Pissed-off Toff

Parasite: a review

in Reviews

Pissed-off Toff reviews the award-winning film Parasite.

Perhaps because it had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2019 plus the BAFTA award this year for Best Foreign Film as well as the Motion Picture Academy awards for Best International Feature Film and also for Best Picture … perhaps because of all this, we felt that if we were going to see a film in York that night, the best choice would be the South Korean movie Parasite. No harm in keeping abreast of these things, after all.

Among the three adults in our group (all middle-aged Old Etonians – the only people with whom I seem to have any contact nowadays), I was the one who most enjoyed the film, though it also rather puzzled me; another sort-of liked it; and his brother hated it with a passion. “Why all this frightful violence?” he kept asking throughout the post-movie Indian meal during which we all pretended not to eye up the exceptionally attractive waitress. “If only we’d seen Emma instead. You know: something nice.” Or as his brother put it: “Harry isn’t interested in the slums of South Korea. He prefers something set in a stately home in eighteenth-century England.”

Back in London, I took myself off to the local Curzon to see Parasite again, partly to clarify my own confused impressions, and partly so as to be able to write a review for the present blog. (A steepish £16 for the ticket, plus £7.50 for an essential double G&T … the things one does for one’s readers!)

Here goes:

In the opening scenes we are introduced to the ne’er-do-well Kim family, who live a hand-to-mouth existence in their cockroach-infested basement flat in the slums of Seoul. The father, Ki-taek, spends most of the day dozing, and is from time to time kicked awake by his wife Chung-sook, who has a certain blowsy sex-appeal; and there’s a bright son called Ki-woo and a feisty and rather beautiful daughter called Ki-jung. One day opportunity knocks in the shape of Min, who is about to go abroad to study, and wants Ki-woo to teach English to a rich young female pupil of his while he is away. Min also leaves behind a large and mysterious stone, which is said to bring wealth to the owner.

The fact that Ki-woo has not been to university is no problem, because his sister, adept at Photoshop, sets about forging the necessary documents. Armed with these, Ki-woo makes the journey upwards and on foot (metaphor) into a smart area of the city which looks surprisingly like parts of the Parioli district in Rome, and enters a magic world with mountain views, manicured gardens, glass walls and spotless interiors.

Here, he is interviewed by the pretty Mrs Park, who is as naïve and gullible as she is rich; he gives a successful trial lesson to her daughter Da-hye (glossy black hair and the occasional brief shot of alluring thighs); and when he leaves, Mrs Park confesses to him that she is looking for an art teacher for her horribly over-indulged son Da-song, about whose ‘mental health’ she worries a great deal.

Quick to realise that he is on to a good thing, Ki-woo informs Mrs Park that he happens to know of a nice girl called Jessica who studied at Illinois University and who now specialises in art therapy; and she might – just might – be available; although since her services are much in demand, the price would be high. No matter, no matter at all, says Mrs Park, thrilled to have found a solution to her problem. ‘Jessica’ is of course none other than Ki-woo’s sister Ki-jung, who subsequently impresses Mrs Park by refusing to let her sit in on the trial lesson with her son, and impresses her further still when the boy, usually so uncontrollable, is as good as gold in her presence.

Now that brother and sister are lucratively employed in this multimillionaire’s hilltop residence with its spotless minimalist interior (in fact, the whole house was specially built for this film), it is time for their parents to be brought in on the act. But before that can happen the incumbent driver will have to be got rid of, as will the housekeeper. The driver is now framed by ‘Jessica’, and immediately sacked; and it so happens, again, that Ki-woo (the new tutor, renamed Mr Kevin by Mrs Park) knows of an excellent candidate for the newly-created vacancy. In no time at all, Mr Kim is taken on; which leaves just the mother to be installed as housekeeper.

Getting rid of the tenacious existing incumbent is a more tricky proposition, however, and one which will require all the ingenuity of the Kim family. They manage it in the end, by exploiting her allergy to the fluff on peach skins in order to persuade Mrs Park that the poor woman has TB; whereupon the terrified Mrs Park, who has an obsession with hygiene, sacks her immediately.

