CinephileKR’s review published on Letterboxd:
I feel like I have to celebrate with my fellow countrymen of South Korea about this film garnering so many accolades from this year's Academy awards. But I'm not gonna do that. To go right off the bat, I 'still' think this film is mildly overrated, especially due to many outside reasons that I'm not gonna mention here. And that view hasn't been changed from the moment I finished watching this film here in South Korea. For me, this film was like meeting up with a conman who is business-smart in unlikable way personally. Such feeling that wasn't noticable within myself in my past encounters with Director Bong's films. But the art of filmmaking, however, is said to be like an art of forgery, a great point made by a great filmmaker Orson Welles in his masterpiece 'F for Fake'. We could just celebrate the filmmaking technic itself even if they intend to swindle you into believing that film is a true mirror to reality outside the screen. In that respect, I admire the technical aspects of the film 'Parasite' being smart. Out of many competitions in the Year 2019, I agree that 'Parasite' really deserved most of the awards it received just for that matter only.
Now what is this film about I have to wonder, what are the aspects of this film that still make me uncomfortable? While there are seemingly quite a number of interpretations from Western audience, I interpret this film as having two objectives. One being an attempt to create a satirical portrayal of socio-political landscape in South Korea, and the other being making criticisms about all social classes trapped within that landscape. After meeting those objectives, in the end, we are only left with acerbic nihilism that there is no grand treasure hidden in life. Just like that so-called metaphoric drawing and the fabled rock, everyone is merely trying to make a fool out of themselves trying to make something out of nothing. The film asserts that we cannot escape from the insecurity of human living regardless of being affluent or not, just like that eventual ending for all of the characters in this film. We are DOOMED by the anxiety spewing out of that insecurity as long as we live and breathe within a form of society. This film is indeed a 'tragi-comedy' like the director says, only because it finds all those characters in the film regrettably laughable since they are all going extereme distances to fight off their respective insecurities. But their efforts only end as futile ventures since it was impossible for them to shake those insecurities off because, according to the film's nihilistic stance, such destiny is a tragic fundamental nature of human living.
There are mainly three groups of people in this film. First of all, there is the Park family who represent the privileged class of the society for obvious reasons. The film's depiction of the family is rather scornful as they are merely parvenu, the term for one that has recently risen to an unaccustomed position of wealth and has not yet gained the prestige, dignity, or manner associated with it. This approach of depiction is very understandable since South Korea is a country that got rich within a very short span of time from the 1960s to around the 1980s under the ironfist rule of dictatorship. Getting rich at those times were not just about working hard, but making opportunistic collusion with the unreliable dictatorship at the time. The house of the Park family having an hidden underground bunker is symbolic to this uneasy ambience at the time. As mentioned briefly in the film, the architect of the house created such space so that the owner could hide oneself not only from the possible North Korean aggressors but also from the creditors in usual cases. Just like the fear that North Korea could invade during the cold war, the fear of losing the prestige as rapidly as how they earned it was quite real at the time. Not limited to the affluent Park family, this theme of 'insecurity' is very prevalent in this film as shown in the film's latter part where the Kim family is desperately trying to keep their prizes. For Mr. Park, the patriarch of the Park family, he indirectly manifests this instability by snubbing humane approaches made by the under-previleged employees towards him. His thwarting of personal encroachment made by Mr. Ki-taek Kim is cold and harsh, because Mr. Kim's mannerless remarks about his family matters and love life hits the target of his inner instability about his acquisitions in life. Maybe it's just that since Mr. Park is an authoritarian father figure, as slightly shown in his daughter's remarks about the Park family only loving their son, Mr. Kim was able to connect with him on the instability of keeping patriarchy they seem to share. Though they are different in terms of the means they took for climbing the social ladder, they share this insecurity and its subsequent worries about keeping the hard-earned prizes including their status as proper patriarch figure in their respective families. Though I would venture further about this point later in this review, this brotherhood-like sense of being the same type of patriarch acts partly as an emotional drive for Mr. Kim to commit questionable violence to Mr. Park who had been supposedly eligible for sympathy from him. A violent Mr. Kim in that climatic sequence is, in this sense, basically a father figure trying to reinstate his patriarch status after realizing his comrade's belittling betrayal right in his face.
Then secondly, there is the Kim family who are our problematic protagonists. Before we delve into this family, we need to go back to history lesson. I mentioned that economic progression of South Korea was a very rapid one creating all sorts of subsequent effects. Albeit the economic abundance from such economic surge, South Korea has been said to be suffering from moral hazard or moral turpitude due to the same progress. Signs of such unhappiness here are shown in objective data such as its extremely high suicide rate and the lowest birth rate. For the Kim family, it seems the times have been harsh on them too like many other Korean households. Father figure has much pent-up anger beneath the smile for not being the proper patriarch. Son figure is suffering from the same burden that his father has, not being able to become a proper patriarch in his own future family due to their social class. Mother and daughter figures are both equipped with survival instincts, unlike the males in the family who are comparably idealists creating their own hell because of such characteristics. The conflicting nature between the males and females in family is briefly shown in the scene where Mr. Ki-taek Kim grasps his wife's clothes out of his sudden anger for short moment, making allusions to tragic conclusion of the film.
