WORDS ON FILM
BY NOLAN LAMPSON
A belt of trust.
This is what Mrs. Park calls the situation developing before her, in which her daughter’s new English tutor recommends an art tutor for Mrs. Park’s young son, in which the art tutor recommends a new chauffeur for Mr. Park, and in which the chauffeur recommends a new housemaid for the wealthy Parks, all within days of each other. A belt of trust, she says with a smile, and we respond with one of the heartiest laughs of the film, a film which will surprise us constantly with its razor-sharp comedy, because we know precisely that there may indeed be a belt, but trust is the last thing it’s made of. In Parasite, a new film from South Korean master storyteller Bong Joon-ho, there are layers upon layers to every relationship, but nowhere between them can we find any hint of trust.
The new employees of the Park residence are not a chain of continual word-of-mouth recommendations, but rather the Kim family, a family of four living in a type of circumstances the Parks could barely imagine: modest. They live in what could very well have been a former underground storage space, with windows adjacent to the asphalt of the street outside. They routinely steal wi-fi from the neighboring coffee shop (resorting to guessing ‘123456789’ as the shop’s new password), and find scattered wages by folding boxes for a local pizzeria, though even their folding is ridiculed. The father is an unemployed former driver, his wife Choong-sook may never have been employed, and their daughter Ki-jeong is a brilliant designer and artist, but cannot find a real fit for her talents. It isn’t until the son, Ki-woo, is told by a friend that he is leaving his job as an English tutor and needs a replacement, that we can detect any sort of way out for the near-poor, pizza-box-folding family.
Ki-woo accepts blindly, not in any position to decline, especially after he is given a tour of his new tutoring site. The Park residence contrasts so wildly from the Kim’s space that it is momentarily shocking to watch the transition from a room where the toilets and beds are practically sewed together, to a ravishing home whose floor plan is so open it doesn’t ever seem to end. Soon, Ki-woo meets the girl he is to tutor, but sees from his periphery some drawings made by the little Park boy. Mrs. Park mentions to Ki-woo that she has been looking for an art tutor, and the proverbial lightbulb goes off inside his head as he rubs his chin. The next day, Ki-jeong is inside the home, and the game is afoot.
Perhaps the true joy of Parasite is that the above is merely the setup. The film isn’t solely about the guise of a family pretending to never have met each other, as if that couldn’t provide enough rich drama on its own. Instead, we are treated to a number of twists and plot developments that we aren’t able to expect, in no small part due to the fact that the film simply defies genre. Whoever attempts to categorize each film they come across will have a mountain ahead of them when faced with Parasite. You can’t call it a comedy of manners, even though it deals with class division and has scenes of uproarious laughter. You can’t call it a thriller, though there are scenes wherein no other label explains the chills you receive. Instead, you have to call it what it truly is: an original, bold, and flat-out diabolical masterpiece. Sometimes, the feeling you get of watching a great film supersedes the need to fully define it.
We want the Kims to succeed in their cunning manipulation of the Parks, no matter how we may reflect on it. Even Ki-woo tells us in dialogue approaching the film’s third act, “[The Parks] are nice people; they’ve done nothing wrong.” It is their wealth that baffles us, even in the movies, where extravagance is commonplace and often expected. They have the money to forget, forgive, and exist as entirely gullible, and the Kims are just the surface exhibit of this. Additionally, within their delicate walls are bottles after bottles of Voss water, one of the world’s simplest symbols of having some money around.
To visualize the clashing classes, Joon-ho uses a technique not very new to the screen, but fresh enough in its own right: spatial relationships, most notably in a vertical sense. The Kims live not only in the lower streets, but below the street, and the Parks seem to walk up and downstairs of their home almost like clockwork. Later in the film, we meet more characters who become central to the story who, too, live in the ‘below’. When the low meets the high, or vice versa, we feel vulnerable, like a distressing deviation has occurred. We see a similar technique in the Japanese crime thriller High and Low (1963), where a kidnapper nabs the child of a rich executive, citing the reason as his own anger at seeing the executive’s home high above the rest of the city. From below, one can always find the feeling of being looked down upon.
It’s been years since the world has seen a director, American or European or Korean or otherwise, with as much confidence and absolute mastery in their directorial work. Bong Joon-ho has reached a peak in his impressive arc, and has the hardware to show for it; Parasite received the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last May, likely the world’s most prestigious film prize, swallowing the votes unanimously. It is not difficult to understand why, but it is fascinating to try and understand how the filmmaker could feel so wonderfully in-tune with his work. It’s as if the pulse of the film has always been in him, twisting within his soul and eating up his conscience like a parasite.
comments on the screen by nolan lampson.