Guest writer – Quintus Grobler (who has been living in Korea for three years)
We all have some skeletons hiding away in our closets. The kinds of things we prefer to be kept in the dark as to not taint our image, status or some other form of public perception we’ve worked hard to keep up. However, with a stronger perception come stronger locks on the above-mentioned closet. This is no different for the entertainment industry’s newest powerhouse: South Korea.
You’ve no doubt by now heard of Parasite, the Oscar-winning tale spun to life by Bong Joon-ho of Snowpiercer fame. The historic Best Picture winner (the first foreign language film to ever do so) follows an impoverished family living in a half-basement, conning their way into the home of a high-class family in modern-day Korea. On the surface, this is a difficult film to understand. This is by no means due to a hard-to-follow plot, but instead a hard-to-classify “tone”. As a result, it’s been called everything from a thriller to a black-comedy. After my second viewing in my local cinema (Korea has re-released the film here after their Oscar wins), I’ve decided that there is no wrong answer to the question of that very mystery. It is a thriller. It is a comedy. It is tragic. It is surreal.
I believe the reason it is so hard to pinpoint a genre for this film is that it stirs up very real fears and discomfort that no amount of dancing clowns or killer dolls ever could. This fear comes from the sordid and somewhat inspirational history of poverty in South Korea. During the end of the 20th century, South Korea was in a financial crisis along with several other Asian countries. With some well-invested loans and millions of Korean citizens donating their gold and belongings, the country not only survived but absolutely exploded financially, leaving it as the powerhouse it is today.
With K-pop, unmatched beauty standards, and worldwide brand recognition, it is easy to forget those left behind in the boom. Spend any time watching Korean television and you’ll be bombarded with commercials for anything from expensive cars to expensive plastic surgeries to expensive appliances that those of us born in South Africa never would expect to see outside of the epicentre of Sandton or parked next to Nkandla’s fire pool. It paints an impossible picture of glossy opulence with no exceptions.
In the small rural Korean town where I live, however, taking a stroll outside reveals a different truth. A mentally challenged man air-boxing under a train bridge from dawn to dusk. A woman in her late 80’s pulling along cardboard boxes on a trolley so she could buy some rice to feed her husband. A man arguing with a clerk at the local grocery store because he doesn’t enough money to afford both bread AND beer. He chooses the beer.
What makes Parasite so terrifying is the reality of the class gap. No matter where you live, you’re always closer to being poor than you are to being rich. The Kim family, our “protagonists”, have fallen on hard times. They depend on the neighbour’s Wi-Fi to access the Internet and fold boxes for a pizza shop to earn some money. An opportunity arises for Ki-Woo, the intelligent but insecure son of the Kim family, to finally make some money. The only catch? He has to tell a white lie to get the job. His little white lie however soon turns into a full-on con involving his entire family and featuring scripts, props and constant forgery. But as one might expect, a house of cards this big is bound to come tumbling down in spectacular fashion.
It’s hard to mention much more without spoiling the film, but the story from Bong and co-writer Han Jin-won is just a cog in the sublime machine that is Parasite. The film is cast to perfection and the huge ensemble (Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-Kyun, Cho Yeo-Jeong, Choi Woo-Shik, Park So-Dam, Jang Hye-Jin and more) expertly convey all the nuances that come with their respective characters’ place in society. Despite there being the ever-present theme of class-warfare looming over them, each character stands out in their own way.
These people are all broken for different reasons; broken to the point where you can’t really identify who is right and who is wrong. Is it the emaciated father who cons his way into a family home? Is it the out of touch mother living in a designer mansion slinging thoughtless commands from her mouth like a text-adventure speed-running coach? Is it the foul-mouthed daughter who makes up lies about a young child’s mental state simply to earn a few extra bucks? Our hero here is nobody and it is everybody, and much like in real life, none of them think they are a villain. This is where Parasite shines above the rest; with Bong being able to write ten characters into a shared world, each with weaknesses, strengths, motivations and, most of all, fears.
Without droning on for much longer, you wouldn’t be wrong to expect soju keg-sized levels of symbolism in an Academy award-winning film from such a celebrated filmmaker. Each aspect of Bong’s shots, from the blocking to the lighting, tells a meticulous story of its own, turning every screengrab into a narrative. Through beautiful set design, well thought out lighting, and, above all, the engrossing storytelling, you often feel like you are looking at two parallel universes with these two polar-opposite families. And ultimately, parallel universes are what Parasite boils down to: peeking over the fence for too long to stare at the grass on the other side. I strongly suggest you take a peek too, you just might find your new favourite movie.
Last Updated: February 20, 2020