Mr. Ki-taek Kim, the patriarch of the family, has performed in job positions such as valet parking and chauffeuring, the jobs that many Korean fathers in real life had to do for survival after the IMF crisis in the year 1997. In the opening segments of the film, the audience can really see that he's not being treated like an authoritarian patriarch, a typical father figure in so many East Asian families. His repressed frustration from not being the proper patriarch is expressed in two ways. One being the violence like the one shown at the climax, and the other being expressing compassion towards the other patriarch figures like Keun-sae who had to hide underground after his business failure in a Taiwanese cake shop. For his son, Mr. Ki-woo Kim, this frustration of not becoming a reliable patriarch is passed down to him, which is symbolized as a fabled but meaningless rock that he suffers hard times of letting it go. As for the violence part, the reason why he eventually stabs Mr. Park in the climax could simply be explained though this concept of patriarchial pride. His compassion towards Mr. Park, a brotherhood-like feeling as they share the same type of patriarch figure for their respective family, had been coldly turned down by the reasons of substantive differences like smell in their social class. Regarding this matter, I've read some reviews on Letterboxd that sudden violence of Mr. Kim is not so understandable and it gives the impression of film relying too much on the image of blood and violence. While I do agree with such criticisms partially, I could add that such apathetic standpoint with the protagonist is maybe due to the cultural differences in regards to the importance of patriarchy in East Asian culture. From my view, I understood that it must've been felt necessary for Mr. Kim to stab Mr. Park because his pride as a patriarch has finally crumbled inside an open space with all those strangers spectating. Within such short time, expressing his pent-up anger was much needed not just for his daughter's sake but more for himself badly. This pride of being a proper patriarch or just an important male figure at least, which could be dubbed as the issue of toxic masculinity, also plays great role in some of the renowned recent Korean films (I will come back to that point later in this review).
Lastly, there is the underground couple, Keun-sae and Moon-kwang. This couple and the Kim family are both under-previleged, but they take different approaches towards the privileged. Especially when you again compare the patriarch figures between the two households, you could easily identify the difference. One of the important reasons why I take this film firstly as a political satire of South Korea lies in this difference. Keun-sae, who is also a failed businessman like Mr. Kim, is a person who blindly respects the successful people like Mr. Park. His underground shelter, filled with derelict law books in shelves and news clippings of Mr. Park, shows the character's blindness with the real world and real people. He cannot really know who Mr. Park really is because of such blind faith towards material success. A catholic artifact shown briefly in his room could be construed as a symbol for this fanatic faith of his. Mr. Kim, on the other hand, could touch the inner instability of Mr. Park since he shares the similar burden for his family. From my viewpoint, differences between those two exist because one still has the pride as patriarch inside him while the other has lost it or has given up already. Pride of being oneself, which includes the recognition as patriarch in the societal context, is not a sin in this film but is considered as if it is a basic necessity for living as a human being. Their respective attitude towards this issue, from my point of view, resembles much of left-wing and right-wing proponents in this country of South Korea. As I have mentioned before in this review, a rapid economic surge of South Korea has brought not only the fruits but also the bane to this country. To roughly make the distinction, right-wing proponents blindly praise the economic achievement of the dictatorship while the left-wing proponents tend to call out the killings and sacrifices made during that era. Not only Keun-sae unnaturally makes strange references to North Korea, which is a characteristic of political gesture from right-wing politicians here, but also his out-of-time blind faith in material success also resembles the attitudes of right-wing fanatics being hyper-realistic. On the other hand, Mr. Kim, even though he's all smiley most of the time, actually has much pent-up anger towards his situation and the world around him, an attitude which reminds me of the left-wing proponents who happen to be not so consistent between their saintly words and the worldly action.
