by Alan Yudman
One of the big themes of the Democratic Presidential primary is the income or wealth gap. Candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yank point out that it continues to grow wider. A few billionaires control an inordinate amount of wealth in the United States. It is an idea that started with the Occupy movement and has now gone mainstream. It has also been the subject of some art but none more successfully connects the issue with entertainment than Bong Joon Ho’s PARASITE.
A family living in Seoul is so poor their phones and internet get turned off. They resort to anything to make money, including folding pizza boxes for a nearby restaurant. The parents seem beaten down by failure. The son is too nice. The daughter always seems to be looking for an angle to play. They seem to be four lost souls looking for an opportunity to make easy money. Then it comes their way. A friend of the son gets him a tutoring job for a wealthy family even though he’s not really qualified. They counterfeit papers and he lies to get the job. The son sees it may be possible to bring in the rest of his family. He lies to get his sister in as an art tutor for the wealthy family’s younger son. They set up the family’s chauffeur to get him fired and move the father into that job. Then they scheme to get the family maid fired and create an opening for the mother. But that’s where it all goes sideways.
That’s about all I’m willing to reveal about the plot. Anything else would spoil the surprises that make this movie so special. Bong has told this story of those with less fighting against the establishment (see Snowpiercer). But this isn’t a bleak vision of a dystopian future. This is a plausible portrayal of a family struggling against the class structure. It’s not like they aren’t trying. They have had jobs that have gone away. They cannot catch a break. Failure begets failure. Society is structured to prevent them from becoming successful. Now before you think this is a sullen, depressing slog… it’s not. This is a very funny movie. Bong uses humor to create empathy with the central characters. The wealthy family is portrayed as pleasantly clueless about their place in the world. PARASITE is at times a raucous farce of a film. Kind of a Korean version of Charlie Chaplain.
The movie is subtitled. I feared the humor would be lost by having to read the jokes, but it works. The actors are fantastic. Bong’s script is smart, funny and moving. The cinematography is fabulous. The camera placement is everything and where Bong places the actors in those scenes is just brilliant.
But when it all goes to shit, it becomes disturbingly and surprisingly violent. The violence fits. You can see how the desperation escalates into a bloodbath. In the end, no one is really happy. Some aren’t even alive. Initially I believed the title PARASITE referred to the central family since they worm their way into the wealthy family’s lives. But after giving it some thought I believe income inequality is the PARASITE Bong is talking about. If you have a society built on a wage gap, it is a PARASITE festering that either needs to be eliminated or it will wind up killing things you love.