Films for Our Times: “Parasite”

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Second in a series, Films for Our Times

“Income inequality” has become cliché, yet it encompasses perhaps the world’s most serious social problem. Bringing cliche to life — making vivid both the lived reality at the very top and the very bottom of the income ladder, as well as the violent climax when these two realities clash — is the South Korean film, “Parasite.” It is a stunner.

Justice is not always a factor at the Oscars, but justice was served, and great art recognized, when “Parasite” swept the big awards at this year’s Oscars — for best original screenplay, best foreign film, best director, and, in a first for a foreign film in the Oscar’s 92-year history, best picture.

Artists understand how difficult it is to portray social and political issues in art: If ideology and ardor overwhelm the artistry, the result is agitprop, something only a propagandist can love. But with vivid characters, revealing interrelationships between those high and low, and universally-understood metaphors that he continually weaves throughout his film, director-screenwriter Bong Joon Ho (also here) avoids agitprop to bring us a tale for our times, which unspools with the power of parable.

The metaphors begin immediately. We meet first the family at the very lowest end of the income ladder — the Kims — who live in a semi-basement. In a semi-basement, with windows high up looking out to the street, the world in all its meanness comes to you; it is, literally, in your face. When their street is fumigated, they don’t close the windows: Why not get themselves fumigated for free? (Personal hygiene on the cheap.) The Kims — father, mother, 20-something son and daughter — barely eke out a living assembling pizza boxes (and are bawled out for their lack of quality control).

The film’s action is kicked into gear when the Kim son’s friend asks him a favor: Could he take over his gig as English tutor to a wealthy family’s daughter while he, the friend, goes abroad for study? When the son demurs, saying he doesn’t have a degree, his friend says, “Fake it.” Before the viewer can wonder about this set-up’s plausibility, boom, we see the son being led through the Park’s serene hilltop fortress of a home, reporting for duty. The utility of this gig is immediately grasped by the Kims and soon, by machinations benign and cruel, the whole family is employed by the Parks: the daughter as art therapy tutor to the Park’s little son; Kim senior as chauffeur for Park senior, a tech exec; the mother as cook and housekeeper. Bong’s economic filmmaking plows under any plausibility questions.

In the quest of their climb upward, the Kims keep from the Parks their identity as family, believing it would spell the end of their windfall. Mostly they succeed — they execute their new roles with aplomb (the Kim daughter soon sees that art therapy means addressing her charge’s early childhood trauma). The only thing that could give them away is…..their smell: the smell of unwashed bodies forced to live in a semi-basement.

In pursuit of his tale for our times, Bong has plenty of surprises (not revealed here, except to note — metaphor alert — there is a basement in the Park house, too). But apart from the storyline, Bong is also telegraphing that the poor, given the opportunity and training, have the talent and resourcefulness to execute most any job. And, in this film at least, he implies family solidarity is stronger among the poor than the atomized rich, where it is more provisional (though early on, before they embark on their ruse, the Kims fall into spats and pull into themselves; being confederates fosters solidarity). Bong also implies that, in the status anxiety of the Park wife and the acting-out of her son, only the rich have the leisure for neuroses; the poor don’t have the band-width. The poor are stoic, of necessity.

Bong also telegraphs the poor’s capacity for subtlety: When the Kim son, new in his gig as English tutor, plants the seed among the Parks for an art tutor (angling for his sister), he does so by remarking on the “metaphoric” quality of the boy’s artwork. I laughed out loud: The whole movie is a metaphor. Including the senior Kim’s test as chauffeur: Can he round a corner without spilling the coffee held in the hand of Park senior? And the frequent reference to the Park home’s architect and his intent; the Kim family home, the semi-basement, is the work of — fill in the blank — neglect, greed, Society, History. Throughout, the viewer can engage the film on many levels.

Fascinatingly, threaded throughout are the characters’ socio-political observations, especially among the Kims in their new environs. In one exchange, after the Kims have settled into their new jobs, Kim senior says, “They’re rich but still nice,” to which his wife shoots back, “They’re nice because they’re rich.”

Most stunning as metaphor is a long sequence leading to the climax: When it appears their ruse is up, three of the Kims — father, son, daughter — are seen fleeing the Park’s hilltop home and, as a storm gathers, descending the city — by stairs, by steep street, by tunnel walkway — all the way back down to their semi-basement. Which, when the storm’s overflow comes flooding through their windows, brings the city’s sewage churning into their “living” quarters. (Talk about metaphor.) In their long trek downward, I thought of Dante’s inferno, though in Dante the inferno’s inhabitants were brought there by their sins, while for the Kims, it is their poverty.

Violence ensues. Made explicit is the poor’s demand for respect — or else. Smell, the sense you can’t see, here the smell of the poor, plays a final part in the climax.

As powerful as Bong’s message is about the inhumanity of income inequality, he is subtle with the characterization. Both the Kims, driven by need, and the Parks, driven by status, come across as real, not the stereotypes they (especially the Parks) could so easily be. Bong’s artistry lies in his near-magical blend of subtlety and his crystal-clear portrait of income inequality’s inhumanity. The cast uniformly is superb; this is ensemble acting at its best — creating individual along with a group portrait — with the actor playing Kim senior, Kang-Ho Song, especially memorable.

Who says you can’t have story and ideas and socio-political issues and throbbing humanity in the same film? “Parasite” points the way.

Policy-makers the world over would profit from seeing this film — a film that paints so clearly the cosmology and context of class based on income; that asks, “Who’s the ‘parasite’?”; that foretells the violence to come if that inequality is not alleviated.

And American filmmakers might take a cue, too. Compared to “Parasite,” some best-picture nominees — Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time….in Hollywood” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” — seem insular, beside the point, boys’ club. (Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” focusing on women’s equality, deserved better.)

Finally, in addition to the general public, it is the wealthy who should see this film. For, to recur to the premise of income inequality as perhaps the world’s greatest social problem: Short of violent revolution or authoritarian diktat, best if justice in this realm is reached by enlightened choice by the wealthy. This film provides not only a map and mirror for our times, but also a horrific forecast should the reigning injustice not change.

“Parasite” is showing in theaters now; it can be accessed at Amazon Prime. Trailers here and here. For the first in this series, Films for Our Times, see here.

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost.

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