One of 2019’s best movies is Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. The film is the acclaimed Korean director’s return to Korean language film, after making Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017). Parasite quickly gained almost universal critical praise after its release, winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, as well as receiving six nominations at the Academy Awards.
Parasite’s acclaim is well deserved due to Bong’s ability to unify art, commentary, and entertainment into a film that manages to appeal even to viewers who would normally dread the prospect of watching a foreign language film. Parasite achieves this through its brisk pacing and gripping suspense. Despite Bong’s close attention to the more technical aspects of film, Parasite is neither art for art’s sake nor entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Bong Joon Ho has imbued the film with a strong commentary which frames the film as a parable or metaphor. I recommend going into the film without knowing much about the story, and so as a warning, the rest of the review will contain light spoilers.
The core of Parasite’s story is the conflict between the Parks and the Kims, two families which are certainly not alike. The Parks are a rich family in a large luxurious house, while the Kims are a poor family, struggling to get by in a basement. After the Parks employ Kim Ki-Woo as a tutor for their daughter, Ki-Woo quickly schemes to find positions for the rest of his family despite their lack of qualifications. In order to do so, the family must sabotage the Parks’ other employees and assume their positions.
Interestingly, the Parks are largely insulated from this conflict. Despite feeling like they have swindled the Parks, the Kims still perform their jobs competently, and so the Parks are able to go about their daily lives without concern. The Parks may seem like they have been easily fooled, but in actuality they are wealthy enough that they do not need to be concerned who cooks their meals or drives their car as long as it is being done well. Any mistake by the Kims would lead to their quick replacement. There is no shortage of workers, and so the Parks don’t need to have any regard for their employees outside lives. Firing an employee, which would be life changing for that employee, is only a small inconvenience for the Parks.
Another way the Parks insulate themselves from the conflict is through artificial distance. Mr. Park, the patriarch of the household, is obsessed with “the line”. He is always worried that his driver will cross “the line” which is the boundary between employer and worker. Mr. Park does not want to have to think of his employees as friends or even humans. They are simply a means to an end, and part of a business transaction. The time of his workers does not belong to them in any way once paid for, and so Mr. Park expects them to act as mechanical as possible, like products bought at a store. Mr. Park remarks multiple times that Mr. Kim has almost crossed “the line”.
Still, having relatively secure positions on the Park family’s staff, the Kims risk it all, taking advantage of a night alone for a grand feast at the expense of their employers. The Kim family’s revelry, depicted as extreme and intended to make the viewer feel disgusted, reminds of another famous feast scene. Like in Parasite, Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961) features a scene where the poor sneak into the mansion and begin a raucous celebration. Viridiana is the story of a young woman (named Viridiana), who after the death of her uncle, inherits a small fortune and part of his estate. Viridiana leaves the convent where she was training to be a Catholic nun, and devotes her life and money to charity. She brings a ragtag group of homeless people to live in her part of the estate, and she feeds and clothes them, asking only light labor for maintenance in return. She struggles with the unruly bunch, and eventually puts her trust in them. While away, however, the group of poor people break into the mansion and begin a debaucherous feast, breaking, spilling, dancing, and drinking. The chaos of the party has one calm moment, when the group gathers for a “photo” on one side of the table, striking poses which echo DaVinci’s famous painting, The Last Supper.
Like the feast in Parasite, Viridiana’s last supper is a disgusting display. Both of these feasts incite revulsion, and, knowingly or not, play on a deeper fear. This fear is that of deception and the decay of boundaries. It is Mr. Park’s fear of his staff crossing “the line” in the most extreme way possible, and it is a fear which dehumanizes the homeless group from Viridiana as well as the Kim family in Parasite.
As I watched both scenes, I found myself asking “Why couldn’t they just be happy with what they were given?” A question which seems innocent, but upon closer inspection reveals a more insidious presumption. In both fictional scenarios, “What they have” is the bare minimum, while those giving to them maintain the power to end this charity. The Kims and the group of homeless people understand better than anyone else that what they have is fleeting. They may have what they need, but what they lack is security. Because Viridiana controls the money she gives to the homeless people, she maintains power over them, robbing them of their freedom and imposing conditions on their right to survive. It is no surprise that they opt to exercise their agency to an extreme in order to achieve temporary pleasures only at the cost of small comforts. Likewise, the Kims are acutely aware that their positions are already dangerously insecure, and so the choice to take these luxuries reflects only a minor increase in risk. The very conditions which lead to these breaches of trust are often created by those who fear such breaches the most.
The worst actions of the homeless people and the Kims range from reprehensible to vile, but the films show how the similar actions are interpreted differently based on who performs them. In Viridiana, for example, the sexual assault from Viridiana’s uncle and later one of the homeless people are both horrible violations. The people, however, are forced to look away from the transgressions of her wealthy uncle, while the homeless man immediately faces consequences. Viridiana’s uncle’s assault is perceived, by the people around her, as more honorable than the later violation due to a perverse respect for status. This distinction must matter little to Viridiana herself, who endures the painful consequences of both. This reflects the tragedy of both Viridiana and Parasite: that such power imbalances exist, and the terrible ways people react to the conditions of these imbalances.
Both films raise very interesting questions about the relationship between people and power, as well as the eternal struggles in society. I highly recommend Parasite to anyone, and it is available for rent or purchase on Amazon and Google Play. Viridiana is also excellent for people who enjoy classic European cinema, despite a few uncomfortable moments. Viridiana is available on The Criterion Channel.
Image credits: IMDB.com