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…