Bong Joon-ho's Parasite is full of heat but bereft of fire, delivering only the smoke of one prematurely extinguished. The Kims, a family of present-day paupers, one by one enter the home of the elite and spoiled Parks with, like most employment procedures, a string of lies. Over the course of their brief work period, the Kims brush shoulders with revolt, but the family is held back by a stifled imagination that cannot rationalize a world without work and the belief that dignity should be earned like income. The allegory (or, as characters repeat throughout, "metaphor!") is plain in its pessimism: Capitalism places the subject on a steep and narrow escalator. There are an infinite number of steps that the poor must climb to reach the rich; but all share the same trajectory towards an impending, inescapable doom. The fault of Parasite is not that it is filled with despair amid dire circumstances, but that the film confuses drowning in despair for a critique thereof, thereby shirking any obligation to surpass the narrowed boundaries of thought clouded by fatalism. Hopelessness, a symptom of burn-out, is neither carried out to the depths of devastation nor countered by a future hope, and it instead dangles from above like a carrot on a string. (Spoilers ahead.)
You may have heard that the film is the first Korean film to win the Palme d'Or. You may have heard of #BONGHIVE, which gained virality after the film's Cannes win. That the film has attracted overdue and somewhat overripe acclaim is as much a pleasant surprise as it is the continuation of a trend. Back in 2013, Bong and his contemporaries Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon directed their respective English-language debuts (Snowpiercer, Stoker, The Last Stand). The event was considered one with promise and potential; if the films were successful, it would've paved the way for Korean filmmakers interested in "launching into Hollywood" like Taiwan's Ang Lee or Hong Kong's John Woo. And while 2013 did not usher in a movement, it did give way to a more popular and profitable object: the post-international homecoming blockbuster, which replants the Korean filmmaker's cultural roots as a means of entrance into domestic politics.
Released in the thick of the 2016 protests against president Park Geun-hye, Park and Kim's films The Handmaiden (then the "best-selling Korean film of all time") and Age of Shadows (2016's South Korean entry for Best Foreign Picture at the Oscar) returned to Japanese colonial rule to interrogate fraught questions of nationhood and nationalism. Bong, of course, has plenty of reasons to comment on Korean current events. For years, he himself was placed (alongside Park Chan-wook and Lee Chang-dong) on Park Geun-hye's blacklist of left-leaning artists because of a career-long outspokenness regarding his "anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist stance." Parasite moves decades ahead with the same impetus, taking place in present-day South Korea. Its function is to be a mere mirror of right now, and because its preeminent request is that the audience recognize its well-crafted relevance, the film is deliciously digestible.
Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives in a basement with his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and cheeky children Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam). For a few bucks, the four fold pizza boxes, earning even less if the cardboard is not folded in a straight line. They are unemployed and uneducated, yes, and maybe more, but the Kims seldom overstep a sweeping characterization as altogether scrappy. Personality is replaced with a composite of poverty punchlines—hold the phone up to the ceiling for free Wi-fi, open the windows for free fumigation!—that operate as narrative shortcuts to social commentary. Lazy levity is embellished with various "metaphorical" events (if the word's use in the film sounds technically tenuous, consider that sangjingjuk can also be literally translated as "symbolic"). With no prior notice, Ki-woo's friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) visits to tell him about the Parks, whose daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so) is looking for a new English tutor. With a referral and a forged diploma in hand, Ki-woo immediately flatters his way into the Park estate. By the end of the day, he has already concocted a plan to trick his gullible new bosses into hiring Ki-jung as an art teacher.
In South Korea, public outcry towards chaebol (members of family-run conglomerates who "dominate Korean economic life") regularly takes over the news cycle. Recent readings of Parasite, for instance, invoke an ongoing controversy surrounding Justice Minister Cho Guk, accused of securing scholarships for his daughter despite her sub-par academic performance. But that familial bonds enable access to capital does not only apply to those of a higher tax bracket. Once offered a chance at tasting the forbidden fruit of nepotism enjoyed by the upper class, they gladly take a bite. However, the scheme—to construct a chain of fraudulent job recommendations until every Kim is being paid by the Parks—is no Trojan horse. These elaborate efforts demand identical performances as a regular job search, which requires applicants to polish their resumes and fake a fetish for hard work. Dressed in crisp suits and blouses, the Kims pretend to be world-class servants at the beck and call of their benefactors, snickering behind their backs like (as stated in the film's promotional materials) they own the place.
The Park estate is a swallowing vortex, its space stretched by a 2.39:1 aspect ratio and lined by huge slabs of wood and concrete. The paranoia of being caught keeps the Kims on the payroll like a school of little fish attached to a shark, eating scraps off of its back. The goal is integration by any means necessary: Having successfully seduced his young pupil, Ki-woo informs his parents that he wants to marry Da-hye, but that he'd likely need actors for the wedding to keep up the act. Delighted nonetheless, both father and mother praise their son and profusely compliment the Parks. They're "rich, but still nice," Ki-taek remarks. To this, Chung-sook says, They're "nice because they're rich. [...] If I had all this money, I'd be nice too!" The declaration, tinged with envy and insecurity, conflates the pitying tolerance of the bourgeoisie towards their hired hands with kindness. But the confession itself is correct: Beneath their earnest charm, the Kims are not nice people.