“A pity. She was a great housekeeper and a great cook. She never crossed the line,” says Mr Park as he is being driven home by his new driver. “But she ate enough for two,” he adds. Only later, when the film enters quite different territory, does the meaning of this throwaway line become clear; as does, perhaps, the meaning of ‘crossing the line’. In the meantime, Mr Kim, the new driver, produces the card of an employment agency that specialises in providing domestic staff for VIP clients. The ‘agency’ is none other than his own daughter plus a mobile phone; and the fourth and last member of the Kim family is duly installed as a parasite, without their hosts having the faintest idea of what is going on.

* * * * *

Parasite has been reviewed as a film that can be seen on many levels and in many ways; as an allegory, as a social critique, as a satire. But I don’t buy this. Yes, we learn that South Korea is a ferociously competitive place in which an opening for a job as security guard will attract applications from 500 university graduates. Yes, we learn that something approaching a caste system is in place, in which the poor make physical obeisance to the rich, quite literally bowing and scraping. But that doesn’t amount to anything very new or deep, does it? 

As in so many films, what interest me perhaps most are the incidental details. So just as when I watch a black and white film set in England in the 1940s or 1950s, I am fascinated, regardless of the plot, by the clothes and the cars and the accents, so, in this film, I am fascinated by the texture of life in South Korea … and by the alien sound of the language, especially the prolonged “Haaaaaaa!!” used to express surprise, approval, and much else besides.

Anyhow, up to the point we have reached in the present review, Parasite is surely a comedy, pure and simple; a comedy greatly enhanced by the witty neo-classical sound-track composed by Jung Jae Il and inspired by Bach and Handel and possibly Mozart. So far, the film is in the vein of – say – Catch Me If You Can, in which we wonder how long the conman played by Leonardo di Caprio will get away with it; in just the same way that the main question on our minds at this point in Parasite is how on earth the Kim family can keep up the subterfuge … a question that becomes all the more pressing following a scene in the Parks’ kitchen in which Da-song, the spoiled son of the house, sniffs first at the new driver, then at the new housekeeper and loudly announces that “they smell the same; and Jessica smells like that, too.”

However (and this is what had me so confused the first time round), just when we are settling into what we think is a relatively straightforward plot with a dénouement which remains enjoyably unguessable, the genre and storyline of Parasite veer off in all sorts of strange directions. Indeed, it almost becomes another film.

* * * * *

The Park parents now announce that they are taking their children on a camping trip, leaving the new housekeeper to look after the house and the three ridiculous lapdogs, appropriately named Zoony, Berry and Poo-Pooh. The Kim family moves in straight away, and we see Ki-jung, aka ‘Jessica’, luxuriating in the Parks’ huge bath while her mother lies drunk on the lawn before getting up to wield a sling with a large stone in it which smashes through a neighbour’s window. 

Later, as a torrential rainstorm rages outside, the Kims enjoy a noisy feast in the sitting room, during which they consume much of the Parks’ supply of expensive foreign spirits; during which Ki-woo (the Kim son) announces his intention to marry his pupil, the attractive Da-hye; and during which Mr Kim says that Mrs Park is a nice person, to which his wife, now very drunk, replies that if she had all that money, she would be nice too. And as if to mark the fact that this comedy has now taken a more ominous turn, the pretty and up-till-now entirely in-control daughter lets out a wild scream, while outside there is a huge flash of lightning … like in Shakespeare when big things are in the offing.

But there is surely no way that the crafty, calculating Kim family of the first part of the film would behave like this. In terms of what we have seen so far, it doesn’t make sense. How, for example, will they replace the huge quantities of expensive booze which they have consumed from numerous different bottles and which will surely be missed? So as the flash of lightning announces, we are in different territory … into which we advance still further when the doorbell rings and the monitor on the intercom shows the bruised and bloodied face of the former housekeeper, standing there in the pouring rain and begging to be let in.

What follows is mayhem. Briefly: it turns out that there is a nuclear bunker under the house about which the Park family know nothing and in which the former housekeeper’s husband has been living for the last four years, in hiding from loan sharks (which explains the earlier comment about the housekeeper eating enough for two); the old housekeeper now realises what the Kim family is up to, and takes a video of them on her smartphone, with which she can blackmail them; with the balance of power now changed and the Kim family now on their knees in the living room with their hands in the air, the former housekeeper and her husband dance to the music of Gianni Morandi (Ho sbagliato con te; meaning: I messed up with you; and an unexpected addition to this film); the telephone in the house rings, and it’s Mrs Park announcing that due to the rain, they will be back in eight minutes and want a dish called ram-don for supper; in a violent brawl, the Kims grab the incriminating smartphone from the former housekeeper and push her and her husband back down the steep stairs of the nuclear bunker, where they bind and gag them; they then make a wild and improbable attempt to clean away the mess while Mrs Kim knocks up supper; when the Park family return, their new housekeeper is there and the three other members of the Kim family are hiding under a coffee table, from where they later hear the sound of Mr and Mrs Park petting on a nearby sofa, and from where Mr Kim hears Mr Park complaining that he (Mr Kim) smells odd; and eventually Kim father, son and daughter creep out of the house into the torrential rain … and down, down, down (metaphor, again) to their slum flat, which is now flooded up to waist level.

