Who’s the Parasite?

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In last year’s Roma, director Alfonso Cuarón provided an intimate portrait of a domestic servant working for a middle-class family in the Roma district of Mexico City. The film was heartbreakingly real and intensely personal. It won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematographer.

Parasite also provides a glimpse into the “upstairs-downstairs” world of a working class family and the upper middle class family they serve, and it is likely to win this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It’s that good. Like Cuaron’s domestic masterpiece, it is full of truth. But unlike Cuaron’s Roma, it is distinctly not real. Very little is revealed about the story in its trailers or its Fandango description beyond its genre listings (mystery * thriller * comedy), synopsis (“Greed and class discrimination threaten the newly formed symbiotic relationship between the wealthy Park family and the destitute Kim clan”), and approval ratings (99% critics, 93% audience). And it was made in Korea. Who could resist?

Parasite causes one to think about self-interest, mutual exchange, and the nature of human relationships — despite the mayhem that inevitably ensues during the thriller's final act.

Liberty readers will recall the day I stumbled into a Korean film in a Manhattan theater, a few years back, and found myself watching a zombie flick (see my review of A Train to Busan) that turned out to be astoundingly good. I was a little worried about what I might have stumbled into this time, when virtually all the trailers preceding the movie were horror films — albeit horror films involving children and literary themes: Hansel and Gretel, The Turning, The Lodge, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Antlers, to be specific. What fine mess had I gotten myself into this time?

A good one, as it turns out. Parasite offers spectacular production design, vivid cinematography, perfectly timed acting, and a satisfying story that causes one to think about self-interest, mutual exchange, and the nature of human relationships — despite the mayhem that inevitably (because it’s a thriller) ensues during the final act.

To say that the Kim family is struggling financially is an understatement. As the film opens, son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) is holding his cellphone aloft in the family’s small apartment, looking for a signal. It seems their upstairs neighbor has placed a password on her network, preventing them from using her wifi. When he finds a free signal in the bathroom, the family can go back to watching their video, which provides tips on how to fold pizza boxes faster. That’s what they’re doing to earn some cash since mom Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) and dad Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) lost their jobs. There’s no self-pity in this family, and no lying about — they’re hustlers determined to make some bread so they can eat some bread. When a truck comes by spewing bug spray, Chung-sook’s immediate reaction is to close the windows, but Ki-Taek stops her. “Free fumigation!” he exults. Outside their window a homeless man pisses against the wall. They might be poor, but they aren’t without hope or humanity. They’ve had a number of failed businesses, but they haven’t given up. I like their “Little Red Hen” attitude.

This kind of optimistic fatalism, or fatalistic optimism, permeates the film and creates many opportunities for broad, physical comedy as well as sympathy for the two families.

When Ki-woo’s friend Min (Seo-joon Park) stops by to recommend him for a job tutoring wealthy teenager Da-hye Park (Ji-so Jung) in English, Ki-woo jumps at the opportunity. Never mind that he doesn’t have a college credential or even a high-school diploma; his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park), a budding artist, is able to create one for him.

Min also brings along a “landscape stone” as a gift for the family, a river rock with beautiful graining that will bring them luck and prosperity. Ki-taek displays it proudly on a metal easel. Soon the Kim family becomes involved with the wealthy and beautiful but naïve and ineffective Park family, which also consists of mother Yeon-kyo (Yoe-jong Jo), father Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), daughter Da-hye, and son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung). This mirroring of characters is no accident; director Joon-ho Bong wants us to consider their similarities as well as their differences, and the role of fate as well as the role of choice.

Whether because of the landscape stone or because of the Kims’ own hard working initiative, things start to look up for them. Until things start to look down. (Don’t worry — you’ll know when to close your eyes.) Parasite is surprising, outrageous, delightful, unexpected, hopeful, and in some ways hopeless, though not in a depressing way. At one point Ki-taek tells Ki-woo, who is trying to think of a plan that will fix a particular problem, “If you make a plan, it never works out. The best kind of plan is no plan. Then nothing can go wrong.” This kind of optimistic fatalism, or fatalistic optimism, permeates the film and creates many opportunities for broad, physical comedy as well as sympathy for the two families.

Director Bong subtly asks us to consider who is the parasite in this symbiotic neighborhood.

The word “symbiosis” comes from the Greek and means “together (sym), life (bio).” Symbiotic relationships can be commensalist (beneficial to one, harmless to the other), parasitic (beneficial to one and harmful to the other), or mutualist (beneficial to both). Cattle egrets are commensalist; they eat the insects stirred up by grazing cattle without harming or benefiting the cows. A tick is obviously parasitic to the mammal that has the misfortune of having one suck its veins. The oxpecker bird demonstrates the ideal mutualist relationship in which both the “buyer” and the “seller” gain; as it sits on the back or head of rhinos, zebras, and even crocodiles, eating ticks and other parasitic insects that would harm the larger animal, the oxpecker gets a meal, and the animal gets a good cleaning. Both benefit, and neither is harmed.

Parasites, however, do harm as they take advantage of the host, eating their fill while leaving behind infectious bacteria or damaging toxins. Director Bong subtly asks us to consider who is the parasite in this symbiotic neighborhood — the one who eats and cleans, or the one who provides the paycheck — while providing us with a film that is simultaneously a mystery, a thriller, a comedy, and pure genius.


Editor's Note: Review of "Parasite," directed by Joon Ho Bong. Barunson E&A, 2019, 132 minutes.



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