September 26, 2019

VIFF 2019 | Class Conflict – Bong Joon-ho Smells A 'Parasite'

"Money is an iron. It smooths out all the creases."
VIFF 2019South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho brings a Hitchcock-esque sense of suspense to his latest domestic thriller, Parasite (aka Gisaengchung). Full of twisty drama and sharply executed satire surrounding class struggle and socioeconomic anxieties, the Palme d'Or winner is a crackling picture about impoverished small-time con artists manipulating an idealized affluent family.

Starring Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin, Choi Woo-shik, and Park So-dam as a struggling, working-class family of four (parents, adult son and daughter), the unemployed Kims use sly deception and carefully constructed lies to quickly improve their lot in life before a series of clashes set off the central conflict of sudden desperation.

Bong frames the story as deceptively conventional at first. Our main characters work menial gig jobs to make ends meet before jumping on an opportunity to run a tutoring scam on a nice, rich family (Lee Sun-kyun, Choi Yeon-kyo, Jung Ji-so, and Jung Hyun-joon as the Parks) through a lucky connection. What follows are sequences that unfold like tightly set up narrative tricks to reveal its really taught drama of simmering class warfare despite the harmonious appearance.

There's so much rich comedy about how the haves can be easily manipulated and the only thing that separates them from the have-nots are comfort and opportunity. Bong constructs the wealthy family as nothing but nice, well-meaning, generous, and inviting yet they are easily exploited due to their naïvety and trusting nature. However, this makes them gullible as they lose touch with what it takes to maintain their wealth and lifestyle over time. They also deftly avoid conflict and use money and power to shield themselves from confrontation.

Bong Joon-ho | Parasite | VIFF 2019

We also understand the plight of the desperate but hardworking Kims who we cannot help but root for. Despite their conning ways, they do their actual jobs well in spite of the sophisticated lies they tell. They're self-interested and self-dealing much in the way rich can be.

These characterizations are layered, deep, and comment on common conceptions of class. There are no conventional heroes or villains. Everyone behaves and reacts logically in their best interests trying to avoid crossing any lines. That's the key to Bong's narrative. We follow different character motivations acutely before the turns rachet up the tension.

Bong's dramatization of criminal behaviour and crimes amongst the impoverished against each other have so much deep subtext that avoids any pitfalls of stereotypes while using real-world situations to drive up the tension of poverty.

Parasite feels like a series of filmmaking tricks where Bong's mastery of cinematic form and storytelling let his urgent tragicomedy of class warfare patiently unfold in such theatrically satisfying ways. Fundamentally, the rich underestimate the resourcefulness or intelligence of the poor and crime is often a result of situational desperation.

Parasite screens at the 2019 Vancouver International Film Festival as part of the Panorama stream at The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts and opens on October 25th.

Update: Parasite won VIFF's annual Super Channel People's Choice Award as voted by audiences.

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