Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Why Watch Foreign Films? Parasite

Welcome to the Why Watch Foreign Films project! The idea of reviewing foreign films came to me after observing several confusing twitter comments made by users who couldn't understand why Hulu was streaming Bong Joo-ho's multiple Oscar-winner, Parasite. I won't go into it, but the exchange was pretty ugly. In trying to understand why people might shy away from foreign films and going by what these comments stated outright I found that overall the issues are with subtitles and a general aversion to "otherness." Come on, people. We've got to be better than that.

While I'm not going to sit here and preach to you just how much we (as American adults!) are struggling with literacy and empathy in our nation right now, I will repackage the same message in a positive way and simply say that watching foreign films will make you a more intelligent, more compassionate human being and will expose you to a ton of unique stories you've been missing in life! If you enjoy history or travel, you also get the bonus of seeing international landscapes and cities while oftentimes learning about how wars, development, and current events have all shaped what's happening in these narratives. Our politics are not the only ones going on in the world. You'll hear languages other than English---this is a good thing (and so is reading). The music will be different, the food will be different, but not always; sometimes it will be familiar or nostalgic. Among difference there is also interconnectedness. No matter the country, the language, or the religion, many of these films also show just how far-reaching American influence can be, and how in a lot of ways, our struggles are very similar. Such is the case in Parasite. Meet our families:

THE KIMS (left to right): Ki-woo/Kevin, Ki-taek, Chung-sook, Ki-jung/Jessica

THE PARKS (top l-r to bottom l-r): Dong-ik, Da-hye, Yeon Kyo, Da-Song

The plot is quite simple. A poor family manages to manipulate a wealthy family into hiring them as domestic employees; things seem to go well until they don't. That's it! Many people I've spoken to about the film said that they enjoyed not knowing anything in advance about it, having little to no idea where it might lead (which is how I experienced it the first time). There's something to be said for that kind of experience, but I did find myself wishing I was a little clearer on everyone's names, which is why I included the two photos with labels above. The story itself doesn't ask much from its viewers, at least on the surface, but the technical elements that surround the narrative together with the subtle use of everyday objects and dialogs between characters speak very clearly to an underlying theme of violence or malevolence springing from social inequality. Don't worry about reasoning it all out while you're watching, chances are very good you'll be thinking about it quite a bit after the film's conclusion or even for days afterward. But, if you're interested, there's a lot of meaning and suggestion being thrown around in these scenes while the main events are happening. Consider:

Spaces: Contrast the enormity of the Park House with the Kim basement apartment. It's not just luxury in material possessions. Note the wide open spaces and who inhabits them compared with cramped quarters, clutter, and things like proximity to the waste (sewage) of others. It comes up a lot.
Music: Which family's experiences are shown as being worthy of accompaniment? What does the style of the music say about how they're portrayed as human beings?
Reveals: What (or who) comes out of the shadows? What are the lights showcasing? How are darks and lights used in general? What about blinking lights?
Objects: A scholar's rock, a pair of underwear, a peach, a birthday cake---how do they become evil or dangerous? Why is this not a typical horror film?
Dialogs: The Kims discuss whether or not they "fit in," which one of them fits in the easiest? How do casual comparisons to a cockroach or the association of smells contribute to the conclusion of the film? How do the characters themselves respond to not fitting in, are they sympathetic toward others down on their luck? Does the adaptability of fitting in or highly-developed street smarts carry any guarantees in the long run? Is the ending hopeful or cruel?

Very early on in the film there comes an exterminator that fumigates the outer area of the Kims' street but not the apartment itself. Because the bugs are also a problem inside the building, the Kims allow the fumes to come inside the windows as they themselves are blasted by the spray of chemical. To me, this spoke very clearly toward the title and how poor people are seen and portrayed before the sneaky stuff with the rich folks even got started. It's a smart and creepy film; give it a try, see what you think. Parasite is rated R for language, violence, and sexual content, runs 2 hours 12 minutes, and is currently available on Hulu.