Parasite

[Spoilers below]

In the inaugural shot of Bong Joon-ho’s masterful new film, Parasite, the camera glides down from the view of a window, taking us into a netherworld where the Kim family lives. The setting is a semi-basement, a two-room residence whose only access to natural light is through this window. The family of four is leeching its internet from the Wi-Fi connection upstairs. The Kims are unemployed and make a living in the underground economy folding boxes for a pizza service. A public exterminator passes by and floods the house with smoke as the family continues folding its boxes. By the time the film ends in a green and sunny garden, however, we aren’t sure who the parasites are. Like Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, the previous Palme d’Or winner, Parasite describes a society whose marginalized figures find it necessary to bend the rules of the game just to stay afloat. Even more, it presents a contemporary dystopia in which the working-class has to fight against itself for social ascendancy.

When one of his successful friends leaves the country, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the son of the Kim family, gets the chance to tutor Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the daughter of an affluent couple, Mr. and Mrs. Park (Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong). Ki-woo learns that Mrs. Park, who has now christened him Kevin, has artistic aspirations for her son. So, he introduces his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) to her as Jessica, a famous art teacher. Jessica, in turn, schemes to get the family’s driver sacked and her father, Mr. Kim (Song Kang-ho), hired. Mr. Kim, promptly, has the house’s long-time maid replaced by his wife (Jang Hye-jin). The film proceeds like a mathematical theorem till this point, depicting the linear, rigorous takeover of the Park household by the Kims. As the Parks drive away on vacation, the Kims sit boozing in the sleek living room of the house. There’s an uncertainty as to what course the plot will chart, now that the Kims have what they wanted. The sexual charge between Kevin and Da-hye and between Mr. Kim and Mrs. Park hints at a dissolution of the Park family à la Pasolini. The film, however, takes a whole new direction right at the midpoint. What was so far a comedy with elements of the crime movie turns into a darkly-comic crime movie. The fired housekeeper comes back and reveals a bunker in the house where her husband has been residing for the past four years with her help. As the housekeeper and the Kims one-up each other, the Parks announce their return over phone. What follows is a remarkable passage involving conflict, stealth and subterfuge in which the Kims lock the housekeeper in the basement and get out of the house without the Parks noticing.

Like Shoplifters, Parasite depicts an impoverished family tying to meet its needs by working its way through morally questionable territory. They are, no doubt, qualified to do the jobs they take up, but the means they employ to get their break is shady. They forge documents, feed on Mrs. Park’s parental anxiety, prey on other members of their class and usurp their jobs. For the Kims, this well-orchestrated employment project is as theatrical as it is logistical. They fake elite provenance, perform in front of the Park family, manipulating their fears and prejudices to their advantage. That said, the Kims a happy, loving bunch, sticking by each other at all times. They are always seen eating together and their big dinner in the posh living room attests to their genuine cordiality. Their rise is based on family solidarity, as is their incredible escape from the house. The family, in Bong’s film, is in fact the only bulwark against precarity: without the “chain of trust” that the Kim family form together, they’d fall apart.

The Park family, on the contrary is hardly seen together in the same shot. They never have their meals together, holed up as they are in different corners of their massive residence. Bong and co-writer Han Jin-won mount a broad critique of middle-class Korean family, lampooning their American obsession and their preference for western names, objects and social codes. They contrast the hierarchized relations within the Park family with the egalitarian dynamics of the Kims. Mr. Park has unflattering opinion about his wife, though he’d call what he feels towards her love. He doesn’t like the boundary between the driver’s seat and the back of the car violated and prefers that his workers stay within their line. Mrs. Park fear of her husband’s reproach is opposed to Mrs. Kim calling her husband a cockroach in jest. The whole problem comes about – and the plot moves forward – because Mr. and Mrs. Park prefer keeping information from one another. They refuse to openly talk with the employees they fire, relying on their own preconceived notions of how the servant class behaves to make their decisions. Their discreet existence has made them so gullible that all it takes to take them for a ride is a fancy visiting card.

“Lots of people live underground”, says the housekeeper’s bunker-dwelling husband to a surprised Mr. Kim. Parasite’s class-coded topography of high and low isn’t merely literal-minded symbolism, it corresponds to the spatial experience of different social classes. Perhaps for the first time since Kurosawa’s High and Low, we have a scenario whose metaphors are derived from the actual living conditions of the characters. The Kim family has to literally look up at the world. Their cellar of a house hardly gets any sun. Its window is a urinating spot for drunken drifters. When it rains, the whole house is flooded, “washing out” the residents. The basic necessities of life – clean air, water and sunshine – have been rendered luxuries in their world as in ours. The high-walled house of the Park family, on the other hand, is constructed at an elevation and sealed away from other humans. The Parks have a lush garden receiving abundant sunshine, where their Indian-crazy son pitches his tepee during the rain that floods the Kim home. They stock their daily supplies in the basement, but there’s a bunker even beyond that they’re unaware of. These bunkers, we are told, were traditional components of affluent households, constructed for the owners to take shelter during war or from debtors. Bong’s film is marked by several upward and downward movements that are physical as much as economic.

