Monday, January 25, 2021

A Disturbing Masterpiece

I finally had a chance to watch Parasite, the South Korean film by director Bong Joon-ho that has been receiving both popular and critical accolades this past year. While I agree that it is a masterpiece of filmmaking and storytelling, I have to temper this statement by adding that I find it to be a disturbing masterpiece. 


A family of con artists from the lowest social stratum of South Korean society scams their way into the life of a wealthy family. Their plans were going smoothly, when an unexpected development leads to a battle between different parasites, and ultimately, tragedy. 


Personally, I feel that this movie can be looked at from many different angles. We can view it as a sociological study, highlighting the large chasm between the “haves” and “have-nots” in modern society. We can look at it as a psychological study, of how human beings could manipulate the minds of others. We can see it as a cautionary tale, or a morality play, that evil deeds will not go unpunished. We can even look at it from a theological standpoint - a parable of how the devil works – by insinuation, manipulation, and by spreading falsehood.


In the beginning of the film, we see that this family of con artists is destitute. They live in a sub-basement, and they even have to “bum” the Wi-Fi of neighbours or restaurants nearby. One day, the son is asked by a friend to tutor the daughter of a rich family who lives in a house worthy of Architectural Digest, and there the story begins. Who do we blame for the ultimate tragedy? Is it, as they say, society’s fault, that these people have to resort to such extreme measures in order to survive? Is the director making a comment about current South Korean society or, for that matter, modern society in general? Of course, these are questions without answers. Watch the film and judge for yourself.


The director really highlights the stark contrast between the living conditions of the rich and poor, and yet, the wealthy people are not cast in a negative light. They are successful, and live well, but they are, even for the mother of the poor family, “nice”, if highly na├»ve, even gullible. But she then adds, “If I were rich, I would be nice too.”


This film also offers a glimpse into the depths of the wickedness of man, of psychological manipulation to achieve one’s ends, and of how easily it is to manipulate someone, as well as how human beings can be so easily manipulated sometimes. Once the con artists made their first dent in the wealthy family’s psyche, there is no stopping them. 


As a morality tale, I could not help but think whether justice is done at the end, or if the con artists got what they deserved. Of course, from a Judeo-Christian standpoint, wickedness and evil are not always punished in this lifetime. This present film reminds me very much of C. S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters, a satirical novel where a senior devil instructs a junior one how to lead a man to “Our Father Below”, which is of course the devil. In the film, the con artists use every trick in the devil’s playbook, looking for weaknesses in each of the family member and attacking it accordingly – insinuating, spreading lies and falsehoods, obfuscating, and manipulating. The novel, however, is written in a much more lighthearted manner. The present film has a much darker way of conveying the same message.


This is not an “enjoyable” film experience, not in our usual definition of movie as a way of enjoying our leisure. It is, in a way, a very difficult film to watch, to witness the unfolding of evil acts. Many friends say that they had trouble getting through it. To watch the innocent family being toyed with like laboratory animals is an almost oppressive experience that leaves me holding my breath many times. 


As much as I admire this stunning piece of filmmaking, I do find the sum of the experience somewhat unsatisfactory, and I come away with the feeling of having lived through an unsettling experience. There seems to be a lack of some degree of resolution, not a “happily ever after” type of resolution, but a rationalization of the irrational events described in the story. I guess for me what is missing at the end is some sense of redemption. That said, perhaps that is exactly what the director intended, to highlight the absurdity of real life.


Parasite is a sobering tale about the human condition, as well as humanity itself. It is a masterpiece to be sure, but as much as something portray evil can be referred to as such.