‘Parasite’ Is a Brilliant Take on Social Divide and Manipulation
After bagging nearly every possible award and accolade through 2019, Bong Joon Ho’s masterful Korean film Parasite releases in Indian theaters this week, and it is a cause for celebration.
There are three prongs to discuss Parasite at this point of time.
Firstly, Parasite does not need to prove itself anymore, and this review is not going to make a lick of a difference in increasing its prestige value. In fact, come February the Oscars need Parasite more than Parasite needs an Oscar.
Secondly, for those of you new to Parasite and Korean cinema in general, I would personally highly recommend all of Bong Joon Ho’s films as the first to begin your Korean journey with, especially Memories of Murder, which is one of the greatest films I have ever seen. Parasite ranks right up there with Memories.
Thirdly, we need to mash into the themes that Parasite explores, like the great social divide and the gullibility of the public on either side of the divide to be manipulated so easily. For example, a tech company is somehow able to convince you that their super expensive phones are the only elements that would make you look successful in society; and someone with no real skills can be famous as an influencer only because everyone is glazed by the shallow facets of social media.
Bong Joon Ho has often been defined as a filmmaker with an intimate and warm style that takes a very nuanced stance to his characters – which is truer more in his Korean movies than the English language ones, but it has crystallised to perfection in Parasite, which is the most clear-eyed film of his career.
But mainly, our world seems to be ruled by three kinds of people – first the gatekeepers of Kleptocracy who work directly against the interests of the middle class and rob them under the veil of development. Second, the nationalist bigots who ensure that the war within the divide continues, while simultaneously learning from bigots from other nations where systematic oppression is key. Third, the religious extremists who ensure that authoritarian rule is sustained with focus on religion instead of education, and invest in useful idiots to do their bidding. All of those factions work in harmony, and they become more dangerous the moment the spotlight falls on them.
Now with all that out of the way we must circle back to Parasite – which explores all of these themes in intense, tightly structured, and darkly comic ways, and though it may seem like the thematic exploration of the great divide is a repetition of what Bong Joon Ho has done with The Host and Snowpiercer, it is exceedingly effective at communicating its themes to us.
Bong Joon Ho has often been defined as a filmmaker with an intimate and warm style that takes a very nuanced stance to his characters – which is truer more in his Korean movies than the English language ones, but it has crystallised to perfection in Parasite, which is the most clear-eyed film of his career. Of his entire filmography Parasite is the only one that seems to exist in the same universe as another film – Shoplifters from a year earlier. The two films, however, are different in their tailoring – while Shoplifters is a quiet wailing about the frustration of living in squalor, Parasite is a genre fluid chamber piece that shifts in shape and form so subtly it is impossible to spot the transition. There is a family in the film that benefits from capitalism but I honestly don’t know if Parasite is even anti-capitalist. It is certainly not pro-capitalism, but more than anything else, it simply attempts to comprehend the boundaries and mores of a capitalist society, even as it admits repeatedly that true societal equality is practically impossible to achieve.
Far less interested in showing the putrid one note tyranny of the way the rich treat the poor, Parasite is focused more on critiquing the dehumanising effect that both the rich and the poor experience, and investigating questions such as what one could do to climb up the social ladder, what makes people desperate, and what does a sudden glimpse of the other side do to them.
Far less interested in showing the putrid one note tyranny of the way the rich treat the poor, Parasite is focused more on critiquing the dehumanising effect that both the rich and the poor experience, and investigating questions such as what one could do to climb up the social ladder, what makes people desperate, and what does a sudden glimpse of the other side do to them. There are no easy answers, of course, and even while wading through the answers quite literally like through a flooded room in a basement during a thunder storm, it manages to argue that desperation knows no boundaries, and even in the face of total human lifelessness, heart and soul can still linger akin to a ghost wafting through the walls in a large house. Nuance is key, the film skilfully demonstrates that obscene display of money is a sin, and hustling your way through towards said money because you don’t have any may be equally sinful – though I’m fairly certain Joon Ho and his writer Han Jin Won aren’t trying to hide the benefits of actually being rich.
But mainly Parasite is a very entertaining movie, setting an interesting mood for a relatively mainstream film featuring the very prominent actor Song Kang Ho in the lead, who yet again just disappears in his character. The supporting cast is a knock out as well, elevated by Joon Ho’s sensitive direction that is only matched by his methodical approach to aesthetics thus letting the visual structure of a mansion do a large portion of the storytelling on its own. Joon Ho’s true triumph here is that he never sentimentalises the ignominy of the poverty struck victims here, he simply diagnoses it. The cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo enforces total control and stability over the narrative even when the crazy things begin to happen in the film – making it the most delicious kind of cinema, one which unifies order and chaos.
Shoplifters and Parasite will inevitably be compared in the years to come, but they're so dissimilar in approach and they compliment each other so well they work as a perfect double bill. In fact both Shoplifters and Parasite make for a revealing contrast in how cinema is now ready to start addressing that wealth is not a binary choice, and through the right lens people can be viewed as as equal and unequal concurrently, and even oligarchs and celebrities who have acquired their wealth through their hard work can still be no better than the building watchman on a basic human level.