Now seems like a good time to mention the film “Parasite.” It’s being hailed as one of the best films of the year and is playing at the local Davenport theater(s), even though it is sub-titled because the South Korean leads speak only that country’s language. It is a new offering from fifty-year-old director Joon-ho Bong as Bong Joon-ho. (The rest of the names don’t get any easier, so bear with me). Since the film obviously managed to get widespread distribution, why not dub it for English-speaking audiences? (No idea what the answer to that may be.)
As we left the theater, one of the theater employees tasked with cleaning up, asked, “Is it any good?”
With only a second or two to respond, I said, “Yes, it’s worth seeing, as long as you don’t mind sub-titles. It’s original.” Indeed, it has been described with many other superlatives, including “brilliant,” “hysterical,” “astonishing,” “amazing,” “inventive” and whatever other positive terms you care to select. It did well at Cannes and has had 23 wins and 26 nominations in various competitions. I was told by a friend whose opinion I respect that it was her “favorite film at TIFF.” (Toronto International Film Festival)
So, having warned my companion that we were in for a foreign language film, but one with a director responsible for “Snowpiercer” (2013), “Okja” (2017) and now this, we were not unhappy viewing the original tale of a South Korean family and how they schemed together to fleece their rich employers. Line from script: “If you have a plan, nothing works out at all.”
If you watch the trailer, you will see that the family was not living on easy street. In fact, they weren’t living ON a street at all, but in a sub-terranean sub-basement of sorts that looked awful (especially after a heavy rainfall that floods it). The mother and father and their nearly adult son and daughter are out-of-work. They are shown folding pizza boxes to make money early on in the film.
One thing you can learn from this film is what the job market is like in South Korea. The answer is that, for every chauffeur job that opens up, there are roughly 500 college graduates waiting to fill it. Getting an education is stressed as very important and the idea of hiring tutors, which is essentially Asian, aided me immensely in my nearly 20 years as the owner of a Sylvan Learning Center.
Because the job market is so tight, and because North Korea is so close to its neighbor, this film might not be as easy to move from its South Korean setting to a setting in the United States. Why not?
Ninety per cent of the plot hinges on the house where the rich family lives—a family which ends up hiring all of the poor family’s members, without even knowing that they are related. Only the small boy in the well-to-do family figures out that they all smell alike, and he isn’t really given that much credit for having figured out the poor family’s secret connection. The son is a spoiled brat of a rich kid, yes, who paints primitive paintings that his doting family hangs on the walls and who insists on camping out in the back yard inside his American Indian teepee, but the small child’s perceptive realizations (“And a little child shall lead them”) are largely ignored by his family until disaster strikes.
The out-of-work have-nots get a foothold in the rich family’s good graces through their son, who goes to work as a tutor for the rich family’s daughter. After that, the now-trusted tutor brings in his sister (who is told to say her name is Jessica and that she attended art school at Illinois State) as an art therapist for the seemingly disturbed little brother in the home. One humorous scene involves the boy’s framed art work, which the young tutor assumes is of a monkey, only to be told that it is the young child’s “self portrait.” (“The schizophrenia zone is the lower right corner.”) Eventually, the tutor’s father becomes chauffeur to the household and the tutor’s mother replaces the old housekeeper.
Getting Mom into the house as the new housekeeper means getting rid of the old housekeeper. The old housekeeper’s allergy to peaches is used as a method to discredit her in the eyes of the master of the house, with the suggestion that she has contagious tuberculosis. She doesn’t, of course, but she does have a husband hiding in the basement of the home, a key point in the second and third act development of the plot.
We wondered if the owners of the house were fully aware of this subterranean underground home that rests beneath the main house, or if its existence was not admitted to them by the famous architect who designed the home with this “fail safe” bunker, in case North Korea were to launch rockets aimed at South Korea.
It is this plot detail regarding the hostile North Korean neighbors to the north that makes me wonder if this film’s plot could easily be lifted and moved to America, as was done with “In the Order of Disappearance” when it became “Cold Pursuit” with Liam Neeson. In that case, the Scandinavian setting was replaced with Denver and Las Vegas, which didn’t really work for me, but this film has to have a house with an underground tunnel-like bunker built beneath it. That underground house, as it turns out, has become home to the housekeeper’s unemployed spouse, who has lived there for three and one-half years!
The husband of the old housekeeper is “kewl” with living underground and rarely venturing forth because he is also unable to claim a government-funded pension when he grows old. The reasons have to do with the way the South Korean government operates. I don’t pretend to understand all of that. It reminded me of a report on “Sixty Minutes” about Chinese families who had more than one child and that “illegal” child becomes “stateless” because the government used to have an “official” policy of only one child per family. You might liken it in this country to being an illegal immigrant who has no documents of the sort that American workers are expected to have, such as social security or Medicare/Medicaid cards. Undocumented workers probably exist in every country to some extent (Arabs working in Israel, for example), but, in this case, it is his bleak future as an unemployed and unemployable worker that keeps the old housekeeper’s husband happily imprisoned in a downstairs series of rooms where much of the second-half of the film’s action takes place.
The film is obviously a commentary on the “haves” of South Korea versus the “have nots.” Bernie Sanders would fit right in decrying the status of the “have nots.” The down-and-out family that is taking advantage of their rich benefactors represent way too many people on the planet, and the wealthy 1% represent “the Korean dream.”
In that context, the oldest son does, in a sense, eventually achieve the Korean dream, but at what price glory? Script line: “If you make a plan, life never works out at all. With no plan, nothing can go wrong.” Or right.