Parasite (2019)

Dir. Bong Joon-ho. Starring Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam

Spoilers below, for a movie that, even in the mind of a “spoilers are meaningless” reviewer, kind of works better without knowing anything. 

In August 1914, a servant killed seven people: one was the mistress of the house, two were her children, and the other four were other workers and associates of the master of the house. He tried to set as much of the house on fire as possible before he tried to kill himself; the fire was quenched, the house eventually rebuilt, and the servant who snapped did not die for nearly two months. The master of the house was not home on that day, or otherwise he too might have been killed, and with him the future designs for the Guggenheim, Fallingwater, and his Usonian homes. To the best of my knowledge, no one is quite sure what it was that made Julian Carlton take up an axe against Mamah Borthwick and her family, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s employees. I do know that Taliesin is a byword for mass murder and scandal and tragedy even more than it is synonymous with great architecture.

There’s a sequence around the midpoint of the movie where Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) notes that one of their shared bosses, Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong), is nice because she’s rich. Wealth has freed her up to shut off whatever part of her brain might have been anything but inhospitable, anything but involved in her children’s lives, anything but “simple.” There are a great many privileges that the wealthy have, but Parasite is primarily about two: the privilege to live in tranquil beauty, and the privilege to be nice. Wright built Taliesin because he wanted to live with his mistress without the sneering, scolding eyes of the public on him; the Parks, living in their own gorgeous house, are nice people—”simple”—because they don’t have any reason not to be. We have a hard time, I think, imagining really terrible things happening in beautiful places, or imagining really terrible things happening to nice people. Wealth, which can buy both beauty and niceness, is meant to be a hedge against the terrible. But Taliesin proves that they are not adequate hedges; we’re drawn to, say, the rich people who drowned or froze near the Titanic or the Lindbergh kidnapping or Princess Diana because it’s so exciting to see the privileges of wealth crumble so totally, to watch as its bearers are just as vulnerable to agents of chaos like drunk driving or icebergs as the rest of us would be.

Watching the Kim family take the Parks for a ride is deeply entertaining. The kids in particular (Choi’s Ki-woo and Park’s Ki-jeong, masquerading respectively as “Kevin” and “Jessica”) are smooth operators, putting the confidence back into con artists and using Google searches to supplement their acts. Ki-jeong is especially good, using the authority of a firm tone, an unyieldingly stoic affect, and phrases like “psychotic zones” to sell the act of an art therapist; her brother is perhaps even more confident, grabbing the wrist of his English student during her first lesson, with the mother in the room, to exhort her to take her tests with “vigor.” (No doubt if enough Gen Xers see this movie it would attain the unironic legend of “Coffee is for closers.”) Both of them enter the Park house in costume, wearing what appears to be a de rigueur university student blazer we know is a signifier after Ki-woo’s friend Min (Park Seo-joon) drops by the semi-basement. The entire family gets into service with the Parks, as we knew they would as soon as Min gives Ki-woo a pep talk about how easy tutoring his young charge Da-hye (Jung Ji-so) in English will be. They specialize in never crossing the line, a concept that Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) returns to with fetishistic pleasure and a concept that I imagine you can still hear posh people blathering on about. (I write this as an interview with Prince Andrew about Jeffrey Epstein goes viral.) They give good conversation, they are sharp as tacks, and they never say or do anything that would make their bosses lose face. It is about being something close to a friend, something very near to that indeed, but without any of the equality that a friendship implies, or any of the work that maintaining a friendship requires. By coming up to that line and never crossing it, the Kims worm their way into the house so slickly that none of the slime even shows. I’ve never met this Jessica, Kevin says, but she went to Illinois State (wow!) and has great references. Mr. Kim (Song) is my dad’s brother’s former driver, Jessica says, a really nice older guy. If Bong ever crosses the line in this movie, it’s in the way that Mr. Kim introduces Mr. Park to Chung-sook. Words like “exclusive,” “membership,” and “scouted” immediately have Mr. Park on the hook about a service for servants; it’s a skewering of tech bigwigs that’s almost a little too perfect.