Rather than having camaraderie among the fellow under-privileged people, Mr. Kim and Keun-sae fight each other for spilled-over trickles of water from the privileged people. Such struggle between the two naturally ends up in a brutal bloodbath. At this point, director Bong, who has had long background with the left-wing politics for some time here, unsurprisingly seem to choose the way of Mr. Kim with some reservations at bay. Even though the film smartly asserts that no person is left unharmed from criticism, much of the film's emotional sympathy in the end is evidently towards Mr. Kim's family. It's as if the film is playing the defence attorney for the Kim family by saying that there are justifications for their actions even though their acts fit the crimes in the criminal code. Just like how Mr. Ki-woo Kim sees the policemen and the doctors like they are unreal roleplayers after his injury, the film is trying to make a defensive argument that the Kim family were simply trying to play the roles that they weren't given to them by the society so that they could escape from the already-given roles of despair and poverty. Just like the advertisement phrases used in the Korean version of the film trailer, their actions are obviously punishable crimes. But, if there never were any substantive meaning in life, why can't we fake one out of nothing? Just like mythic heroes in tragedies who had no choice in what not to do, it was pre-destined for the under-previleged like the Kim family resort to bad deeds as long as they want to keep their personal pride intact. From the film's point of view, it is okay for them to disguise it as an orange and sell it to another person since the life gave them lemon from the first place.
To simply combine the two objectives I mentioned earlier in this review, it could be said that the film is lamenting tragically that money trumps the value of human welfare firstly and that you cannot do anything to escape from it even if you had the money since you would now rather ironically worry of losing it. Since money cannot cure the insecurity (esp. the insecurity of patriarchy for cases of the male characters) either you have money or not, we are supposed to give up the effort trying to make something out of nothing from within ourselves since that would be like trying to find a metaphoric meaning from a child's crude drawing.
The act of Ki-woo letting go of the fabled rock is a direct symbol for this surrender to the world. He finally realizes that all those desperate attempts to climb the social ladder was a futile one from the first place as the existence of that ladder was as fake as the meaning of his rock for him. His inner message to his trapped father is a hollow one as he does realize that it is highly likely that he cannot buy that house to save his father (Director Bong clearly mentioned in his interview that Ki-woo will never be able to buy that house). His defeat is final acceptance of his family's motto shown briefly in a calligraphy picture during the flooded house scene. That motto is '안분지족(安分知足, Ahnboonjijok)', a four Chinese-letter word meaning 'one should know his place and be happy about it'. His father Ki-taek understood that initially and probably selected it as the motto, but ultimately failed at it trying to retain himself as a proper patriarch passionately. Now his son Ki-woo is forced to follow his footsteps as if that was pre-destined by this society. The film does not actually say that one should know his place nor does it think that such surrender is a rightful consequence. But by restricting every other options other than following the natural way, as shown in the fates of every characters who desperately tried to take the fastlane in climbing the social ladder, Ki-woo's abysmal state of being stuck in that sub-surface house is practically a forced one either by the film or the real world that this film claims to have emulated.
Now I have no problems with the former part of the intended message, that money trumps human welfare in worldly matters, as I do agree that it may really be the hard truth in human lives. I mean you could also see that even in tonight's Academy Awards show. All of the film cast had to allow the largest investor of the film, who is a member of much-criticized Chaebol (a Korean term for a large blood-kin conglomerate) for Korean society's inequality issue, make the last acceptance speech, not the actual working producer who had to give speech before her. Even with all those socially conscious calls from the celebs of film industry, in the end, it's just money all the way behind those sanctimonious gestures in this real world. So, the film 'Parasite' could be said that it was ironically going full black comedy even outside the screen with its part of the message.
But then, what about the latter part of this film's seemingly intended message? Could I be comfortable with the curse from the film that we will probably be forever stuck in the lower depth of the mental? Just chewing the despair this film whole-heartedly gives to the audience even during the end credits with sad lyricism? Could I not escape from this insecurity of survival and curl myself up in despair forever? I don't necessarily think so. I could thank for the concerns given by the film, but do I really need to be pitied about this pre-destined damnation not being able to climb the social ladder or suffering this existential crisis? I highly suspect whether this film is really trying to comfort those in under-previleged social status like it supposes from its look outside. In this process of trying to conjure up your feeling of despair in real life, this film tries to remind you of the inner pride that could've been dormant if it hadn't been for this film. Like a methodical salesmanship planting the seed of needs in consumers' hearts for products, this film first tries to sell that your personal pride is not a sin but something to be kept no matter what. Then the film proceeds to add that, however through its ending, the audience will have to live with the despair of having that pride being squashed by the upper-privileged probably forever. The passive consolation or guidance that this film offers to the audience, as symbolized in the act of Ki-woo finally leaving the fabled rock in a water flow, is simply not a sufficent one for this matter of existential crisis. Just like how director Bong calls his film a 'tragi-comedy', I cannot clearly identify whether this sincerely nihilistic viewpoint of his is actually a backhanded curse or not. Rather than witnessing the certain degree of respect for the under-previleged, like 'the Bicycle Thieves' or 'Umberto D', I cannot find such respect from this film but a nihilistic pity for the audience who desperately try to make a living in their dire situations. It's like as if this film is eventually saying that it is unnatural of the poor to be happy when material situations are like that.
