Why “Parasite” is the Perfect Product of Our Times

Parasite Movie Poster

If a master of genre storytelling makes a comedy-thriller that wins the Palme d’Or, distributors can’t be blamed for feeling cautiously optimistic about it. Except that the movie happens to be South Korean.

So?

It means that the movie is expected to be slotted into the “Best International Film” category. And besides, it has to beat the Academy’s prejudice for the “one-inch subtitle bar”.

And?

And that the movie can be safely cast aside as not holding much global appeal.

Nah! Pretty small hurdles for Parasite- a movie for the ages, an example of colossal cinema.

Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite uses the audience as its hosts as it aesthetically engages us to witness a tale of class inequality and deceit. A simple tale, deeply sad and at the same time very comic and spontaneous, at once becomes an anti-capitalist fable, a psychological study, and a cinema marvel. In no time, the movie asserts its global appeal, its everyman identity.

By now, the Academy sits back and notices. And when the time comes- in a moment of true acknowledgment- its body not only nominates the movie but also ensures that it wins.

There is something about Parasite which makes it the perfect product of our times.

Parasite is the story of a down-on-its-luck family and its elaborately doctored plan to worm its way into a rich household.

The story revolves around a poor family (Kims) of four that folds pizza boxes to earn a living. One day, the son, through dubious means, gains entry into the rich Park household. Getting in as a tutor to the Park family’s teenage daughter, he gets his sister (as an art therapist), father (as a driver), and mother (as a housekeeper) inside the home, one by one. All by foul means and at real costs for others!

Enjoying the new-found perks of mingling with the rich, the poor Kim family starts settling into a comfortable (yet ill-gotten) life till their idyll is shattered by a family secretly living in Park’s basement. (the South Korean rich have basement bunkers as a contingency plan against the North Korean bomb strike.)

The story, with a couple of high-quality plot twists, moves towards a totally unexpected climax. This is as much as anyone has been allowed to talk about Parasite. (In fact, its North American distributor, Neon, was asked to make the movie’s American trailer based on only the first half of the cinema footage.)

So who is the parasite, Bong asks? The poor Kim family; one that schemes to get inside the rich household, looking for shortcuts to a comfortable life? The couple in the basement; the husband lives secretly for 4 years, passing his fugitive days in safety? Or the Parks themselves; the rich who outsource everything to the downtrodden class to make their own lives more luxurious?

Or maybe the movie is saying we are all parasites, turned parasitic by a social system that uses our common humanity as host.

Bong Joon-ho uses stairs as a metaphor for classes. The Kim family keeps taking the stairs; ascending the stairs to reach the rich household, descending it to come back to their homes.

When the city gets flooded, the Park’s camping plan goes awry but in a subtle yet heart-wrenching scene, Joon-ho shows how the whole life of the poor Kim family is thrown into chaos (right up to the overflooding lavatory).

The Sun that shines bounteously and at all hours in the Park’s garden is completely absent in the semi-basement apartment of the Kim family. Needless to say, the Sun is a no-hoper in the bunker.

In thus exhibiting the struggle rendered by income inequality- where the poor just want a look in, not bothered about the costs- Parasite becomes the perfect story of our times. A time when global inequality has made the gulf so difficult to bridge that the redistribution loops have at best been generating only a trickle-down effect.

Of course, the movie still treads the road of Decent Capitalism, in that it shows that the rich, apart from the pain they cause by being rich, are actually decent people. Mrs. Parks is not only gullible but very kind and affectionate. Mr. Parks is mild-mannered. In a curious inversion of attitudes, it is not the rich but the poor Kim family that is shown to play foul and even sinister. One feels, it is as much ground as Joon-ho could concede while still keeping the story tilted towards anti-capitalism.

It is a terrific film; one that uses Claude Chabrol’s La Ceremonie’s plot, Jacques Tati’s alienation techniques and style (Playtime), Hitchcockian setting (Psycho like bunker), and Kubrick’s cinematography (Barry Lyndon) but still dishes out an entirely original moment in the history of cinema.

To add, Parasite’s message is topical. Its appeal is global. It is executed really well- in terms of style, form, and content. Its narrative devices are perfectly placed.

And yet, could even such abundance have been enough to convince the Academy?

I don’t think so.

Parasite’s PR and Marketing campaign

It took a village to turn Parasite into a multiple Oscar winner, the hard yards done by Bong Joon-ho notwithstanding.

The first thing that moved Mara Buxbaum (Strategist and Publicist) was the film’s immediate commercial accessibility despite being an arthouse film of Foreign category. It was still, however, a gut call for Buxbaum as she convinced Bong to look beyond a Foreign Category nomination.

