Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is about as funny as anything that’s come down the pike in five or ten years, until it’s not funny anymore. The violent last half-hour is somewhat cartoonish, but it also whips your mind around as it changes gears with astonishing power.
There’s a rich family, living in a lavish home designed with the stereotypical bad taste of people with more money than sense. And there’s a poor family, stuck in cramped spaces with not much hope for the future, and an equal lack of common sense. Here, they sit in a fog of fumigation gas because they get it free from a passing truck.
So, they have a deep streak of perverse opportunism. The son of the poor family winds up as a tutor for the rich daughter struggling with her studies. He’s smart, but he’s faking his credentials, just like his sister, who worms her way into the family as an art therapist. Then, lo and behold, the boy’s father finds a way to displace the rich family’s chauffeur, and after that the poor mother eases out the rich family’s housekeeper.
You get the idea, and here’s it’s all quite hilarious as aggressive poverty triumphs over the arrogance of wealth. But established housekeepers and chauffeurs don’t give up their own comforts and incomes without a fight, and there’s other stuff lurking beneath the surface that I’m not going to mention. It turns ugly, and nasty, and you’re left with all those laughs catching in your throat.
The Korean tradition is different, but in this country Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction delighted audiences with a mix of harsh violence and comedy. In the thick of Pulp Fiction, you don’t know whether to laugh or gag, and part of Tarantino’s skill is that he gives you no guide. If your cinematic memory is on the short side, Tarantino is the one who started off all this mixed reaction stuff. But Tarantino also had his models to follow.
That blend of moods really hit American movies with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. Bonnie and Clyde isn’t laughing funny, but it’s a lark to go into a crime spree with two of the best-looking actors ever, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. The lively Bluegrass accompaniment of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs just bounces along; the chases are ecstatic – until suddenly the party ends, and the movie turns bloody and painful. The film critic of The New York Times, Bosley Crowther, thought that Bonnie and Clyde was repugnant and the end of cinema. But audiences poured into theaters to see it, and that’s about the time filmmakers realized that mixing extreme hilarity and bloody mayhem worked well, and even revealed – as movies should – the fabric of the world we live in.
For Bong Joon-Ho in Parasite, the issue boils down to the terrible and widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. Parasite does not offer a sober drama of the economic situation. It’s more like a free-for-all. After Parasite won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last May, the statement of the jury praised the film for taking on a globally important issue without passing judgment. That’s malarkey. Parasite is full of judgment – it pictures both the rich and the poor as conniving, greedy, resentful and ready to turn violent. The film just doesn’t take sides.
Parasite never lets on who is the parasite of the title; everyone is guilty in this melee of absurdity, vengeance and retribution. But the deep humanity of the movie comes from the image that we are all in it together, that we poor human beings live at the mercy of our reptilian brains. But the possibility of doing better is still alive.