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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/16/20

"Silly Films Olympics© Special": Parasite (Bong Joon-ho 2019)

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After much deliberation, and a generous donation (heh heh) to the "Silly Film Olympics Foundation " by an anonymous billionaire who is currently buying running for the democratic nomination for prez, and whose name rhymes with "stop and frisk ," the board of governors has agreed to consider Parasitefor special submission in the "Silly Film Olympics ." (Full disclosure: there is no "Silly Film Olympics " board of governors.)

The film was awarded four Oscars at the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony, including Best Picture (a first for a foreign film), Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film. Korean Bong Joon-ho delivered his acceptance speech for Best Director in his native language, another first. His film has enjoyed wide-spread commercial success, at the same time garnering praise from critics for its progressive politics. CineView called it a "masterful dissection of social inequality." The Kim family, according to ScreenDaily, is "motivated by [] economic realities" that permit the rich to "disdain the poor" and treat them like "filth." The Guardian agrees: the wealthy in Parasiteoffer a "distorting mirror" that reflects how wretched the poor are, at the same time revealing "the riches that could --- and should --- be theirs."

Don't be fooled.

The idea that the film "dissects" the tensions between rich and poor is a top-down, neo-liberal, austerity-lovers' fairytale. It does nothing of the sort. The last thing Wall Street banksters and Hollywood CEOs want is for the rabble to get caught up in some glitzy dissertation on how to interrogate their own subjugation. "Mind-forg'd manacles" kind of stuff. They're a threat, no doubt. But that's not the story the film tells, nor is it why, in my view, the film is celebrated. What viewers get in Parasiteis a variation of the "American Dream," the same story our neo-liberal masters insist we internalize as objective truth. It goes something like this: working class people need to realize that the cardboard s**thole they live in is the best of all possible worlds. They need to learn to settle for what they have (or don't have). They will be allowed to dreamof getting out of the s**hole, although, more importantly, they will never actually get out. Besides, the masses don't really want systemic change. They don't want resources distributed more equitably. None of that "hopey, changey," we-hate-the-rich baloney. What they really want is to join them ! Parasitedoesn't subvert the dream. It parlays it.

The first sixty minutes or so of the film is cinematic magic. Viewers are introduced to the Kim family --- Ki-Taek (father), Chin-sook (mother), Ki-woo (son) and Ki-jung (daughter) --- all of whom appear to be stuck in various stages of a collective nightmare. They live in a dilapidated slum, their street lined with angular structures teetering on the edge of collapse and poorly lit, overrun with power lines and neon signs and drunks who urinate outside their window every night. They don't have jobs, so they have trouble paying rent. They talk about trying to earn money, but they don't appear to have the skills or the education or the discipline to follow through. At times they seem resigned to their crummy lot eking out a crummy living inside a crummy basement that floods with raw sewage when it rains. And yet, in spite of the forces arrayed against them, these characters possess a cheekiness that lights up the screen, a very human bravado in the face of absolute disaster, and it foreshadows their insanely brilliant scam. Ki-jung sitting on top of an over-flowing toilet casually lighting a cigarette, while sewer water rises almost to the ceiling, captures both the terrible situation they are in and the resilience with which they endure. It's no surprise, then, that they are capable of devising a "plan" to ingratiate themselves to the Parks, an uber-wealthy family of four.

The Parks' money is never explained, but one has to wonder how such dim-witted individuals got there. The father (Dong-ik) is oblivious to the what goes on in his home except in the most superficial way. When he finds the underwear Ki-jung plants in his car, he quickly assumes his driver did something awful and, without even talking to him, has his wife fire him. What a stud! (This guy buys a mansion but doesn't inspect the basement?) His teenage daughter, Da-hye, a Lolita wanna'-be, is sexually obsessed with a complete stranger, and his young son, Da-song, wants to be a Native American. Teepee and tomahawk and feathers and all. The capper, however, has to be his wife, Yeon-kyo. She's a complete ditz: she can't control her son, she can't help her daughter, she can't cook or clean, and she's a disaster when it comes to hiring the help. "Word of mouth" is better than resumes or written recommendations, she says proudly, getting the thing exactly backwards. She's also a heartless dingbat, firing the housekeeper because she's been told the poor woman is "diseased." Classy. On the whole the Parks are flatter characters. less interesting, less human. They float along on a shiny crystal barge, shallow, goofy and privileged. They have no "creases," Ki-taek says.

The drama begins almost immediately, a caustic exploration of class warfare waged not between the Kims and the Parks, not between workers and their masters, but between the Kims and other workers. For starters, they plot to get Dong-ik's driver and the original housekeeper fired so Ki-taek and Chin-sook can assume the positions. The scheme is played as comedy, but it's clear their path to financial security depends on destroying the competition, a plan that returns with a vengeance soon after. The family is partying and getting drunk and merrily planning a bright new future "living off" all the money they will make, when the housekeeper they knee-capped, Moon-gwang, rings the doorbell. She takes Chin-sook into the basement, where she reveals the secret bunker her husband (Geun-sae) has been living in. She begs Chin-sook, who she calls "sister," to keep her secret. But Chin-sook says no and is about to call the police when the rest of the Kim family stumble into view. Their con is instantly undone: Moon-gwang knows what's going on, calling them a "family of charlatans" and recording them with her cell phone. From then on it's nonstop war between the two rival groups of workers, all of whom reside in basements.

Ideologically, this is the heart of the film. It suggests Moon-qwang could have continued serving the Parks, while keeping Geun-sae hidden away, had the Kims not interfered. It suggests the Kims could have developed into dutiful, loyal servants if the former housekeeper had not returned. Both families are a little sloppy, a little unorthodox, but both show up and do their jobs. Both families consider the Parks benefactors, not enemies; hosts, not antagonists. The real struggle for power is between the Kims and Moon-gwang, a clash that sets in motion a grisly sequence of events: Moon-qwang dies from a head injury, Ki-woo has his head smashed with a large rock (twice), Geun-sae gets skewered, Ki-jung is stabbed to death and Ki-taek, who stabs Dong-ik in a moment of fury, must flee for his life. The message could not be clearer: workers will be forced to fight other workers for the privilege of serving the rich, a deadly brawl for the crumbs that fall from the master's table.

The final scene drives this point home. Ki-woo takes viewers through an elaborate dream sequence that describes perfectly the role the poor have internalized. He believes his father is still living at the Park home, in their basement. He thinks Ki-taek sends him a message by Morse Code apologizing for all the misery he's caused, but he tells his father not to worry. He will make money, lots of money, enough money to buy the Parks' home, and then his father will be able to leave the basement and rejoin his family in a life of luxury. The boy is earnest. Too bad it's all in his (badly damaged) head.

Which is where it will stay. Why don't working class people object to being treated like slaves and living like animals and fighting each other for scraps? Because they've been programed to believe that they could hit it big themselves one day! They could buy the Parks' mansion! They could rescue their families! They could be carefree and happy and un-creased, just like the rich! All they have to do is keep dreaming.

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BK Faunce is a retired Associate Professor of English (UMW / UCSC) specializing in British Romantic Literature, Film Theory and Writing. His recent work examines the use of state power and its impact on visual culture.

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