Friday 7 February 2020

Upstairs/downstairs: "Parasite"

In the nine months it's taken to reach UK screens, Bong Joon Ho's Parasite has become the runaway popular hit of awards season. After winning the Palme d'Or in Cannes last May - becoming the first Korean film to do so - it went on to prove a sleeper success in North American and European markets alike, in several instances comprehensively outperforming starrier fare. Stand aside, Jojo Rabbit, here is the real People's Choice. Anybody left wondering why the film has struck such a chord would do well to consider its synopsis. Parasite is the story of a low-income family who spy an opportunity to move out of their squalid basement flat when their son lands a job tutoring the daughter of a rich family on the other side of the tracks; having eased his feet firmly under the designer kitchen table, the lad promptly finds ever more extreme ways to install his mother, father and sister in the same household. Here, then, is a social-realist scenario reshaped as eat-the-rich revenge thriller; the latest update of that enduring arthouse fave Theorem; or, perhaps, the business of the 2018 Cannes winner Shoplifters reworked by a genre specialist into a more commercial form yet. There's even an extent to which Parasite serves as a variation on the extended narrative and formal joke Bong first ventured back in his 2013 film Snowpiercer. Instead of keeping the rich and the poor at arm's length, as so much of the modern world seems set up to facilitate, why not cram as many representatives of both camps in the same space for a bit? What's the worst that could happen? 

The film's success would suggest that mass audiences, lured out of their own basement flats, haven't quite lost their collective eye and ear for a good story well told. In many ways, Bong is like the bright-spark son (Choi Woo-Sik) when he first shows up at the Park clan's spacious yet walled-off property: he spies a crack in his target's defences, and confidently bounds straight through it. For an hour, during which we watch the son win a nannying gig for his sister (Park So-Dam), and the sister leaving her underwear in Mr. Park's car so as to get her dad (Song Kang-Ho) a job as a driver, and the entire family deploying a peach to replace the Parks' housekeeper with their own matriarch, Parasite simply offers the always enjoyable sensation of having our sympathies bounced around like basketballs. Bong knows that any audience showing up at the movies (rather than, say, the opera) of a Saturday night is likely to side with the Morlocks of his tale, yet while we may admire these upstarts' pluck and cunning, they remain opportunists; any uneasiness at that can be offset against an understanding that rank opportunism may be the only way some people have left to get by. Similarly, while the Parks may be neatfreaks - a youngish pair (Lee Sun-Kyun and Jo Yeo-Jeong) who've had the great fortune to take on one of recent cinema's most aspirational properties, and naturally want to keep it well-stocked, well-ordered and under control - they're not monsters, exactly, just insulated against the struggles of life. What follows is a rude awakening and an insurrection, skilfully mounted by a cast of representative types who mesh and bristle according to the demands of the plot.

That plot is mathematical, for the most part; it feels fully worked out, as opposed to all those Western thrillers that smash the numbers together and then wonder why nothing's adding up. Parasite begins with iniquity, achieves a kind of equilibrium around its halfway mark, as both families are installed under the same roof, and then descends into bloody chaos with the revelation that this property has its own basement, and that nobody on screen is as secure as they seem. Bong lets us know precisely where his characters stand in relation to one another (economically, as well as physically), even in the midst of expertly fraught setpieces where we're set to consider whether it might have been easier to get into this property than it is to get out. This director isn't averse to having one of his characters hide under a bed, like any number of the intruders in Nineties hider-in-the-house fare, but equally he can reach for something unique and culturally specific, like a clean-up operation set against the eight minutes required to make the perfect bowl of ram-don. Every time, he returns us squarely to a kicker situation: that of the moneyed class living in blithe ignorance of the sufferings of those living around and beneath them. Yet a brilliant, melancholy coda - wise to the separation and interpersonal distance that now seems endemic under capitalism, the traps set for us by the rat race - underlines how Bong has more on his mind than superlative cheap thrills. Ever since his international breakthrough with 2003's Memories of Murder, one of this century's first masterpieces, this filmmaker has been riffing with enormous skill and verve on the notion that the people at the top aren't as qualified as they used to be, which is why the world no longer functions as well and as fairly as it should. The rational logic and remarkably assured tonal shifts of his storytelling here serves as its own corrective to that, a reassurance that we still have at least one person in a position of power who merits it, and is doing good. Otherwise, you feel Parasite's tremendous success can only be attributed to one very stark fact: that audiences from Seoul to Seattle (and now Salford) finally feel as though they've been seen. Release the hounds, or let slip the dogs of class war?

Parasite opens in selected cinemas from today.

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