In which I write about my fear of creepy-crawlies and Bong Joon Ho’s genius…(no spoilers. Mostly)
A pair of lizards live behind my fridge. On occasion after mealtimes I spot them scurrying out in search of food. Sometimes at night I hear them chirping as they enjoy free rein of the kitchen. I have a physiological fear of insects and creepy-crawlies, which probably has something to do with a lizard dropping from the ceiling onto my head when I was a child. But I have learnt to live and let live. Usually I just stomp my foot and make some noise, sometimes I hiss Can you please get out of the way, which sends them scurrying back behind the fridge.
Imagine my astonishment seeing my distaste (or fear) for creepy-crawlies manifested in Bong Joon Ho’s startling new film, Parasite기생충. In a brilliant conceit, he compares the lives of Seoul’s poor and unemployed to Creepy Things that Hide in Dark Places and, in more than one bloodsucking way, leech off the riches of the wealthy who live blissfully ignorant lives. Kim Ki Woo, an unemployed young man, gets employed as an English tutor for wealthy Park Da Hye—the typical K-drama premise for a Cinderella (or reversed Cinderella) romance. But it’s clear we’re in for something more; through a mix of trickery, violence and outright fraud the entire Kim family ends up in the Park family’s employ.
In a twist on the usual rich-poor cliches, the Park family is benevolent, naive, almost simplistic in their interactions with the Kims; it is the Kims who are scheming and manipulative. But Bong tells their story with great compassion: as the Kim children and their father muse about how “rich and nice” Mrs Park is, their mother Kim Jeong-Seok offers a poignant correction. She’s nice because she’s rich. It’s easy to be nice if you’re rich. What lies unsaid but rings out loud and clear: poverty forces you into ceding the moral high ground. There’s no dignity in poverty.
When you’re at the very bottom, there’s no way out but up. Director Bong makes startling use of Seoul’s geography as a visual metaphor for its gaping inequality. In a staggering series of vertiginous scenes leading towards the climax, we see the Kims descending flight after flight of steps, down the mountain, below the river, Where We Avert Our Eyes.
Parasite is an incredibly simple story: and even more startling because of its simplicity. Director Bong wrests something that exists inside all of us and magnifies it on the big screen for all of us to see. It is only human to want to climb out and up of the darkest underbellies, just as it is for those living near the skies to forget—or want to forget what lies below their feet.
As I watched Parasite, I was reminded of something I wrote a few months ago, a paragraph from Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, when Frank Boscombe, the main character writes about how and why he gives up fiction for non-fiction. In non-fiction, he says, you write about what you know. Fiction is about the unknown; at some point the fiction writer needs to leap off what he knows and let his story fly. Literature, he says, is about “the play of light and dark”. Too many writers forget the key word there is ‘play’. Director Bong’s genius is that Parasite is an intricate and playful balance of light and dark. We see the pathos of the Kim family’s subterranean existence, but we also see the humour. We see the Park family’s obscene wealth, but we also see their pathetic existence. And above all, we see love: love that uplifts, and love that saves us in the deepest, darkest times.
As I write this at my dining table, a pair of beady eyes looks up at me from the floor, that familiar fear curdling in my belly. They are only trying to live, I tell myself. Is it so wrong to deny others their need to live? A familiar scene from one of my favourite Korean dramas comes to mind, the opening scene of My Mister 나의 아저씨 which coincidentally also stars Lee Seon Kyun, who plays Mr Park in Parasite. In the depths of winter, a ladybird is discovered in a busy corporate office. Uproar ensues as a horde of humans try to exterminate something smaller than a human thumb. Until I spent last October in the Gangwon mountains at the Toji residency, I had not known the mad fury with which ladybirds flee oncoming winter. In the stifling room, having sealed every opening, ladybirds continued to seep in from invisible cracks and corners. Fighting a losing battle, I locked the door and escaped into town.
As I watched Parasite, I began to wonder: who was the real parasite? The ladybird escaping the cold? Or me, a foreign guest seeking peace and quiet from the city? Where and when do we avert our eyes? And how do we treat those we cannot even see? I swallow my fear, and the lizard stares at me for a moment longer. The next time I glance at the floor it is no longer there.