She wanted Bong to believe that the film had the moves to bag the big Oscar prizes.

At the Telluride Film Festival, which was first up after the Palme d’Or, Buxbaum was vindicated. On many occasions, we are moved in a special way by an art source. We want others to be shaken similarly. It does not happen and the moment passes. Sometimes though, rarely but surely, the feeling inside us resonates everywhere. This is just what happened with Parasite.

It is not written anywhere that a foreign-film cannot win Best Picture. That it has never happened doesn’t mean it can’t. You just have to “get the movie seen, get people thinking beyond Best International Feature Film”, felt Buxbaum.

Buxbaum was not dreaming alone now. Bong Joon-ho had joined her, throwing his initial apprehension aside. Convinced of a grand fate for his movie (after Cannes, Palme D’Or, and Telluride), Bong had shifted to Los Angeles to take the movie to London, New York, Toronto, and just about everywhere he could. Neon, Tom Quinn’s Distribution company, put its weight behind Parasite.

Riding on an avalanche of public affection, the belief of Bong/Buxbaum, and fierce PR and marketing by Neon (they hired Cinetic, Perception PR, Acme PR, among others), Parasite made quick strides.

All certainty is tailed by doubt. But even such doubts were put at rest when the Screen Actors Guild Award came Parasite’s way. It was a classic reaffirmation because it came from the acting fraternity itself.

With Martin Scorcese (his The Irishman was a co-nominee at the Oscars) lauding him and Quentin Tarantino declaring himself a fan, Bong- after having seen a lot of critical acclaim in the past without much box office success- was finally looking like one who belonged.

Nobody wanted history to accelerate from beneath their feet. Nobody wanted to be left out. One only does things one can’t get out of doing. The Academy, in all truth, couldn’t get out of choosing Parasite as the Best Picture. That it did so with a lot of grace adds to the beauty of the Parasite episode.

What does this victory mean for foreign cinema?

Parasite’s victory, however, may mean nothing if big studio houses don’t start backing riskier ventures. Looking beyond the euphoria it has generated, we can contest that a big studio house like CJ only backed Parasite because it was to be helmed by Bong, a master auteur. But what hope do little-known directors with a radical or less global idea have? Darcy Paquet, an American Film Scholar believes, “If Bong Joon-ho were a new director today, and he took that same script for Parasite to any of the major studios, he most likely would have been turned down”.

South Korea’s movie industry has come alive over the last two decades, and like an achiever who does not want to make a single false move, the big studios do not want to take up any risky venture that does not make strong business logic. Such stuff is for the Indie houses, they feel.

It is a global story. It is hoped that big studios will now find the courage to back a director’s vision more. It helps that times have changed. Unlike in the past, America can now appreciate foreign movies. And this paradigm shift will reflect in the Academy’s future choices, rest assured Studio houses.

Agreed that it was different in the past.

It is well-known how America kept a protectionist stance towards its cinema (while advocating Free Market elsewhere), working hard on creating an illusion that foreign movies were inferior and that they had immature content.

This was a putoff for the French, Swedish, Russian, and Italian Auteurs. After all, it needed a lot of convincing that foreign auteurs like Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Godard, Bunuel, or Tarkovsky were less gifted than American masters like Hitchcock, Lang, Welles, and Kubrick. Many believed that while there was more money in American cinema, Europe had all the styles (the French New Wave strengthened the belief). And yet the dice was loaded heavily in favor of the US.

America cannot be blamed. It was building an unprecedented movie industry (compensating style and form with technique and high production costs). Buoyed by the outcome of the First World War, it had started breaking the European stronghold on cinema. It could be art for Europe but it was business (above else) for America. Imagine this: even in 2000, the dollar ratio between America’s movie export to Europe and America’s movie import from Europe was 1500:1

It is not hard to decipher that accepting foreign movies as Best Picture could not have been thinkable for the Academy back then. Today it is.

For all its candy-floss treatment (at least in the first half), Parasite is a challenging film. If such a film has a sizable audience, it means that modern viewers are ready for a cerebral experience. One, if big studios can understand this and green-flag risky cinema and two, if the low-interest rates, globally, push a part of investment money into the movie industry, the victory of Parasite can surely usher us into an age of Entertainment Internationalism.

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Shashank Shekhar

CEO of InstaMortgage, the fastest-growing private company in Silicon Valley. Host of the Podcast: Shashank Redemption. Best-selling Author. Keynote Speaker