The Puzzle of the Movie “Parasite”

Recently, a good friend recommended that I watch the movie “Parasite.” I trust his suggestions, and it didn’t hurt that the movie has 99% positive reviewer ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s appeared on dozens of best-of-2019 lists.

However, this may be the first time in a long time that I’ve been baffled by a movie that was both recommended by a trusted friend and positively reviewed by the overwhelming majority of critics. It’s not that I didn’t like it; rather, I’m just surprised that I didn’t love it as much as everyone else.

I’ll delve deeper into that below the spoiler warning, but before I get there, I’ll say that Parasite is a finely crafted film with some twists and turns that may make you a bit squeamish. If you don’t mind that in a movie, I definitely think it’s worth watching.

SPOILERS

I was rather entranced by the first half of Parasite. One family pulls a meticulous and brilliant con on a much wealthier family, the type of con where they’re not really hurting anyone, so you don’t feel bad rooting for them.

But then there’s the twist: They aren’t the only con artists in the movie! There’s a man living in the basement who comes up for food every night.

If that was the only twist, I think I would have really enjoyed the movie. But things take a bloody turn in a movie that previously showed no signs of violence. I have no problem with blood and violence in movies if it fits, but as it escalated in Parasite, it felt more and more like the director was doing it for more for the shock factor than anything else.

But here’s the deal: A lot of people really, really love this movie, and I respect their opinions. I wanted to like it. I can tell it’s a meticulously crafted film. It’s just an odd experience to not quite understand what elevates the movie over so many others this year. Usually I get it. This time I don’t.

Have you seen Parasite? What did you think? Have you had an experience like the one I’ve had with this movie?


2 Responses to “The Puzzle of the Movie “Parasite””

  1. Nathan Cocks says:

    Trying my hardest not to get too dorky about the underlying themes of films but with Parasite it’s a big part of the film.

    At first it looks like Parasite is setting itself up to be a film of cons – despite the very different setting and style, my mind immediately started thinking of films like The Sting. But this is a very surface level reading that misses what Bong Joon-Ho is making this film about.

    At its heart, Parasite is an allegory for class warfare and this is reference subtly (and not so subtly) throughout the film. The Parks live high up on a hill, the Kims live in a semi-subterranean basement. The Kims aspire to ‘climb the ladder’ to live the life up on the hill.

    The difference between their relative positioning (both physical and socio-economic) is brought to a head with the giant storm that causes the cancellation of the Park’s camping trip. Up on the hill, for the Parks, the storm is an inconvenience, one that they are able to watch comfortably from their living room couch. For the Kims the storm is a direct threat to their livelihood. When they escape the Parks house and return to their home they find it awash in water and sewage as other families desperately try to save what little they own.

    The disparity between the two families experience of the storm is further reinforced the following day with Mr Kim driving Mrs Park around as they prepare for her son’s birthday. Mrs Park speaks almost lovingly of the storm – it cleared up the air pollution and gave them a perfect day for this party. You can see Mr Kim’s growing resentment with the woman as he listens to this. He almost lost all he had, where for his ‘boss’ the rains were just a mild annoyance that cancelled a camping trip but ultimately led to a better day for her.

    For the Parks life offers little in the way of obstacles, where as for the Kims life is an ongoing struggle. It’s for this reason that the Kims are presented as con artists – they have to be, it’s the only way for them to get by… and potentially crawl their way out of their situation. It’s also why the film frequently refers to Mrs Park as being gullible or ignorant. When we are introduced to her she is asleep out in her garden with not a care in the world. She doesn’t have to be sharp or quick witted, the world caters to her whims.

    Even Mr Park is so removed from the realities of the world around him that he assumes it’s motion sensors that are turning the lights on for him as he walks up the stairs, and not the workings of the deranged adoration of the man trapped in his basement.

    The film also notes that class struggles aren’t always between the rich and the poor – often it’s between the poor themselves. This is shown in three key areas – the first being the pizza shop worker who starts the film as the Kims ‘boss’ but is shown resentfully serving them pizza when they come into money at the mid point of the film.

    The second is in the way that, in order to succeed, the Kims feel they have to step over other members of their class. The Kims don’t just con the Parks, but they destroy the livelihoods of people struggling just as much as they (the former housekeeper and the former driver for the Parks).

    Finally, and more obviously, we have the scene between Mrs Kim and the former housekeeper. Where the Housekeeper implores Mrs Kim to keep her secret, even referring to her as ‘sis’ – a connection of familiarity that Mrs Kim immediately denies (and later tries to rely on herself as the power dynamic shifts to put the former housekeeper in control once she learns of the Kims’ scam).

    All of which brings us to the explosion of violence near the films conclusion – violence that was smartly referenced by Mrs Park requesting the tables are laid out in a crane formation reminiscent of the formation used in the battle of Hansan island – obviously you don’t need to be an expert in Korean naval history for this one, Mrs Park specifically calls it out).

    The main purpose of the violence is to show a shocking shakeup of the status quo – a revolution of sort. Yes, Bong Joon-Ho is doing this for shock value but it serves a specific purpose. The purpose being that despite the extreme nature of this specific event and its potential to completely up-end Parasite’s world, nothing really changes.

    The Parks move out and are replaced by a German family. Mr Kim flees to the basement and effectively replaces the former housekeepers husband. Ki-Woo ends up in the exact place he started (though suffering mild brain damage due to the assualt in the basement). Everything is the same despite an event so incredibly graphic and shocking.

    To be honest, it’s all pretty bleak stuff and certainly not a film filled with hope by any stretch. It’s highlighting just how ingrained the class system is in Korea (and by extension, many other countries).

    Obviously, given how much I just wrote, I REALLY liked Parasite (I actually only saw it last week after it being on my ‘to watch’ list for some time) but I think you want to be in the right mood for it. It demands a lot of its viewers, if you just want a movie to sit back and enjoy (which is perfectly valid and describes me about 70% of the time), the surface level stuff – while interesting – is perhaps not enough to justify the love the film is getting. It’s when you directly engage with the subtext and constantly question its message that the film really comes to life – at least as far as I’m concerned. Definitely a film I’m going to come back to, and one that has barely left my thoughts in the week since I saw it.

  2. Jamey Stegmaier says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it so much, Nathan! I like your analysis of the film.

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