Wednesday November 27, 2019
Movie Review: Parasite (2019)
About halfway into “Parasite,” which won the Palme d’or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, and which has a red-hot 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—with, I believe, only Armond White, the nutjob film reviewer now with The National Review, giving it a thumbs down—I suddenly had this thought: “Oh, right. I’m not a huge fan of Bong Joon-ho’s movies.”
I don’t dislike them, I just never see what the big deal is. “The Host”? Fine, but... “Snowpiercer,” the same. Never saw “Mother.” My favorite may be “Okja,” even though it made my wife, who’s hypoglycemic, a vegetarian again, so we’re forever searching for other sources of protein for her. But I still liked it. Enough.
I liked this enough, but it didn’t resonate enough for me. I kept having questions about the film’s logic. When the family pulls off their scam: “Why couldn’t they do this before? They seem expert at it.” When the maid returns in the rain. “Why are they letting her in? Why not ask what she left behind and get it for her?” When the rich mother reveals the source of her son’s first-grade trauma: “Why are we seeing this flashback after the bunker reveal? Wouldn’t it have had more power before then?” Meanwhile, I waited to care about anybody.
I suppose I did—in the way movies force us to empathize with main characters, no matter how awful they are. Here, I worried our grifters would be caught. But it annoyed me that I felt this way. My brain kept going, “No, let them get caught” even as my stomach urged them: Be careful. The rich family will be home any minute!
Stink bug I
At first, I thought they were simply squatters in their dingy little basement apartment, but my wife thinks they were legit renters; they just scammed everything else: wi-fi, fumigation. They’re folding pizza boxes for a local restaurant when the government is spraying the street for bugs. So ... close the windows? No, says the father, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), it’ll kill the stink bugs.
(Soon, Ki-taek will be the stink bug.)
The plot kicks in when a friend of the son brings over a large ceremonial rock, a sign of good fortune, then asks the son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), to take over teaching English to a rich, female private student while he’s studying abroad. Ki-woo wonders why he doesn’t just get a fellow university student to do this; a college education would seem to be a requirement and Ki-woo doesn't have it. Turns out the friend likes the private student, who’s basically a 10th grader, and doesn’t trust his fratboy colleagues, but does trust Ki-woo. More than that. He doesn’t consider him a threat. It’s one of many not-so-veiled class insults in the film.
So with the help of his sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), Ki-woo creates a fake diploma; and when he shows up for the job interview, he’s suddenly collegiate-looking. The dopey haircut is gone. He not only gets the gig, he gets the girl, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the student, who develops a quick crush on him. Meanwhile, the mother, Park Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong), seems to trust him implicitly; and when she mentions the need for an art tutor for her younger son, Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun), he brings Ki-jung into the scam.
This keeps happening. The sister manipulates things to get the chauffer fired and her father, Ki-taek, hired. That just leaves the efficient housekeeper. They use a peach allergy to convince the richies she has TB. Bye bye, Moon-gwan (Lee Jeong-eun). Hello, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), their own mother. Now they rule the roost. Surreptitiously.
A lot of the movie is about the gullibility of the very rich, who, according to the Kim father, don’t have wrinkles; they have money to smooth everything out. He says this when the four are drinking the Park’s expensive whiskey while the family is away on a camping trip. They don’t even get that it’s pouring rain outside and the family may soon return. But the big shocker that evening is the return of the efficient housekeeper, who says she left something behind. Turns out: Her fugitive husband, Geun-se (Park Myeong-hoon), who’s been hiding in an old basement bunker for years. The two have-not groups clash; and when Moon-gwan takes video of the Kims bumbling down the stairs together and calling each other by family names (Dad, etc.), she gets the upper hand. Then it becomes a battle for primacy—for who gets to service the richies.
Stink bug II
The basement-bunker reveal intrigued me. Was it metaphor—like the black man in the basement in E.L. Doctorow’s “The Book of Daniel”? Or a reminder that no matter how hard up you may be, there’s always someone who has it worse? You’re not the bottom, they are.
I think Joon lets it get away from him a bit. He goes big. The torrential rain floods the city, including the Kim’s place, and they wind up in a shelter with the rest of the masses. But calls still come; they still have to service the Parks. Ki-taek becomes increasingly resentful and angry, particularly as he overhears the Parks’ conversations about how badly he smells. (He’s the stink bug.) The son seems increasingly doubtful, while the sister becomes more amused.
In the battle for basement primacy, the old housekeeper is accidentally killed, while her convict husband emerges during a lawn party for the Park boy and unleashes havoc. The rich father calls for Ki-taek’s help but instead Ki-taek stabs him. Afterwards, we get a voiceover from Ki-woo. We learn his sister was killed and his father went on the lam. The cops never found him but Ki-woo suspects where he is. His father is now the man in the basement.
Even as I write that, the movie begins to resonate a little more for me. Particularly since there’s a kind of dream narrative, where the son imagines himself becoming rich, and buying the house, and freeing his father from its basement. That’s the dream. But one imagines eventually—or metaphorically—the son will simply take his place. He’ll wind up in the basement of the rich man’s house, feeding on scraps. While the rich? The rich won’t even know he’s there.