Fertile though the scenario is, the success of Parasite entirely rests on Bong’s orchestration of the material. The film proceeds at breakneck pace: Kevin’s comment about introducing Jessica is followed by a shot of the two entering the house, without any filler event intervening. Ditto with their father and mother. Their elaborate scheme to get the entire family employed at the house is presented as a montage cut to a string-heavy classical score. Bong constantly finds ways to break the monotony of over-the-shoulder shots in conversations with different configurations of actor positions. By nature of the script, the viewer cannot identify with any character in the film and Bong plays on this ambiguity all through. Our expectation in every scene changes rapidly depending on the characters involved: in the confrontation between the Kims and the old housekeeper, the sympathy lies with the latter, but as soon as the Parks are back home, the axis of identification changes. The set-piece of the family’s escape from the house is a mini-marvel of filmmaking that synthesizes all the narrative information the viewer is provided so far and provides new ones without diluting the tension. The intuitive manner in which it stitches together various spaces of the house is a tour de force of sequence composition.

Bong’s penchant for and adeptness in blending genres is well-known, and it’s an explosive generic cocktail he concocts in this film. The film weaves in and out of comedy, drama, horror, crime and even sci-fi, the multivalence palpable even on the soundtrack which overlays different genres of music. The tensest moments of the film are also its funniest. The sequence that follows the intense escape scene, in which the Kims discover their house flooded by the rain and take refuge in a state camp, provokes a complex of strong emotions one rarely experiences in cinema: relief (at their escape), worry (about the condition of the housekeeper), fear (of the Parks’ discovery of the bunker), pity (for the Kims’ flooded house), anger (at the Parks’ plans for a party). Bong’s editing is as intellectual as it is visceral. He intercuts between the Kim household drowning in rain and the bunker where the housekeeper and her husband are trapped, creating an extra-narrative working-class solidarity that’s only present subconsciously within the film. A shot of a character smashing another’s head with a rock is cut to an opera performance, the unnerving combination of low and high human impulses emblematic of the whole film.

Following Lee Chang-dong’s sensitive Burning last year, Bong gives us a work that puts Korea’s exacerbating unemployment problem under the scanner. Like Lee’s film, it throws light on Seoul’s segregated districts that keep social classes in increasing isolation from each other and which modulate the very manner these classes see themselves and each other. That it provides this insight in a form that’s as dynamic and enrapturing as it is intelligent and complex is Bong’s special success.

Okja

[Possible spoilers ahead]

Bong Joon-ho’s Okja begins with Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the new CEO of Mirando Corporation, unveiling “super-pig”, a new porcine variant her GMO company has come up with to solve the world’s hunger problems. In order to soften its public image and garner popular support for the new pork variety, the company announces a “best super-pig” competition, in which super-piglets are given to farmers around the world for a duration of ten years. One of these creatures, now named Okja, grows up with Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), an orphaned farmgirl living in the mountains of South Korea. When the competition day arrives, Okja is taken by Mirando to Seoul and then to New York against Mija’s wishes. Mija, with uninvited help a group of American activists from the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), follows Okja to New York to get her back home.

Bong lampoons Mirando Corp as being headed by a family of deranged egotists convinced of the nobility of their mission. There’s no pretence to realism here. Swinton, that epitome of ironic existence, draws from Cruella de Vil and Jake Gyllenhaal as Johnny, Miranda’s neurotic PR, clearly works off cartoon/anime types as well. Though he’s ultimately with them, Bong parodies the ALF activists too, with their facetious politeness and misplaced idealism. Both are, of course, gross exaggerations and Bong’s equating of both reeks of a cool cynicism towards his subject matter. On the other hand, the filmmaker invests all his heart into the world of Mija and Okja. The film spends considerable time depicting the Edenic life in the mountains, where men and CG animals live in symbiosis with nature. The elephantine Okja, a cross between a pig and a hippopotamus, eats a small dose of fruits, helps Mija and her grandfather in fishing and sustains the ecosystem with her droppings. Bong doesn’t question this violation of nature’s rules, effectively acknowledging Mirando’s claim of having created a superior animal.

As the film shifts to the technologized jungle of Seoul – a disorienting change from the mountains – the film takes on more complex tones. A long, compelling action sequence finds both Mija and the ALF members coming together to hijack Okja, plant a spy-cam on her and let her be taken to the Mirando test facility in New Jersey. There’s a conversation between ALF and Mija translated by a Korean member of the group that speaks to Bong’s status as a Korean director making English-language films. The punch-line for this scene comes later and with the splash of violence that was always on the cards. Meanwhile, at the Mirando lab, Johnny has successfully bred Okja with a male super-pig and whipped up a meal with samples from Okja’s body. Scenes such as these involving ALF and Mirando corrupt the innocent fable of Mija and Okja and change this children’s film into a genetically-altered organism in itself.

