It’s a rare time in my life when I’m catching movies as they’re coming out. Truth be told I struggle to keep up with releases, and am often catching the talked about films much later when the hype has died down. But Parasite (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2019) is still very much boiling away in the current cultural melting pot, at least where I am. From the outside the world has seemingly “woken up” to the import of Korean cinema, or at the very least from a few select and eccentric male auteurs. One of cinema’s best abilities has always been its ability to cross transnational boundaries, the image tells a story (with the aid of translation) which I can understand, a person who doesn’t know the language of Korean. And Parasite is another example of that, but what else is resonating in Parasite to make it bubble away in the focus of the cultural eye?
Well the easy answer is a lot, because Parasite is a very good film.
Often I’ll deconstruct a film when I write these, wanting to separate its elements, to analyse and focus on what gives them (for me) both meaning and excellence. And while I could give the same treatment to Parasite, it’s more interesting to me right now to try and contemplate on what Parasite wants to communicate to us. What story is Parasite trying to tell, why? Why does Bong Joon-ho open this cinematic portal to us? I think in an age where media is more accessible than ever, and media consumption only increases, it is easier than ever to only engage with film from an entertainment perspective. Even for those who love and enjoy cinema for more than it’s purely spectacle inducing qualities, the stars and the special effects and etc, it is harder than ever to pay homage to or even contemplate what movies can truly do. Maybe it’s elitist to say, but with distractions more rife than ever I know I find it difficult in between life, in between laziness and in between the lows to find time to pay attention to cinema.
Maybe Bong Joon-ho agrees with me, or disagrees, or doesn’t care. The director’s words are an authority, but to run to him for the answers and/or for the “proper” meaning or reasons Parasite exists is a mistake. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to him, he’s a gifted visionary and probably has a lot of wisdom under his belt. But also art has always been a conversation between artists and the world around them, and to grow a film experience is only one part, while its’ absorption and digestion by an audience is another. Film’s are constructed experiences and perspectives, and they have more than enough dimensions to accomodate how you see them, not just how the director does. A horse can be taken to water, but it cannot be made to drink.
So what grows out of Parasite? A vision of a home, a vision of shelter. A vision of family, a vision of animals. A vision of turmoil, a vision of the soil of the Earth. Our family, or at the least one Bong Joon-ho asks us to gravitate towards, is a family which lives in an environment, in the layers of the world that surround us too. They try to get employment, they manipulate a wealthier, “classier” family into siphoning their money towards them, feeding off of the world around them. The different tribes and insects of the environment act and react towards each other, circling and twisting and attacking and defending. The home space begins to take on definitions beyond it’s surface. The walls contain characters from each other, allowing developments such as when the son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-shik) can begin flirting with Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). Hiding places begin to reveal themselves in plain sight, as the architecture of the building itself is explored by the families. The environments of our lives contain these structures, we all have our houses and they all have their spots that we may or may not know about. Our vision only lets us see so much, and we’ll never know the full extent of our shelter’s and their collective experiences.
So is this what resonates with us? After all humans enjoy watching other humans, and it is not hard to see the conflicts unfolding in Parasite and understand, relate to or even empathise with any and all of the characters in the film at any particular point. The terrarium they live in, which we observe with patience and an ability beyond our usual bounds, is one where we can see ourselves in it. Our yearnings for family, stability, the complex and shifting layers of social communication we build up over time with the people around us. The parasites of this world make up the fabric of it, and we become draped in their mind’s clothes. As the environment’s fabric becomes stressed, torn and ripped apart, so too does our relations to them. Change comes to all, but the twisting and unexpected changes which come to fruition through the house resonate with us because they are reflective of the unanticipated consequences of real life, of discovering secrets in the unknown which can’t be put back in their boxes.
Film engages in a double edged trick. It is not real, but it is often designed to ‘feel real’. The easiest metaphor to make is that it is a parasite, feeding off our dreams and imaginations and bringing them into existence. We relate to the constructed mock-ups of humanity, in a terrarium we watch imagined characters play out imagined conflicts. We judge, align, pick and choose where we are in relation to the world of the film, grounding ourselves in a vision of humanity enclosed away from our interaction. Maybe that is just the resonance we get out of films, maybe it isn’t really all that deep. Maybe Parasite bubbles briefly in the cultural consciousness because it’s a film about people and people are interested in people.
But then being a parasite, or being a human, or being anything inbetween isn’t summed up by just an easy word. Parasite’s frames show us that the experience of life, on every level through whatever structures we pass through, spend time in, are played out on a landscape which is far more complicated than we could ever understand, and all we can hope to do is navigate it well enough to survive, feed and hope for better times. I don’t think I could ever properly answer what’s happening to make Parasite the centre of attention now, but at the very least I can try to do justice to what I can see emanating from the film, what kind of resonance it wants to evoke in the final piece of the cinema experience.
You watching it.
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