Directed by: Bong Joon Ho

Parasite is the most surprising nominee of the nine contenders for Best Picture, and its win in this category was even more so. Like last year’s Roma, it is a foreign film, subtitled, set entirely and fully produced in a foreign country, in this case South Korea. Bong Joon Ho, its writer and director, is not new to Hollywood, though if you watched the Oscar presentations, where he won four awards, you might have thought so. IMdB has him listed as directing, and often writing, some twenty-five other films, most notably Snowpiercer, the cult-classic, futuristic thriller entirely set aboard a train. But Oscar night was his coming-out party, as he took away more statuettes (four) than anyone in the history of the awards, except Walt Disney.

And deservedly so. This thriller is a wonder to behold and begs for multiple viewings. Most movies can be easily categorized as comedies or dramas (read, “tragedies”), but this one is both. The movement of its story is clearly from the comic to the dramatic, but one of the bold, I believe unique, elements of this film is that its resolution is literally unclear: whether Parasite is, in the classic sense, a tragedy or a comedy depends on how one views the last five minutes of the film, and that ending is very much accessible to multiple opinions. I am left unsure.

One of the ways Bong accomplishes this uncertainty is by never letting the film be purely comic or purely tragic for very long. Even though the general movement is from the comic to the tragic, there are serious, sad elements to the first half of the movie, and, conversely, long, hilarious moments in the second half.

Much of the movie takes place in a palatial home owned by the very successful, very wealthy, and very stupid Park family. This location is balanced against the below street level, basement apartment of the desperately poor Kim family. An amazing sequence, occurring late in the film, dramatically demonstrates the striking difference between the two families. The sequence shows the distraught Kim family walking from the Park’s home to their own abode in increasingly farther and farther away long shot. The Kims are located as far down in the city’s literal and social structure as one can get, so far down that the city’s sewage floods their apartment in a torrential rain. The plot involves the Kims worming their way into the employ of the Parks, through a variety of acts of subterfuge, both comic and threatening, as they aspire not just to working in the realm of the wealthy but to becoming “the wealthy” themselves.

Place is also important metaphorically in the film and inserts itself on three social levels: upper class (the Parks’ house), lower class (the Kims’ house), and middle class (the basement apartment of the Parks’ house). The film is an intense exploration of classism, and place is not the only way this is shown. References to education, marriage, wages, etc. abound in the film, without exception showing the upper class, though wealthy and powerful, to be stupid, morally depleted, and in every way undeserving of the wealth and power they have attained.

Bong has a way of being remarkably transparent about his intentions without making the viewer feel talked-down-to. He is upfront even about the concept of metaphor. This is most clearly demonstrated through a large stone, which is given as a gift, obsessed over as a treasured possession, used as a weapon, and finally returned to nature, referred to—usually comically, but not always—as a metaphor by the main character (the son of the Kims) on a number of occasions.

“Metaphor” is also used to display a trait that Bong shares with Quentin Tarantino, one of his professed mentors. On the one hand, he uses the device as a serious literary mechanism to tell his story. On the other, he mocks it as pretentious by making the son’s uses of the word pretentious and ignorant, as he talks about the stone as metaphor in hushed, exalted tones without seeming to have a clue about what the word even means.

Parasite also works on a deeply philosophical level. One of the best examples of this is in the discussion of planning, which the father and son have near the end of the film. They regularly make plans, which the wife and daughter often adjust to avoid disaster, but their plans nevertheless always go awry. Eventually, the father admits that the best plan is not to have a plan because then you can’t go wrong. It is unclear whether the father has always thought this or only has finally given up, but either way, he says to the son:

If you plan, something will always go wrong. That’s life… That’s why you should never plan. If you don’t have a plan, you can’t fail. You can’t do anything wrong. Doesn’t matter if you kill someone or commit fucking treason. Nothing fucking matters. You understand? (Parasite, Script, p. 111)

The shift here from the philosophically ontological to the ethical gets us a little ahead of ourselves, but it can’t be denied that the father is clearly saying: “In this universe, Chance rules!” Most people think this in their heart of hearts unless some sort of religious faith spurs them to another set of beliefs, but it is another question whether or not they can live consistently with this viewpoint. Parasite doesn’t answer this challenge, but it espouses the nihilistic foundation that gives rise to it.

The writing about Parasite will go on for a long time. Its themes comparing the rich and poor, educated and ignorant, wise and foolish are subtly and masterfully incorporated into a rousingly good human thriller. The film might even have as its main theme a discussion of predestination and free will. This famous tension occurs throughout the movie, especially in the discussions of planning versus living in response to events (like the one between the father and son mentioned above), and in the growth of the son from romantic fool to more mature (though certainly not fully yet, no matter what you think of the ending) adult. Parasite is a film that provides thought for many long discussions, and, for this alone is a worthy Oscar winner.

Drew Trotter

May 26, 2020

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