Yet, Okja is a Disney movie at the DNA level. In the Korean portion of the film, Okja is demonstrated to be an intelligent, non-human person capable of empathy and even sacrifice: she saves Okja from a fatal fall at the risk of her own life – another disconcerting characteristic for a manufactured animal the film doesn’t bother to question. The film’s final scene takes place in Mirando’s large-scale abattoir where super-pigs are stocked and killed. Bong shows us the slaughter and we are all the more repulsed because the animals are invested with human emotions. This anthropomorphism reveals an instrumental morality typical of Hollywood animation, which only humanizes animals that aren’t eaten. The super-pigs need to be saved not because all animals need to be saved, but because they are extremely useful, higher beings. As Mija and Okja walk out of the facility, lucky to be alive, a super-pig couple nudges out their piglet out the barbed-wire fence to be smuggled out by Okja. Followed by a collective howl of thousands of super-pigs doomed to die, it’s a very disturbing scene with unsavoury echoes of the Holocaust. It moves us for the wrong reasons. Tough luck if you aren’t a species with human-like expression.

Burning

Lee Chang-dong’s first directorial project since Poetry in 2010, Burning portrays the civil life of an ex-serviceman Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) who falls in love with a shop girl Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). After a trip to Kenya, Hae-mi grows close to a dodgy, rich young man called Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-su, meanwhile, discovers that his estranged father, who likes collecting knives, is tangled up in a case involving assault of a government official. In a marijuana-fuelled meeting at sundown at Jong-su’s house in the countryside, Ben reveals that he likes burning down greenhouses – a metaphor that Jong-su, wannabe novelist, picks up a little too late. Hae-mi vanishes and Jong-su spends his time stalking Ben to find out the truth. The closer he seems to get to the bottom of his girlfriend’s disappearance, the more it seems that he’s imagining things. Lee’s excellent film is a thriller that’s also an astute socioeconomic portrait. And the philosophical questions the thriller aspect of the film raises, Lee seems to be telling us, are also emanations of class conflict.

The protagonist Jong-su’s predicament is whether he has inherited any of the insanity and violence that characterizes his father. As a child, he was forced by his father to burn his mother’s clothes when she left home for someone else. The confusion as to whether he’s seeing things as they are or he’s losing it manifests in Jong-su’s slow response to happenings around him. He takes time to make sense and even longer to act (and Yoo realizes this slowness in his sluggish physicality). He’s trying to write a novel, but doesn’t know on what. Outside of odd delivery stints, he is unemployed, like many of his young compatriots. He refuses to take up a menial job, preferring to move back to his father’s now-deserted home outside Seoul. His relation to Ben (“Gatsby”) is also determined by class resentment and Lee’s film is clear-eyed about the classist spaces of Seoul. Ben lives in a swanky apartment in Gangnam, where Jong-su’s pick-up truck sticks out like a sore thumb. The places that Ben frequents (and which he sometimes invites Jong-su to) – the brewery, discotheque, gymnasium, art museum, the church even – are in stark contrast to Jong-su’s downtown hangouts and Hae-mi’s matchbox-sized studio in a noisier part of town. Lee includes several shots of the characters navigating Seoul’s various districts and of Jong-su driving around in his pick-up truck, following Ben’s Porsche, like Scottie from Vertigo. Just like Hitchcock’s film, Burning is full of repetitions, reflections, pairings whose patterns appear to impart sense to Jong-su’s quest and redouble his obsession.

Burning unfolds as a metaphysical thriller like Blow-Up, and Shutter Island. Its protagonist is never sure whether his understanding of the world is reflective of reality or simply a product of his broken self. But, as with most narrative films that intend to depict the enigma of perception, the ambiguity Burning constructs runs the risk of being undone by the nature of the medium itself. Lee’s film is inspired from two short stories both titled “Barn Burning”, one by William Faulkner and the other by Haruki Murakami – influences acknowledged several times in the screenplay. While, in literature, it’s possible to present reality as being entirely refracted through the protagonist’s subjectivity, the fact of having to film in third person adds an objective dimension to Burning’s narrative. Ben’s demeanour and behaviour is there on screen for the viewer to see for herself. Lee gives Ben all the trappings of a gay serial killer, and even if his protagonist is unable to make up his mind on Ben’s true nature, the viewer is pushed to. Sealing the issue is a final scene at Ben’s house where he is with another girl: Jong-su isn’t present here and the scene exists in order to bait the viewer and challenge her view of Ben. It would have better served Lee’s accomplished film to obscure Ben’s presence.