes’ notice. To ask for an extension or question the order doesn’t come up: leaders lead, servants serve. This dish comprised of udon and ramen becomes a pivot point in Bong Joon-ho’s latest horrorcom, about a family of schemers who worm into the rich Park family. Bong envisions a modern South Korea whose calcified feudal system needs rustling. Less effective as social commentary than as a demonstration of Bong’s by now formidable craft, Parasite nevertheless keeps the narrative developments coming at a good clip.
Why Parasite won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last May remains a mystery known to voters; perhaps a sense that Bong was due. Its formidable box office success has also contributed to the aura of good will with which the film is imbued. I left a screening last month where the general audience stayed quiet for the first third, cackled often through the second, and returned to a mummified state in the last. I thought the group of thirty-five adults’ response to the bloody denouement was justified. Now that I’ve watched the final hour again, I find it of a piece with the rest of the film, which moved me less this time around. A macabre elaboration on the class warfare adumbrated in Luis Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Parasite is almost as droll, helmed by a filmmaker at peace with populist instincts that since 2003’s Memories of Murder haven’t wavered. In short, I’m glad Parasite is a hit, has led viewers to The Host and Mother, but the beats are familiar, and as a queer leftist for whom “politics” isn’t a discrete hypernym I wanted material that challenged my own constrictions.
Bong’s concept: the Kims, a family of scrappy ne’er-do-wells, replace the Park family’s retainers one by one. First, son Ki-woo poses as an English tutor for the Park’s daughter, then becomes her lover. Daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) teaches art to the Park’s youngest kid Da-song. Ki-taek (Bong regular Song Kang-ho) frames the chauffeur with a recording of his having car sex — the camera phone as weapon will come up again. For a while Parasite hums along on its cheerful amorality, and in a season when Hustlers proved a surprise commercial smash I wonder whether audiences get off on the Trumpian notion that everyone’s on the take, relish the moral twilight of wealthy rotters, or enjoy a film in which those rotters get conned; like Paul Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills, it’s tonally opaque. For sure we’re meant to tut-tut the Parks for ordering traditional indigenous feathers familiar from old Redskins games because Da-Song, “fanatic about Indians,” wants an “Indian”-themed birthday party; or when Yeon-gyo, Mrs. Park, suggests they “squeeze the MINI Cooper into the garage” if guests can’t find space. Parasite‘s real star is the Park’s spectacular home, a miracle of split-level architecture and access to sunlight.
Rendering this scenario watchable are Bong’s patented dollies and left- and rightward pans, forcing watchers to concentrate on simultaneous planes of action. He makes judicious use of long shot too: there’s a creepy one for the sake of catching Chung-sook scope out housekeeper Moon-gwang at the mall. His penchant for God’s-eye views are more troublesome; they suggest a formal distance, as if to say, “What fools these humans be.” The history of film of course includes directors whose amusement if not contempt for humanity mists their lenses, but Parasite doesn’t make clear whether Bong wants to eat the rich or chew on’em a while. Only one of his ideas gut-punched me: Park patriarch Dong-ik (played with smiling condescension by Lee Sun-kyun) sitting in his car’s plush splendor recoiling from the smell of Ki-taek as if from wore a noxious cologne. The poor are gross not because they lack initiative, education, and the other bugaboos on which rightists expend their indignation — the poor are gross, period. Being poor is a kind of bodily decay.
This builds toward the expected carnage (kudos, as ever, to Bong’s movie blood: it has the sheen of iced Campari, the texture of the lightest marinara), preceded by a flood sequence in which Bong includes more beautifully vestigial moments than other directors dream of (Ki-jeong having a calm smoke as the waters rise, for example). I will not dwell on these plot points. The return of the sickeningly loyal servant who has no interest in supplanting the Parks or even their material goods but in being as servile as possible — they want to be kicked around — is a mordant point, but like Downton Abbey‘s butlers and maids, content to serve power so long as they can unsheath their pungent ironies on each other, the scenario lets the plutocrats off the hook. To be rich, Parasite suggests, is to know yourself. Hence the cynicism of its conclusion, which I will not spoil, captured in impeccable, distant, extreme long shot by Hong Kyung-pyo. “Fingers so tight on the pulse of modern class conflicts they’re practically a fist,” critic Nick Davis remarked. Indicting the system that produces these scratching, ravenous monsters would countervail the exquisiteness of Bong’s filmmaking. Parasites need not be exterminated, only tolerated.