When The Fat Man forwarded this review, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It seems like some bizarre sort of Kafkaesque nightmare. I asked the Fat Man to provide some kind of introduction to warn the reader if this movie is unsuitable for the Deplorables but he balked at my request. Being a Julliard trained Forensic Editor I sprang into action. Well, after investigating the movie it doesn’t seem to be an abomination, merely bizarre. Never let it be said that photog stood in the way of Art! — photog
Parasite is a new South Korean movie that has surprised the movie industry because of its success at the Cannes festival, followed by very good tickets sales in all major global markets. The movie is about a family that has been left behind by the rise of South Korea’s middle class in the country’s major cities, but as part of the traditional east Asian service class, is fairly well educated, that is to say familiar with the culture of their rich employers and their upper middle class (read bourgeois) aspirations and fears.
The family, mother, father, sister and brother, lives in a basement apartment with a half window that looks out on an alley where local bar patrons come to vomit and urinate. In the opening scene, we are introduced to the family’s current occupation and major goal, pre-folding fast food pizza boxes and eating as much junk food as they can consume. They seem happy, even comfortable in their debasement, cheerfully leaving their widow open as city officials fog the alley to kill insects, crying out triumphantly, “leave the window open, free fumigation”!
One day our heroes are visited by a school friend of the son and given a good luck gift as well as a good job tutoring the daughter of a rich architect. Their good luck expands when the son finagles his sister into a job teaching art to the architects five-year-old son. Soon the father and mother join in as the chauffeur and maid and the family is flush. Of course, once the inevitable descent begins things get extreme and what was attractively amusing turns bizarre.
Some young critical theorist, improbably named Thessaly La Force, wrote a long thought piece for the NY Times on how Parasite is an example of the dominance of “rage” as a theme in East Asian cinema. You can guess the socio/political source of the rage she describes. Another Times’ reviewer blames inequality for the rise of “dirty spoon” cinema described in a separate review. Undoubtedly there is some truth to these theories, but the film is really just another in a long line of Korean, and other east Asian movies, that indulges in the superstitious, the bizarre and the hyper-violent for their own sake. This tendency predates the current economic environment; indeed, it predates the regions current socio-economic structure.
Filial piety, we are told, distinguishes Confucian culture and in this sense, East Asians are never fully adults. There is always an older sibling, parent, ancestor or institutional structure that requires one’s family obeisance. This ubiquitous subordination allows a natural a fluidity of hierarchy that is at the core of slapstick in the West, but is less confined in China, Japan and especially South Korea. The rage that Ms. La Force describes in movies like “Parasite” and “Old School” is childish, more blood-spraying tantrum than sublimated political violence. Tantrums don’t mean to hurt. They are a young child’s natural message of inadequacy.
And tantrum is the appropriate mode of communication for a society of people frustrated by the challenge of integrating the degenerate western fantasies reflected in K-Pop with the demands of high test-scores and traditional service roles. These contradictions are infinitely more damaging than income inequality or homophobia. The two big news stories out of South Korea the same week “Parasite” was taking the U.S. by storm is the second suicide of a girl band member this month and the discovery an enormous global kiddy porn network is based in Seoul. In yet another story run in the NY Times we are told that South Koreans do not see child exploitation as a major problem. The article quotes one police source describing the sexual abuse of children as basically “natural”, citing that more than half of South Korean prostitutes are underage. The officer described one suspect as “unlucky” for getting caught at something “everyone does”.
We might safely assume, therefore, that the societal problems working themselves out below the surface of “Parasite” are likely not to be inequality, or racism or even sexism as defined in the West, rather something entirely different, but familiar to South Koreans. Confucianism taught these cultures a millennium ago how to live with the barbarian in their midst and how to seek for the “Mandate of Heaven”, even when incarnated in a foreigner. In China, Chairman Xi’s new authoritarianism is fueled by what he calls the century of “humiliation” at the hands of the West. He poisons America with fentanyl to avenge the Opium War. The thought that their own imperial war brought about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and has left Japan neutered, their population shrinking, their only weapon trade. In their eternal occupation and division, the South Korean’s embrace Kim who embraces Trump. And now they have sent us ‘Parasite”. The movie makers of these countries direct these conflicting forces into ordinary characters as they vomit out bizarre cultural concatenations to amuse us, to frighten us and to implicate us.