The truly remarkable thing about Parasite, which is certainly a twisty picture, is that spending enough time around the Parks seems to make the Kims believe that money can protect them, too. Ki-taek says one day, once they’ve all been employed, that they’re bringing all kinds of money into their household; it’s not long after that they get comfortable enough to spend the day at the Parks while they’re off camping. They’ve failed to learn the lesson they’re teaching the wealthier family, and it ends as badly as you’d expect. This is a tremendous movie, and its greatest sequence is one that leaves the Park house and returns the majority of the Kims to their semi-basement. A rowdy, unpredictable night where the Kims played Parks ends in a series of disasters and near-catastrophes, but the three Kims who are not supposed to be there (all but Chung-sook) escape without being detected. (I don’t mean to downplay that stretch of the movie, which is enormously tense in a way I haven’t experienced in years. The last time I felt my back muscles unclench without knowing I’d clenched them at all was during Come and See. A more favorable comparison is Mozart in Amadeus, who is bragging about an increasingly complicated series of harmonies in his opera: “Imagine the longest it could be sustained, and then double it.”) It is pouring, and as they get closer to their place they realize something is terribly wrong. All of the homes around them are flooded. Theirs is no different, waist-deep, neck-deep with sewage water. The toilet is shooting projectiles of filth; Ki-jeong gets on top of it, lights a cigarette, and tries to hold down the worst of it. Ki-woo finds the lucky rock that has, ever since it came into their home, changed their lives. Ki-taek rescues a few belongings, or at least tries to salvage them, and looks around this little place under the street level with such melancholy. They wind up in a gym with other displaced people, a far cry from the whiskey slurping finery they’d cosplayed earlier in the day. It’s not enough that they’ve lost their home; the sun will rise, and when it does they start getting calls from Mrs. Park about an impromptu birthday party for the youngest Park, Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon). She’d like them to attend. She needs their help getting ready for it. Ki-taek is as stonefaced and sad pushing Mrs. Park’s cart and bagging her groceries as he was taking his wife’s hammer-throwing medal, half-submerged in a suspiciously yellow liquid, out of the semi-basement. Ki-woo looks down at the party, asking Da-hye if she thinks he could fit in with that crowd. It is all so frivolous, and so stupid, and so gaudy: Bong makes the idle idylls of the rich loathsome.

Part of what makes Parasite such a pleasure to watch is how much it reminds you of other movies and other directors without ever being anything like those other movies and other directors. The most obvious comparison to Parasite is probably The Servant, Joseph Losey’s movie about how James Fox’s callow lordling is replaced in his own house by Dirk Bogarde’s valet and his moll, played by Sarah Miles, but then again The Servant is fairly straightforward about this very English class system and is much more interesting if given a queer reading. One also wants to compare Bong to Hitchcock—the former’s work in hallways in this movie is more than reminiscent of the active camera movement Hitchcock liked for stairs in Suspicion and Notorious and Strangers on a Train—but then again, Hitchcock never was interested in family problems. Ki-taek or Ki-jeong could be Hitchcock main characters, but the family itself, split four equal ways, would never have been the center of a Hitchcock movie; he always narrowed his cast of major characters down further than Bong does here, and Parasite is all the richer for giving us opportunity to get at the personalities of so many characters. On the surface, it’s hard not to watch Parasite and see it as a kind of response to Ex Machina, from the gorgeous modern house with its wealthy inhabitant and its supplicant visitor to the stabbing that ensues toward the end. Where they diverge is that in Ex Machina (and virtually everything Garland does, if we’re honest), it feels like the stabbing is a replacement for running out of ideas. In Parasite, the stabbings are the basis for an entirely new idea, one that seems impossible given who’s doing them to which people: class solidarity.

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