Monday, November 4, 2019

Not presented in Smellovision

Aka Gisaengchung

Ultimately a little deflating, Parasite is such a controlled work of production design and split-second caper timing—not to mention anti-capitalist fury—that it's worth forgiving some modest third act problems in favor of everything that's great about it.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Written by Han Jin-won and Bong Joon-ho

Spoiler alert: moderate

Bong Joon-ho, being an acclaimed filmmaker—quite plausibly the most successful working filmmaker in the Republic of Korea at this moment, though of course I don't have any real idea—is no doubt a very well-off man.  And yet, at this rate, charting a rising curve from Snowpiercer to Parasite, it's possible that his next "allegory" will just be two hours' worth of a camera moving with muscular grace around a guillotine stage as the heads come tumbling down.  It would scarcely be less subtle—it hasn't gotten less subtle, anyway, since Snowpiercer, and Snowpiercer, you'll recall, was about a train at the end of the world with the rear or "poor" cars consigned to eating cockroach pâté—and I expect that both everything good and everything bad about Parasite comes out of its animating passion, which is to illustrate the class divide and its manifestations of false consciousness (and false senses of security), and to proffer another warning that will obviously go unheeded, without letting such pesky details as "emotional throughlines" or "narrative efficiency" get in the way.

It is distasteful but necessary, then, to nod to the thrum of critical satisfaction over Parasite—same as Snowpiercer, and I don't recall it being much different with Okja—and follow that up by admitting that I've never previously contracted Bong Joon-ho fever myself.  I still haven't; even so, I appreciate Parasite and its naked allegory much more fully than Snowpiercer's rattling claptrap and mediocre pretensions toward action cinema, because when Parasite is really working, it truly does live up to all the hype.  Now, it stops really working somewhere before the end ("which one?" being a question you could conceivably ask), which is of course not ideal.  It never quite connects the dots that it (and, to be fair, everyone else) evidently thinks it has.  And since Parasite is designed to strongly encourage you to see it as a bleak ride toward a violent inevitability, rather than as a modular object whose parts can be appreciated on their own merits—though it is, ultimately, an extremely modular object—"not connecting the dots" is a bigger problem here than it even should be.

But it starts off exceedingly well and stays there for a long time, as we become acquainted with the Kims—son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho)—a family of the borderline-indigent who survive, barely, off of odd jobs like folding pizza boxes.  Parasite completes its introduction to the Kims in of one of its best jokes, as a city fumigator approaches their apartment, and Ki-taek suggests they leave the window open for a free extermination, whereupon the family disappears in a fog of toxic gas.

Since this is their lucky day, another window of opportunity soon opens up for the Kims, when a friend from a significantly higher stratum of society asks Ki-woo to take on his old job, that of English tutor to Park Da-hye (Hyun Seung-min), daughter of a wealthy family that lives far up the hill, both figuratively and literally.  With falsified university credentials and a natural talent for fraud,  Ki-woo easily lands the position and jams that window open for the rest of his family to come through.  Taking advantage of Mrs. Park's (Cho Yeo-jeong's) naive gullibility (if not an outright cognitive disability) and Mr. Park's (Lee Sun-kyun's) distraction, and clearing out the competition by hook, crook, and surreptitious assault, Ki-woo arranges it so that the entire clan finds its role in service to the Park household, Ki-jeong as the Parks' spoiled son's "art therapist," Chung-sook as their new maid, and Ki-taek as their new driver.  Things are looking up—or at least they are until the Kims have cause to look down.

That's where Parasite makes its first major swerve—and it's really its only major swerve, as I don't think I subscribe to the common opinion that Parasite navigates multiple tonal or genre shifts.  It's arguable that it doesn't make one here either; I categorically reject the idea it made one any earlier, insofar as the widely-held notion that the film even dips its toes into any kind of genre-free social realism is belied, first, by the audience's awareness of what damn movie they're watching (and Parasite's awareness of that awareness), and, second, by the absurdist quality it adopts from the first seconds of its narrative onward, underlined by a union of form and content that decidedly places every event of the film inside a heightened, hyper-symbolic movie-movie universe.  (Incidentally, just because a movie is about poor people doesn't mean it's neo-realism.)

Anyway, that effort begins with the utilization of the challenging topography of metropolitan Seoul itself, and there are exterior shots in Parasite that feel off-kilter and precarious in ways even other movies shot in more-or-less the same place don't.  It certainly doesn't get less aggressive, as we're invited to soak in the cross-cut contrasts between the cramped uninhabitablity of the poorly-buried coffin of the Kims' half-basement apartment and the Parks' insane modernist mansion/compound, which we are repeatedly reminded was the masterwork of a famous architect who built it as his own house.  Add to that the frequent imagery of the Kims and Parks traversing stairs—most effectively in a long journey back "home" in the midst of  a catastrophic flood that feels like a stronger climax than the actual climax—and what you have is a world dominated by 90 degree lines subdivided further by 45 degree lines that actively mock our characters and perpetually threaten to send them tumbling even further down while the fortunate continue to rise.

