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October 25, 2019



Bong Joon-ho - 2019

Bong's newest film has caused me to think about the time I first was aware of him. This was in 2007 when his third film, The Host became an unexpected international hit, a monster movie playing the art house circuit in the U.S. I was living in Thailand at the time and saw that film on DVD. I also bought Bong's debut film, Barking Dogs Never Bite on DVD, sensing that this was the work of a director whose importance was just beginning to be recognized. As one who was paying closer attention to Asian cinema at that time, Thailand and South Korea were both just beginning to make impact internationally. Due in part to how the respective countries understood how to be viable in the international marketplace, I saw how a generation of South Korean filmmakers could be counted on to have films in the festival and art house circuits, while Thai cinema as faded due to the provincialism of those in control of the film industry in that country.

At this point, I think a standard review of Parasite is redundant. What I do find of interest is that Bong has turned from two crowd pleasers made for the international market, to a very specifically Korean film that has also become a sizable hit. Making this more surprising is that the narrative zigs and zags in unexpected directions, and defies any kind of simple description. I also think that it's best to watch Parasite with as little information regarding the plot twists as possible.

The three little dogs owned by Parasite's wealthy Park family caused me also to recall Barking Dogs Never Bite, but I think that was deliberate. Bong is revisiting themes, and in some instances situations, from his directorial debut. All of Bong films can be generalized to be about the class divide, with his main characters being the marginalized, usually poor, but sometimes social outcasts. In Barking Dogs, the disparate characters are connected by being part of an apartment building, a setting for misunderstandings and small scale disasters. Bong uses a bigger tableau in Parasite by presenting two families in different parts of Seoul, the Kims who live in a cramped apartment that ads describe as "garden level" at the dead end of a run down neighborhood, and the Parks, living in a palatial, modern mansion surrounded by greenery. I see this as a revisiting of the earlier film but instead of having several individual characters in varying conflicts, united by a single location, Bong changes the focus, not only in the stark differences in the ways that the Parks and the Kims live, but in a couple of scenes that suggest the geographic distance between the two homes.

Bong has listed five films he considers as influences on Parasite. I've seen all five films, and it was the reference to Claude Chabrol that was initially unexpected. Several of Chabrol's films also are explorations of class differences, sometimes between family members. There is a scene in Parasite that made me think of an older Chabrol film that Bong may not have seen. The Third Lover from 1962, is about a down on his luck journalist who befriends a successful author and his wife, attempting to be part of their circle of friends. Somewhat similar is the moment in Parasite when "Kevin" Kim, the college age English tutor is observing a birthday party with pupil and secret girlfriend Da-hye Park, and asks if he fits in with the materially comfortable party guests.

There is also the question of who exactly is the parasite. The Kim family ingratiates themselves on the Park family, fraudulently taking on roles in support of the Park family. Simultaneously, the Parks present themselves as being dependent on others. Bong is also interested in personal space as found in housing, rooms, cars and even a child's "Indian" tipi. As in Bong's previous two films, Okja and Snowpiercer, order is disrupted by forces of nature and anarchy. Parasite is a satirical comedy that turns into a tragedy, where everything goes wrong for everyone, yet optimism is not defeated.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 25, 2019 07:19 AM