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Five Cent Cine: Parasite

The Plan That Never Fails

The underclass lives below ground, literally, and the upper class above it, in the latest film to deal with class inequality, Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s Palme d’Or-winning “Parasite.”

“Parasite” opens with a traditional story of a family that is down on its luck, but clever and resourceful. Locked out of a neighbor’s internet, the daughter, Ki-jung (So-dam Park), and son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), find they can access a café Wi-Fi by sitting on their toilet, high on a ledge in their basement apartment.

This petty resourcefulness takes on another dimension when the Kims engage in a seemingly benign and entertaining con-game, in which they pretend not to be related—and to have skills they don’t possess—as they take four relatively menial jobs with the elite, above-ground Park family.

In contrast to the Kims’ basement existence, the Parks live in an architect-designed glass house—a powerful symbol of upper-class status—with a large lawn and garden, protected from the street by impenetrable high walls, a kind of life the Kims have never seen.

That’s how the Korean “upstairs/downstairs” begins. So far, lots of fun.

The con goes well, and when the Parks go on a camping trip, the Kims take over the house, drinking and eating and carousing in the living room as if, well, they owned the place. Ki-woo imagines dating his pupil, Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), and the Kim family dreamily fantasizes about becoming in-laws to the Parks. When the former housekeeper (Jeong-eun Lee) shows up at the door, she brings in with her an ill wind, and a bizarre new set of challenges for the Kims—one of them, appropriately, in the Parks’ basement.

In an obvious turn, a driving rainstorm brings the Parks home early from camping, initiating a madcap/slapstick portion of the film, but also a descent into a moral morass, along with a series of unpredictable events that reveal even more about the working poor, basement-dwellers, and the egotism of the elite.

The next day the Parks put on a spontaneous and elaborate garden birthday party for their son, Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung), requiring the Kims—now in full survival mode at a community shelter—to come to work to assist them in feting the little hellion. Upstairs/downstairs is one thing, but this is the life of the rich thrown in the faces of the working poor. Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), the Kim father, finds himself behind a bush in Indian headdress with the Park father (Sun-kyun Lee), forced to participate in a skit for the guest of honor. He questions Mr. Park about his reasons for being there. “You’re getting paid extra,” Mr. Park scolds him—sufficient compensation for ritual humiliation. In remarks overheard by Ki-taek, the Parks share their conclusion that the Kims “smell.” To the elites, class divisions involve money and status, but also body odor.

Part biting satire, part slapstick, part wistful dreaming, part horror— ‘Parasite’ keeps the audience guessing, and on edge.

What follows is excessive, but also to some degree, understandable. The Parks are blind—blind to the underclass’s resilience, to their quest for self-improvement, to their instincts for self-preservation and survival. Secure in their fortified house of glass, they can’t see that the working poor—their employees—lack the resources and support systems to handle a crisis, to rebound from adversity. Ki-taek, the film’s Everyman, explains to his son the basic contingency of life: “You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned.”

The success of “Parasite” depends in part on the nuanced characters Bong Joon Ho develops. Ki-woo, the Kim son, has a stronger sense of morality than his manipulative and egoistic sister. The elite Mrs. Park (Yeo-jeong Jo) is comically simple and gullible, a perfect foil for the Kims’ con-game. And Mr. Park, far from being an arrogant, unfeeling businessman, appears to have a modicum of appreciation for Mr. Kim—at least until it’s his own family that needs help.

Part biting satire, part slapstick, part wistful dreaming, part horror— “Parasite” keeps the audience guessing, and on edge. As an exploration of class disparity, it succeeds where “Joker” tries and fails, where “Us” tries too hard, and where “Downton Abbey” doesn’t even try. The only comparable film may be 2018’s “Shoplifters,” and that’s putting it in good company.


Director: Bong Joon Ho

Starring: Kang-ho Song, Yeo-jeong Jo, So-dam Park, Woo-sik Choi, Sun-kyun Lee, Hye-jin Jang, Jeong-eun Lee, Ji-so Jung, Hyun-jun Jung

Four stars | Based on a 4 Star top rating

Language: Korean; subtitled English

Runtime: 132 minutes

Parasite is showing at Eastern Hills Mall Cinema (Dipson)

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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