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Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ Stops Short of Class War

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The South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has called his latest movie Parasite, which won this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a “sad comedy.” It’s an imperfect label, though Parasite did make me laugh, sometimes hysterically. It also made me feel low—miserable, even—but probably not for the reasons Bong intended.

The plot centers on two nuclear families in Seoul, one poor and one rich, one downstairs and one upstairs. Ki-taek, the patriarch of the lower-class Kim family (played by the formidable South Korean actor Song Kang-ho), lives with his wife, Chung-sook; and adult son and daughter, Ki-woo and Ki-jung, in a half-basement apartment redolent of sewage and thick, hand-washed socks that refuse to dry. (“Ki”/“gi” is also the first syllable of the film’s Korean title, “Gisaengchung,” or Parasite.) Their neighborhood is of the old, scrappy South Korean style, cramped and low to the ground, a tenement in the shadow of the city’s cookie-cutter apartment towers. Ki-taek is an unemployed taxi driver, Chung-sook is a washed-up hammer-throw champion, and the two children failed the university entrance exam. They take in sundry piecework, like folding pizza boxes, to survive while on the lookout for a way up.

One night, Ki-woo’s friend stops by to ask a favor. He’s leaving to study abroad and needs someone trustworthy to take over his tutoring gig in a tony household. Ki-woo agrees and is soon at the Park family’s Glass House–style mansion, fake academic credentials in hand. He is received by Moon-gwang, the Parks’ live-in domestic worker (played by the prolific comic actress Lee Jung-eun), and introduced to most of the family: Yeon-kyo, a neurotic but well-meaning stay-at-home mom; daughter Da-hye, a horny high school sophomore and Ki-woo’s student-to-be; and Da-song, a rambunctious young boy. The father, Nathan, an IT executive, is at the office, per usual, working typically punishing hours. (South Koreans log an average of more than 2,000 hours per year, compared with the OECD average of 1,700 hours.) The Parks, though, are not from the old-money chaebol class (the dynasties that own megaconglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai) but from nouveau riche obsessed with English and with Western luxury goods.

Ki-woo gets the job and a new American sobriquet, Kevin—Yeon-kyo’s idea. He’s paid lavishly for his first tutoring session and glimpses a world of opportunity in the envelope she hands him, stuffed with pristine 50,000-won (about $42) notes. What if his sister, father, and mother could work for the Park household, too? Ki-woo devises an extensive con and, soon enough, persuades the Park family to hire his sister as an art tutor and therapist to Da-song, his mother to replace the faithful Moon-gwang, and his father to assume the role of chauffeur to Nathan. All goes well until this family of hangers-on discovers and is discovered by a competing family of parasites. The inevitable face-off begins in the mansion’s subbasement, under the clueless Parks’ feet, and culminates in a masterfully bloody, baroque finale that implicates everyone in the house. Bong’s message seems to be that there are consequences to our obscene division of wealth and labor. In his account, though, it’s inevitable that the parasites will bleed most.

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Thanks !

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