Capitalist competition begets a multidirectional cruelty, but the Kim family's wrath targets those who are even more downtrodden. The final phases of the plan require the ousting of the Park family's chauffeur Yoon (Park Geun-rok) and housemaid Moon-gwang (a marvellously boisterous Lee Jung-eun, who coincidentally voiced the Super Pig in Okja (2017)) so that Ki-taek and Chung-sook may fill their vacancies. Moon-gwang is fired and also robbed of a home, since the Parks must make room for the new help. Her vengeful return, on a night that tramples the Kim family's little molehill to dust, need not be divulged in all its wrenching glory. The ensuing knottiness invigorates an otherwise spare allegory—up and down, rich and poor—with microscopic details: A ghost-white face peering in from the front door, a finger pressing the red "record" button of a cellphone camera, a knife slicing through sirloin, the syncopated flickering of a light above the staircase.
Misguided by greed, the impoverished fight for the chance to be the bottom feeders of the Parks. But because the film looks upward at the rich from the basement, at eye level with the Kims, they appear only as fancy husks dressed in wrinkle-free clothes and accessorized with a fluency in English—nice, even. In other words, they are scarecrows conjured to elicit laughs from the casually anti-rich spectator and not the anti-capitalist, who recognizes that the wickedness of the wealth gap cannot be reduced to matters of interpersonal disrespect and that to be wealthy is not an annoying quirk but a sociopolitical position of power. The film's oversight is especially lacking when compared to its predecessor, Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid, to which Parasite owes its premise but not its sleek commercial style. That film, about a "bourgeois family’s undoing at the hands of a seductive interloper," ushered in a vision of capitalism as a poison of the mind, a hideous evil undisguised by charisma.
Kim remade his black-and-white masterpiece three times with Woman of Fire (1971), Insect Woman (1972), Woman of Fire '82 (1982, above), updating the films with an increasingly awful world bursting at the seams with lurid colors, sexual deviance, and the destructive neuroses of both rich and poor. In each iteration, the man of the house impregnates the innocent maid; his wife forces her to get an abortion; the maid then attempts to murder the family (and herself) with rat poison. Everyone is a pest, scurrying about, gnashing their teeth. The ensemble of Bong Joon-ho's Parasite certainly does not near such heights of corruption: Its measly peak of naughtiness occurs when the Parks attempt to have sex on the couch, only to fall asleep after some rushed fondling—a "metaphor" for the film's yo-yoing drive.
The deliberate cinematographic restraint of Parasite follows a total lack thereof in Bong's previous film, Okja (above), a slapdash collage of piggy pinks and forest greens. Upon its release, I wrote that the density and excess of Okja—which places a livestock corporation masquerading as an environmentalist effort to end "world hunger" against its own product, the genetically modified Super Pig—derives from a "tireless [wrestle] with the idea that attacking capitalism’s symptoms will never destroy its source." One could argue that the two films share rhythm and reason, hurtling into a dead end. But where Okja concludes with a seed of love, Parasite sows one of filial piety and thereby becomes another brick in the wall. The former sees the human girl Mi-ja rescue the Super Pig (and a baby piglet) from the factory and head to the forest; their love is a continually renewed link between today and the future.
The latter occurs at the boiling point of the Kims' resentment. Enraged by a look of disgust seen in Mr. Park's eyes, Ki-taek kills the man and hides in an underground bunker beneath the Park house as a prisoner. Ki-woo is emboldened by a new dream to go to school and work hard so he can one day buy the house and rescue Ki-taek. A deep-seated feeling of indebtedness to his father returns Ki-woo to the same exact spot as he was in Parasite's opening shot: in his basement, thinking about all of the money that he does not have and all of the ways he can try to get more of it—for his dad. Ki-taek himself is a local cliche. In her review of Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan, critic Djuna points out that (translation my own) Korean genre cinema overrepresents the middle-aged man (ahjussi, or loosely, "uncle"). Djuna names Bong Joon-ho's 2003 film Memories of Murder as a prime example of ahjussi-hwa ("uncle"-ization), which centers the middle-aged man but often without critique. Like Song Kang-ho's character in The Host (2006), Parasite's Ki-taek is a middle-aged father who must overcome his ineptitude and past failures with a "metaphorical" act, or the murder of Mr. Park.
This assertion of patriarchal authority serves as the film's one offensive against class exploitation, a maneuver that aims to separate the nuclear family from capitalism as if these do not sustain one another. The film's forced armistice chains Ki-woo, who stares into the camera with sullen eyes, to a sad cycle of the 9-5. This is not a love that wants something bigger and better, but a loyalty to tradition that needs just enough in life to consider the task complete. Though the contextual explanation would be that capitalism subjugates young people into surrender, the move itself is an act of nihilist surrender that replaces conviction for widespread change with an individual "I feel bad." Everyone moves on, we leave the theatre engaged and entertained but not implicated. Like Mr. Park says of Ki-taek, "even though [the film] always seems about to cross the line, [it] never does cross it." Instead, Parasite sits right on the edge of resistance, hand-wringing over the notion that tomorrow will be no better. Oh bother, if only we could cross that line!