“What is our plan?” Ki-woo (aka Mr Kevin, the tutor) now asks his father; the issue presumably being whether they should kill the two poor souls in the bunker; while in a fantastical scene whose metaphorical significance is all to obvious, we see Ki-jung (‘Jessica’) sitting on top of the loo seat as raw excrement spatters out from the covered basin of the loo.

Down in the bunker, the displaced housekeeper’s husband, still tied to the plumbing, manages to bang his head against a red knob on the wall, thus tapping out a message in Morse code which registers on a lamp outside the house upstairs … a message which the spoiled Park boy, who is also a Boy Scout and just as clever as the interlopers, decodes as meaning “H … E … [???] … P … M … E.”

Meanwhile, in the communal refuge in which the Kim family (father, son and daughter) is spending the night (their basement flat being flooded with water from the sewers), the father answers his son’s question. “You know what plan always works?” he says. “No plan. With no plan, nothing can ever go wrong.”

A philosophical observation which perhaps accounts for the increasingly random character of this movie. Because if we have so far moved from comedy to black comedy, we now move into the realm of untramelled Tanantino-esque violence. At this stage it hardly matters that the story-line is not believable. We are in the land of bloodshed and fantasy … and, for all I know, of allegory, metaphor and God knows what else.

* * * * *

From their temporary refuge in the slums, Kim father, son and daughter are now summoned to take part in the birthday party for the spoiled Park boy. No explanation is given as to how – when their basement flat is flooded with sewage – they manage to turn up looking entirely presentable; and in the case of ‘Jessica’, beautiful. At some stage, Ki-woo (the tutor) goes down into the bunker with the big stone that we saw at the beginning, intending to crush the skulls of the couple down there. (So the stone that first stood for wealth now stands for murder?) The old housekeeper has by now died following concussion as a result of being pushed down the stairs, but her husband has broken free and, it seems, manages to smash out the brains of Ki-woo; before emerging, knife in hand and clearly insane, into the garden, where a super-privileged children’s birthday party is in full swing. Here he stabs ‘Jessica’ in the chest, after which the new driver Mr Kim joins in the frenzy and kills his employer … the motivation being festering resentment at Mr Park’s comments about how the poor smell nasty.

The film now becomes … well, perhaps rather silly. Having killed Mr Park, Mr Kim takes takes permanent refuge in the nuclear bunker, whence he sends messages in Morse intended for his son, who is not dead after all and who by chance picks up the messages from a nearby hill, decodes them, but cannot return them. And Parasite ends with what we can only assume is a fantasy or dream sequence, in which Ki-woo gets rich, buys the house, and thus enables his father to emerge from the bunker into what is now their family home … minus Ki-woo’s sister, who was murdered at that children’s party.

So: comedy; black comedy; fantasy; metaphor; allegory; horror movie; a morality tale about unintended consequences … or just a dog’s dinner of genres, a random creation. What on earth is this film? If I wished to sound trivial, I’d say: frankly, I don’t have a clue. If I wished to sound less trivial, I’d say: it’s a Tanantino-esque horror movie grafted onto a conventional comedy. And if I wished to sound almost serious, I’d say: it’s all about the resentment, anger and violence which result from extreme social and economic inequality.

But the truth is that I don’t know. And I’m not sure that the director does, either. Nor, I suspect, do the jury-members at the Cannes Festival, BAFTA and the Motion Picture Academy, all of whom so richly rewarded this film. Whereas I do have a suspicion as to why Parasite picked up so many prizes. Perhaps it is because it conveniently ticks all those ‘diversity’ boxes that are one of the many signs of the madness of our age.

If I were to advise you to see it or not see it, I’d say: see it. But don’t tell Harry I said so.

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