Parasite (2019), a rare visit to South Korean movies for the assembled, had club members reaching for Tarantino references as we disassembled, slightly agog, from Luna Sx.
But it was the loquacious Dr MacDonald who nailed it best: “Tarantino, the Coen Brothers and elements of French farce.”
Strange combination but there was a complete mood shift in Parasite which reminded me of the Quentin Tarantino-written From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) where two US bank robbers (George Clooney and Tarantino) take hostage a family headed by Harvey Keitel and use their mobile home as an escape route to Mexico.
This trots along well until they reach a remote and scungy strip joint called the Titty Twister.
Here, waitress cum stripper Salma Hayek gets insulted by a male customer, her head peels in half to reveal some form of Gila monster living within, and she bites off the bloke’s head. Hidden monsters, zombies and horror abound. The movie completely lost its credibility.
Something similar happens in Parasite. The turn of events is unexpected and shocking – but poise retained on an ever-so-delicate keel. This turning point was discussed but I offer a different timing to that proffered in our post-film discussion.
First, some storyline to give context: The Ki family lives in out-of-work poverty in a sub-basement of a poor Seoul neighbourhood. (Cast list provided at the end to make the reading easier).
Dad comes across as a loving failure, Mum is a former medal-winning hammer thrower, daughter Ki-jeung and son Ki-woo are bright kids denied opportunity.
When it knocks, Ki-woo, through deception and forgery, becomes tutor to Da-hye, teenage daughter of the very wealthy Park family. They live in a luxury home, designed and formerly occupied by a famous architect.
Mr Park works hard, his wife Yeon-kyo is a helicopter mum with no idea how to run a household and their other child, small boy Da-song has been traumatised through an event on an earlier birthday. The household is reliably run by Moon-gwang, a leftover from the architect’s days.
With careful planning, the Ki family inveigles the premises. Daughter becomes the boy’s art teacher, father becomes the driver and mother the housekeeper. The Parks have no idea they are one family.
The Kis are all earning good money and the Parks are getting good, though unqualified, service.
Life is good. Just so long as they don’t “cross the line”, an expression Mr Park uses to differentiate the rich and the poor; the employer and the servant.
All is going well until the Kis can’t help themselves. When the Parks go on a camping holiday for Da-song’s birthday, the poor family lounge about the mansion, drinking all the Park’s best liquor. Glasses and bottles are smashed.
To my mind, this is where the turning point comes. Ki-woo (patronisingly re-named Kevin by Mrs Park) asks his family if they fit in where they are.
Answering his own question, he tells his sister (the master forger and actress) she does but, by omission, that he and Mum and Dad do not. As he talks, Ki-jeong lolls on a settee drinking expensive liquor from the bottle.
The Ki family has reverted to type. They cannot escape their backgrounding, no matter the opportunity.
When the doorbell rings and the dismissed housekeeper Moon-gwang returns to the story, the plot takes a sharp turn.
From here, Parasite is in a different genre. The class struggles of rich and poor; the gentle and sometimes brutal bullying of the player with the upper hand, are heightened.
Surprises abound and, without spoiling, there is one key scene where the fawning Moon-gwang, so grateful to be let back into the house at such an hour on such a rainy night, turns immediately into a blackmailing harridan when the Kis’ deception is revealed.
No more plot from here but some scenes are worth mentioning.
When the Parks return unexpectedly, Mr Ki, son and daughter escape the house and run home in torrential rain. Their journey from the heaven of the mansion to their own private hell is shown by the many steep staircases they descend.
Moon-gwang vomits into a toilet in the mansion and raw sewage bubbles from a loo in the Ki basement.
Mr and Mrs Park make love in their sitting room with the Ki family hiding from them beneath a big coffee table. As he fondles her, she asks him to go “clockwise” (an unlikely homage to the bar name in From Dusk Till Dawn?). Hurtful things are said about their staff in private. The Parks “cross the line.”
The Parks’ surface-egalitarianism is balanced by the Kis’ servitude until the line is crossed. However, deception can only last so long.
“Respect” becomes a key indicator in the last part of Parasite. Rich and poor can co-exist if they show respect to each other. So too can humankind, remembering Korea is split into two other very different societies, North and South
Director-producer-co-writer Joon Ho Bong has won a Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Sydney Film Festival’s official competition prize with this strikingly different film. All I can add is more power to him.
There was more power. Parasite became the first foreign language film to win the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards.
Kang Ho-song Father
Jang Hyejin Mother
Park So-dam Daughter
Choi Woo-shik Son
Lee Syun-gyun Father
Cho Yeo-jeong Mother
Jeong Ji-so Daughter
Jeong Hyun-Joon Son