THE BRITISH INTELLIGENCE FILM REVIEW
1st March 2020
The recent Oscars awards ceremony afforded the great and the good in the American acting and cinema community with the opportunity to do what they like the most. It allowed them to be seen to embrace diversity enthusiastically and broad-mindedly. The opportunity came in the shape of the success at the Oscars of the distinctively ethnic, foreign-language, South Korean film, Parasite. Never mind that the irony was probably lost on most of the audience that, in fact, in the modern USA, Koreans are discriminated against, in favour of other ethnic groups such as blacks, for being too hard-working and diligent in their pursuit of the American dream. Of course, had the winners been black speakers of a foreign language the ecstasy of applause would have been even greater.
The film is in many ways a critique of the brutal materialism of South Korean society. For further context though, one needs to understand that it is very much a product of a calculated financial impetus from the South Korean government to promote brand South Korea in the world. In that sense the film represents a capitalist impulse and there is irony in the fact that its success is measured by its reception at that most capitalist event, the American Oscars ceremony.
Spoiler alerts from hereon in!
The first half of the film is a delightful comedy of manners straight from the Molière playbook. We have a wealthy and not terribly bright Korean family living in a luxury, architect-designed house on the heights above the town (possibly Seoul or Jeonju) behind high walls. The family is systematically infiltrated by the members of a poor but clever and worldly family who live in a stifling semi-basement at the bottom of town. The vertical metaphor reminds one of Ben Wheatley’s High Rise reviewed here last month. Just as in a Molière play the poor son, Kim Ki-woo, infiltrates the rich family as a tutor and begins a romantic involvement with the wealthy daughter of the family, Park Da-hye. The daughter of the poor family, Kim Ki-jeong, exhibits all of the wit and savoir-faire of a brazen Molière maid. There is wit and delightful comedy too as the symbiotic parasitism evoked by the title, the poor family leeching off the material wealth of the rich family while the latter leech off the practical adeptness at life of the poor family, is demonstrated.
Then things turn dark because of a sub-plot and it’s goodbye Molière and hello Stephen King. In Molière comedies the rigidity and selfishness of the wealthy, respected and powerful is subverted by love as outsiders come into the ambit of the family home and prove to be an uncontainable force. The plays usually end gratifyingly with the triumph of young love over a tyrannising and controlling older generation. The ingredients are all there in Parasite as the fraudulent tutor, Kim Ki-woo, falls in love with his female charge. We are then introduced to another story which, at first, also contains the redeeming element of love. The ex-housekeeper, Gook Moon-gwang, whom the poor family have ruthlessly displaced from her post, returns and reveals that, for years, unbeknown to the wealthy family, she has secreted her husband in the windowless basement of the house to protect him from loansharks whom he has failed to pay off. Her husband, Geun-sae, is reconciled to his grim imprisonment by the fact that he still has love with his wife who can visit him regularly for conjugal trysts signified by a spike threaded with used condom packets. It is when the rivalry between this couple and the poor family results in the death of the ex-housekeeper and, therefore, of his love that the gore-fest begins. It also results in the shattering of the love between the young tutor and his charge as is signified by her carrying his bloody body on her back into the midst of a family garden-party already desecrated by violence. In spite of his injuries the boy survives.
The Stephen King development of the plot is spectacular but, perhaps, a little clumsy and unimaginative. It might have been more entertaining to see the film go the full Molière right to the end. It would have been more optimistic; the director and screenwriter, Bong Joon-ho, admits that his closing shot, with the recovered poor son and his mother now restored to their semi-basement is a 'killer shot' in terms of hope. Thus the film is pessimistic in terms of truly subverting the vertical materialism of the 'Hell Joseon', as South Korean society has been named. It would, perhaps, have been nice to see the screenwriters drawing on traditions in South Korean society that might act as a wider context or counterbalance to its soulless capitalism, such as the hopefulness of the Christianity embraced by more than a quarter of the population or its lesser Buddhist tradition. Perhaps the avowed secular atheism of more than half of South Koreans wins out.