South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho – known for his 2013 dystopian thriller “Snowpiercer” – was the big winner at the Academy Awards this year with his latest film, “Parasite.” Like Joon-ho’s previous works, “Parasite” is largely about income inequality and societal divides between the rich and the poor; it portrays the clandestine rise of a poor, downtrodden family as they cunningly infiltrate a wealthy but witless household.
It reminded me of an older film from 1979; Hal Ashby’s “Being There,” an adaptation of a 1970 novel of the same name, starring Peter Sellers. Sellers played a jejune gardener who’d spent his entire life in recluse, tending the garden of an aging baron. When his employer passed away, the gardener was, for the first time in life, evicted and sent out into the wilderness of urban Washington D.C. with nothing but a suitcase of fine tailored suits. The film followed Sellers’ rapid rise from homeless illiterate naïf to advisor of the U.S. President (while still an illiterate naïf), as he unknowingly beguiled one wealthy tycoon after another.
“Parasite” shares many similarities in its wry depiction of the upper-class; its assertion that they are, by and large, dim-witted snobs, whose affluence has stranded them aloof from the rest of society. Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), a teenage boy from the dumps of South Korea’s working-class inner-city neighborhoods, is offered a job tutoring a high-school teen from a well-off, upper-class family: The Parks. The only caveat is, he has to fabricate his credentials. But once in, he begins to notice “opportunities” to employ the rest of his destitute family by duping the Parks. He convinces the Parks’ mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) that her preadolescent son is a virtuoso artist in need of a special art tutor. He conveniently ropes in his sister, selling her as a credentialed connoisseur (emphasis on the con) of the avant-garde art scene. A deft con artist herself, she immediately begins swindling the gullible mom by comparing her son’s crayon scribbles to works from Jean-Michel Basquiat and insisting on charging a higher fee for a sham she dubs “art therapy.”
Joon-ho goes beyond mockery of elite snobbishness; he pulls you into the trenches of class warfare where he muddies both belligerents such that it’s never clear who to root for. The poor, jobless Kim family wants to conn their way to wealth and will do whatever necessary to stay there. Everyone in the family is a dilettante or a charlatan, unfettered by the bounds of private property. For a people who live within a stone’s throw of a communist dictatorship, you would think they would be more sympathetic to private property rights. But like Michael Bulgakov’s human-brain-transplanted dog, the family immediately take up residence in their new employer’s estate and treats it like their own home (Kim Jong-un would be proud). On the other side is the Park family. In Joon-ho’s portrayal of the rich – while the poor proletariats are seen working at a pizza shop, trying to make ends meet – not one soul in the wealthy Park family is ever once seen working, or doing anything besides shopping and wafting through town in the backseat of luxury cars. There’s no notion or hint of where their wealth came from or what they had to do to earn it. The film suggests that the upper echelons of society are some impenetrable aristocracy into which people are born.
Further skewering social mobility (or lack thereof, in his world) Joon-ho makes repeated references to odor. Specifically, the odor emanating from anyone beneath the highbrow social class. Odor is an inseparable quality hitched onto the poor that even their most deft ploys can’t evade. It is first noticed by the youngest Park, their little boy, who nearly blows the Kims’ cover when, with the instinct of a German Shepherd, he shouts, “You all smell the same!” to all four Kims, who, as far as the Parks are aware, are four unrelated professionals working for them. Like the portrayal of “new money” in Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby,” there’s an immutable quality to the destitute in Joon-ho’s underworld. Like Jay Gatsby’s riches attained through bootlegging, the Kims’ newfound, albeit dubiously earned, successes are quickly sniffed out by the Parks.
While Joon-ho obfuscates the boundaries separating right and wrong, making a protagonist impossible to identify, he makes the antagonist clear as day. And that’s ultimately what “Parasite” is about: the corrupting nature of wealth. At every turn, acquiring wealth is presented as a strict alternative to morality rather than a virtue to hanker and work toward. The Kims can be righteous and poor, or debased and well-off. But not both. Upon achieving some semblance of financial comfort, the Kims immediately change; they harden to the point of being unable to sympathize with people who share their working-class roots. When the Parks’ former housewife – whom the Kims artfully replaced with the mother of their family – begs the Kims for help, they reply with scorn and impunity.
While it’s futile to mull over the Oscar-worthiness of “Parasite,” the film was at least deserving of its Best Director win for Bong Joon-ho’s camera work and pacing. In one scene, at the height of the Kims’ hustle, they have comfortably dubbed themselves denizens of the Parks’ suburban home while the wealthy family is away on a camping trip. Languid from reveling in the Parks’ lavish collection of fine liquors, the Kims are left dumbfounded when discovering a thunderstorm had cut the trip short and the Parks are within minutes of entering the house. The Kims’ ensuing scramble to clean and vacate unnoticed delivers heart-thumping, Hitchcockian levels of suspense that you rarely experience in films these days. Overall, “Parasite” was well-acted and packaged with enough twists and turns to keep the story – unlike its rather trite anti-capitalist message – from veering into dreariness or predictability.
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