I mentioned previously that the theme of 'pride' is strong in recent Korean films. The one film I'd like to cite as an example, other than 'Parasite', is Director Chang-dong Lee's 2018 film 'Burning'. If you're a fan of Korean cinema, you probably have seen this film already since it's one of the renowned Korean films in recent years. So, I'm not gonna write the storyline here for the sake of brevity. To make rough comparisons, 'Parasite' and 'Burning' share the theme of pride, especially that of male pride. Protagonist in the film 'Burning' also makes a fatal and emotional mistake due to his male ego being hurt by the affluent antagonist, even though whether his mistake is something that occurs in reality or not is a highly questionable subject. The protagonist's father here is shown that he had made an emotional and violent mistake to a person which leads him to criminal prosecution, the one quite similar to situation that the father figure is put in the film 'Parasite'. Director Lee's own words on the objective of the film 'Burning' was that he wanted to portray the pent-up anger inside the young generation towards society, an objective which is also similar to that of 'Parasite' trying to make social commentary on Korean society.
Now the reason why I'm bringing up this issue of recent Korean films' thematic approach towards male pride is because I cannot agree with the same tactics they seem to use in filmmaking. In order to bolster their accusations upon the society, they first put the individuals in seemingly eternal damnation in the lower depth. And then they say that they extend their sympathies for the damnation which is technically a mere artifice created by the mind of a filmmaker. I'm not trying to say that films should always give high hopes to the audience for all their real life troubles. Blindly shedding artifical silver linings upon the under-previleged could be in itself a fake unethical approach in filmmaking. But could the tragedy of having to cope with reality only be effectively realised in such nihilistic and theoretical approach? For example, it's not the pre-destined damnation for the poor that made the film 'the Bicycle Thieves' a masterpiece. While the protagonists' situation in that film is certainly a dire one until the end realistically, there still is a glimmer of unrealistic hope at the end after going through all those anxieties in the film. The constant conscientious struggle of the protagonist in that film not only shows a bleak picture of the time portrayed, but also finds the beauty in an ordinary man struggling to keep his conscience intact from worldly temptations to act out of his way. A film like this makes you want to hope for life once more, even though the reality is still in the gutter. Films like 'Parasite' reminds you of pride residing in your heart and squeezes the despair out of it for not being realized in real life. As an young person who cannot really symphathize with this concept of male pride being hurt, I simply cannot concur with the final nihilistic diagnostics made by these kinds of films. Yes, I probably won't become an alpha patriarch within this society. And it wouldn't last long even if I happen to reach that level at some point. So what? Do I need to keep building up the constant unhappiness inside about myself and the world around me? I could only reject such hypothetical viewpoints that these so-called socially-woke films are trying out on me. Of course, I agree in a way with the points these films try to make about the real world being a corrupt failure and individuals inside constantly screeching in pain. But what's the point of making critical assessments about such already-ruined real life towards the audience who would probably know better about the real world than the artists living painfully with their heads inside the clouds? When making fictional films about real-life social issues via using certain artifices or set-ups, it seems that so many filmmakers these days make the mistake of considering their own artifices as if they are the naturally-existing parts of the real world outside the screens.
For this case of the film 'Parasite', the insecurities of living and the limited options given to the characters are not just shown as mere options for a specific family but more as symbolic representation of a social class since the film markets itself as a fable about social classes in general. Could we be making a right argument if we say that the under-previleged could only try to shake off their insecurity by committing radical violence or surrendering with abysmal depression since social ladder is a hoax? Even the director Bong himself could be cited as a counter-example to this abysmal worldview as he is a guy who diligently marched to Hollywood from his humble upbringing in provincial area of Daegu, South Korea. For the cases of male characters in the Kim family, could we really say that the vice of personal pride and its subsequent violence, especially that of a male patriarch, worthy of being recognized a symbolic representation for the poor in general? I believe that one could make a bold call-out to the director that such view may only be that of the director as he is actually a father in real life with a son in his twenties aspiring to become a film director like his father. One could further such claim by calling that the dismal universe portrayed in the film 'Parasite' is merely a personal one that lacks honesty to be taken as a symbolic representation of the poor in general. Even within Director Bong's oeuvre so far, I feel his films like 'Mother' or 'Memories of Murder' are better situated than 'Parasite' in regards to this epic exaggeration aspect of filmmaking approach.
Having mentioned all those reasons so far, I cannot whole-heartedly like this film even though this one has obviously made historic impact in terms of accolades. Like many of Director Bong's films in the past, there are no critical quips to make about technical capabilities of storytelling in this film. But, amidst the high appraisal for this film in such aspects, I cannot say that this film is really socially-conscious like it supposes nor could I say that this is really the film that our generation needs in these desperate times. Like an ill person needing medical care firstly out of all things, nihilism at its shallow depth is the last thing this world needs even if the world let us down.