“Parasite”: A Film in Need of a Cultural “Host”

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Linda and I missed “Parasite” the first time around, though we heard that it was an impressive film. Early in the fall semester, one of my colleagues said that his spouse and he had seen it over the weekend, and they thought it might well be the best film of the year. Although the Academy Awards might have confirmed their estimate from their point of view, I can hardly agree, if only because I find the appropriation of cliche Native American imagery to be so culturally presumptuous as to warrant nothing but a hiss.

First, though, I have to ask the question: is this film worth seeing twice? No. Our friend Laurel Ann Bogen accompanied us to the screening yesterday; in fact, as a birthday gift to Linda, she paid for all our tickets. Laurel had already seen it, and said that she didn’t care for it, but perhaps it was her mood that day. She was willing to give it a second chance. I’m not; and Laurel is a saint for being willing to sit through it again. The first third of “Parasite” is a full course serving of satiric acid reflux in which some lumpenproletariat bottom-feeders take over an upper-class household in a picaresque manner worthy of a story by Kafka. I laughed out loud several times. In fact, given the title, imagine a reversal of “Metamorphosis”: instead of waking up to find he is “vermin,” Gregor Samsa finds a job in a household that becomes a revolving door of new employees, all of them from his family. It’s funny enough for the first 40 minutes or so, but the story-line goes from foreboding to Grand Guignol in a manner that leaves a very bad taste. It’s as if a film being directed by Alfred Hitchcock was taken over by someone who falls short of being the next Brian De Palma. If you haven’t seen it, by the way, you might want to wait until the sequel comes out, which will no doubt pick up the story-line ten or twelve years later. I assume I’m not the only one who wants to know what becomes of the six-year-old son of Mr. Park, the murdered businessman whose home has had its tranquility fumigated by a feckless, self-indulgent demolition crew.

Additionally, I would ask if you believe “Parasite” would have been nominated — let along won an Academy Award — if some other ethnicity had been substituted for Native American imagery as a plot device in the film. If African-American or Jewish culture had been used instead of the most demeaning stereotypes of Native Americans, do you think this film would have had a snowball’s chance in the hemisphere of “political correctness”? The “prison” of debt and class servitude examined in this film deserved a far more imaginative elaboration on the nihilistic lesson learned too late by this family of grifters. “The only plan that doesn’t fail is to have no plan.” The film’s mistake was not to allow the passivity of fate to play out the comic hand of cards that was waiting to collect its jackpot when the fired housekeeper rang the doorbell. At that moment, the script made a choice, and it choose to depend on an appropriation of cinematic and cultural tropes rather than risking something utterly unseen before.