Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Classed Up: PARASITE

Fiendishly clever, South Korean writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is a slippery thriller. It appears to set up a simple haves-and-have-nots parable with an immensely likable family who easily and charmingly stumble their way into a long con. Impoverished, unemployed, and living in a dingy basement apartment, the couple and their grown children slowly, then all at once end up employed at a gullible rich family’s enormous mansion. It’s an easy gig, one they don’t intend to start until it’s too easy to avoid. They just insinuate themselves in one at a time. First the son (Choi Woo Shik) becomes an English tutor, then the daughter (Park So Dam) an art therapist and so on. They secretly, subtly orchestrate reason to eject a current coworker, then pretend they’re recommending a friend of a friend to the boss instead of a family member, playing the part of helpful strangers. That the families are funhouse mirror images of each other — a mother, father, daughter, son set of four, though different ages and ambitions — adds to the grooving on a clever visual contrast. The leads’ cramped apartment with the concrete walls practically closing in, their only window revealing a gross view of a dumpster, feels even smaller and more cramped when compared to the empty spaces in palatial rooms at their employers’ home where their massive windows open onto green garden lawns and copious sunshine. And yet, when the storm eventually comes, Kyung-pyo Hong’s glassily precise cinematography makes the mansion an ice-cold gilded cage, a diorama of portent and cruelty. As the movie (scripted by Bong and Jin Won Han) complicates its initial setup, the stakes grow higher. It becomes a story concerned with collateral damage, as the lies of this con family come back to haunt them. The giddy kick of its early trickery twists into sequences of darkly funny escalating suspense. The whole thing is awfully entertaining and deeply unsettling, even, maybe especially, when it’s never quite in the way you’d guess.

The ingenious structure invites us into a Robin Hood scenario with heist movie pleasures. The deceit is charming, and the poor family is easy to root for. They have such warm chemistry with each other, and take such obvious delight in their cons — father and mother (Song King Ho and Chang Hyae Jin) beaming with pride as they throw themselves into this new family project of sorts — and, besides, these rich folk are so simply and happily tricked. Besides, they're doing good work and the wealthy family can afford it. The film sees the arrangement as common, and mutually parasitic. The con may have gotten the poor family the job, but they’re still servants, beholden to the whims and calls of wealthy patrons who, no matter how benevolent and generous they may at times be, are nonetheless at a constant low boil of condescending classist judgement and unexamined learned helplessness. Never quite a broad poison-pen satire, but never quite gritty realism, the movie is perched and poised between the two as it sketches this dynamic. Who is hurt in this situation? Potentially everyone, as Bong twists the knife. In this world, the film says, dignity is easily lost, and difficult to gain. “They’re only nice because they’re rich,” one family member says as the others express a kind word about their marks.

Bong’s earlier pictures were also keenly invested in detonating inequitable social structures. Literal class warfare erupts in the dazzling sci-fi actioner Snowpiercer, while monstrous downstream consequences of medical experiments bubble up in The Host, and factory farming crosses with genetically modified food gone wrong in Okja. Those films are splashy mainstream entertainments, and here his pet themes get intimate and queasy. The film serves up uncomfortable dynamics, with fellow workers tossed aside with no regard for the consequences of their schemes, and emotions of vulnerable children toyed with. Bedevilingly, the movie draws discomfort across class lines, confusing the central tension by highlighting how easily those of us in the working class might throw each other under the bus for the short-sighted privilege of a slightly more comfortable place of inequality. The warmth and love of the leads is cut with the burbling blackly comic and tensely developed suspense of how it’ll all unravel for them and whose pain will get hidden away in the process. Even the final unexpected conclusions — and every concussive twist leading up to it — deliberately eschew easy answers. We get sequences that could be either righteous catharsis or overt tragedy, but it’s the touch of a master filmmaker that manages to give us simultaneously both and neither. It’s a movie that astonishes in the moment in the wonder of a good story well told, and lingers long after, its messy implications permanently unresolved.

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