The morbid morality of Parasite

February 10, 2020 05:05 pm | Updated February 11, 2020 12:03 pm IST

Upstairs downstairs: A still from Parasite

Upstairs downstairs: A still from Parasite

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a wryly detailed and superbly scripted portrait of contemporary class rage. It tells the tale of lower-class South Korean family members scheming their way into an upper-class home by posing as unrelated domestic professionals. One by one, the poor Kim family hijacks key positions of caretaking in the rich Park household.

On a technical level, Parasite is thoughtful and sophisticated. The Park family’s privileged gaze is visually replicated by the interior design of their fancy bungalow: a glass wall separates the living room from the garden, making the outer world look like a wildlife documentary channel playing on a giant Plasma TV. The Kim family’s ramshackled semi-basement flat is half-buried into a dirty street, making it look like its occupants are perpetually gasping for air. The steep stairways connecting the city’s wealthy neighbourhoods to this area evoke the discriminatory pyramid of social hierarchy.

Layered storytelling

The film’s geopolitical layout is vivid, not once abandoning optical commentary in favour of a shaky-cam treatment of universal classism. In that sense Parasite takes a leaf out of Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda’s book of spatial storytelling: The physicality of the environment – cramped Asian homes, close-knit families – is choreographed to reflect, rather than verbalise, the muted dimensions of economic and emotional desperation.

But the wide acclaim of Parasite has more to do with its interactive subversion of genre filmmaking. Genre films use popcorn movie tropes to express a heightened version of life. But Parasite is a rare story that uses those tropes to express life itself. The entire first act is semi-satirical in tone. When the Kims begin to invade the unsuspecting Park household, Parasite adopts the language of a wicked con-artist comedy. The son, who has already been recommended as an experienced English tutor, passes off his sister as an eccentric “art therapist” – armed with philosophical swag – for the youngest Park. She, in turn, leaves her panties in the car to frame the existing driver (“He had sex in my car?” wonders his employer). The new chauffeur, the father, in turn sabotages the longtime housekeeper by exploiting her peach allergy to convince the paranoid owners of an infectious disease. He then passes off his wife as an efficient housemaid. None of these plans are Italian Job -level farfetched. They are systematically pulled off by ordinary people for whom hustling is second-nature – the execution is no different from, say, Indian street-vendors trying to fool naive white tourists.

Rooted in hyper reality

Most genre movies go on to amplify the ingenuity of the rustic underdog and elitism of the one-percenters. But the poker-faced Parasite eschews moral high-ground by constantly adapting to its rooted hyperrealism. Once all the Kims are in, the film effortlessly morphs into a dark survival drama. Another movie might have commemorated their coup, but this party is cut short by the cruel parity of life. The Kims discover that they weren’t the only ones with parasitic intentions. Simultaneously, they almost get caught by the Parks who return early from a camping trip – in a scene that is both funny for how sad it is, and sad for how funny it is. There’s nothing unfamiliar about the image of a family hiding under a table while their oblivious employers have sex on the couch above them. But again, this traditionally comical moment isn’t played for crude humour. The couple roleplay as ‘homeless vagabonds’ – their version of taboo daddy-schoolgirl fantasies – to achieve loud climax, while the people they fetishise are trapped (literally and figuratively) below them.

Every scene after this – flash-floods, accidental deaths, daylight murder – is conceived to punish the Kim family for daring to make Parasite resemble a popcorn movie. A heist, after all, looks sexy on screen because it almost always fails in real life. When all hell breaks loose in the final act, Parasite wears the face of an accidental zombie thriller. Still, the chaotic comedy-of-horrors madness appears to exist within the confines of circumstantial fate. It’s as if director Bong Joon-ho is trying to hammer home the truth that reality – when viewed through the prism of sociocultural prejudice – can be a cooler genre film than fiction.

Tragicomic treatment

The difference is in the sensory response that it elicits. The viewer, otherwise programmed to enjoy a slick genre movie, is forced to think twice while reacting the same way to Parasite. By laughing at the cons, smile-cringing at the sex, clenching at the unraveling, ogling at the bloodbath: By reacting like an average viewer, one only reiterates the tragicomic entitlement that distinguishes us from the sufferers of Parasite. It only reinforces our view of them as “characters” and “devices”. The film places us in an uncomfortable position where we are in fact reacting to the morbid serendipity of life. In doing so, Parasite reveals us – you, me, ours – to be recreational Parks in a world of disenfranchised Kims.

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