Or I probably could've just described the Kims' toilet, which, due to the construction of their house, is positioned on a dais four feet above the floor.  Move over Snowpiercer, for Parasite has made its author's symbolic scheme even more outlandishly blatant, positing a world where his heroes are, literally, lower than shit.  Still, what gets the most screentime is the pair of windows that dominate, and, due to their shape, echo the very geometry of the screen itself: the wall of glass in the Parks' living room that provides a view of beautiful, controlled nature in the form of their manicured garden (which, meaningfully, conceals everything beyond it, so that if you woke up in the Parks' house you wouldn't even know you were in a city), as compared to the crappy window the Kims look up at from their sunken "living" room, which offers, instead, a long-running documentary upon the subject of public urination.

This is all fantastic, in both senses of the term: both these locations were custom-built, and hence the movie's unrivaled champion is production designer Lee Ha-jun, albeit with invaluable assistance from editor Yang Jin-mo, in posing the two sets together; and they're joined eventually by a third set that bears its own metaphoric portent.  Unfortunately, this is where the movie starts letting its metaphors bleed all over the plot and the characters as well as the visuals.  It's here that things escalate, let's say, horizontally, as Parasite becomes a denser but also a rather more jumbled parable, that's less about class warfare proper than it is about identification with the hierarchy of capitalism regardless of where you fit into it, and the infra-class conflict that results.  It does this without completely mirroring its two main families, and insofar as "complete mirroring" was the hallmark of the film prior, this is a shame, though it at least takes a while before it fails to pay off.  For a moment, it actually does feel like a natural continuation: merely the turn from a frothy caper to a higher-stakes thriller that is neither unexpected in general (if still somewhat surprising in the particular form it takes), nor even all that different in practice.  As far as that goes, Parasite's still pretty great.

So let's circle back to what Parasite does so well, with an outstanding ensemble cast, especially in the casually-likeable Kims, whose amoral strivings are impossible not to invest in, despite having some pretty obviously harmful negative externalities that eventually come home to roost.  Armed with these performances and Bong's rigorous direction, the first big slice of Parasite is enormous fun, intensely focused on the joys of a plan coming together (Bong has himself called it a "nerdy Mission: Impossible").  As a bonus, it's driven less by plot requirements and more by the very specific personalities involved, particularly the interplay between Ki-woo and his dad, who seems to have abdicated the leadership of his family to his son and daughter (she's at least as good at this as Ki-woo, if not better), but is so resigned and mellow he doesn't even appear to resent it.  (Bong plays an exceptionally fine joke on this theme about halfway through.)  It helps, of course, that nobody could like the Parks, whose blithe stupidity and vast carelessness invite contempt even before their oft-mentioned "niceness" starts to blur into aristocratic haughtiness.

The greatest pleasure of Parasite, then, is seeing how the Kims evade detection and keep the con going; which brings us back to a third act that departs from this pleasure and redirects the proceedings toward a chaotic climax that feels contrived and arbitrary at the same time.  That the Parks never have the slightest inkling what's even happening goes to theme rather than narrative, I gather, and so our antagonists wind up abandoned along with a surprising number of apparent plot points: there was something far sleeker and far darker promised by Mrs. Park's credulous willingness to offer up identity-theft-grade information over the phone, just because Ki-jeong, pretending to be a functionary for an exclusive contracting service, demanded it; and there's a whole subplot involving a seduction (I suppose?) of Da-hye by Ki-woo that dies from inattention, despite being signposted by both the dialogue and the set decoration, when Ki-woo cracks open her blazing yellow diary to find, it seems, nothing of any interest at all.

Meanwhile, so many throwaway details do wind up informing the climax that it feels unbalanced (not to mention inorganic and artificial).  It is not, nevertheless, inadequate: it's just a great movie descending to the level of an okay one, as Bong and co-writer Han Jin-won sputter about trying to figure out how to provide their tale the operatic conclusion they need while keeping to the constraints of the conflict they've so decisively re-oriented, with the actions no longer quite linking up to the motivations, if still noticeably convenient for allowing Bong and Han to place their pieces exactly where they wanted them to wind up at, in the end.  (Having more fun playing with its premise than resolving it is one of several things Parasite has in common with Weekend at Bernie's, a film it resembles more than I'd bet anybody else would be willing to acknowledge.)

What this doesn't change is that, for the vast majority of its existence, Parasite truly is the smart, precise piece of filmmaking and social commentary they say, and I'll enthusiastically admit that even the disappointing parts aren't that bad, while the good parts are so good they're ecstatic.  Hell, that may even include the epilogue—not nearly so universally-praised as the rest—which emphasizes that, despite everything, nobody ever learns anything, and they just keep running up that hill no matter what.

Score: 7/10

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