Subterranean home sick blues
Bong’s Parasite (Parasites – plural in the original Korean title) reminded me of Lanthimos’ Killing of a Sacred Deer in as much as both movies bring buried psychic forces into play in contemporary settings. Both films are scripted as black comedies working irony as a leaven for the humour; both films summon chthonic agency to wreak disaster on the arrogance those who enjoy privilege but are blind to the primal forces that surround them in the social matrix; both films use space in a very particular way. The spaces in both films exploit the idea that within themselves they contain the tensions of different opposing worlds: on the surface we see a conventional room; superimposed over what we see is its hidden fate, to be the place of a necessary playing out of myth.
Both films create spaces in which the veneer of order will be destroyed and caste back into primordial chaos. Space is treated as an intrinsic part of design where all those who are marked out for death, die.
In Lanthimos’ movie the key settings were: the hospital, presented as a cool arena for the practice of industrialised medicine; and, the expensive comfortable suburban house, home to the doctor and his family. This house, a statement of status, comfortably and expensively arrayed. But it is a house that is turned inwards on itself. From the windows there are no views out into the exterior world, in this culture there are only interiorities; in this culture no one is interested in what is outside; what is outside is mediated via the TV and the phone. Lanthimos’ scenario plays out in an interior.
In Parasite, Bong’s settings also comprise two main two interiors. But both these interiors are strongly linked to an exteriorality in the views afforded by the dwellings. The main area of the open plan house of the rich family looks out onto a garden; the semi basement home of the poor family, has a sunken window from which they can look up onto a rundown urban street environment. The one is an extension of the dream; the other an extension of the real.
The rich family’s house and its garden are part of the same plan. The house is open plan designed to replicate the American living experience. It is an American house in Korea, and the garden is also designed as an American suburban experience: backed by a mountain the garden is dominated by its neatly maintained lawn. There are a few shrubs: the experience is one of ‘grass’, nature manicured and controlled. The executive house and its garden represent alienated territory that has been taken over and claimed by an occupying power.
‘Parasite’ is sold on the billboards as a movie about inequality and class. But this is not the core idea of the film. The core idea of Gong’s movie is the claim on life, made by dispossessed forces, those vanquished primal forces representing the elements of the Korean earth and the unconscious mind. The family who take possession of the house are as earth spirits, earth daemons, agents summoned from an underworld of submerged psyches, activated to re-possess that which has been sequestrated.
There is a class/inequality dimension in Bong’s scenario. But this overlays his energising perception that his protagonists are executing a kind of shamanistic repossession. An idea that in another form grounded his film ‘Mother’. Gong’s perception sees into the consequences of industrialisation for Koreans. They are a people torn up from their roots, their psyche’s grafted onto the industrial engine of capitalist business interests.
Early in the film, the son of the de-territorialised family comes into possession of a large stone torn out of the ground whose possession is said to bring prosperity. The idea of something buried, inanimate, arising out of the earth, that has an animating property, exerts its influence over the film’s parallel subterranean presences. For under the house there is a trapped subterranean spirit-being. Atrapped living man who exists to haunt and finally destroy the life of the occupants. And in one sense ‘Parasite’ is a account of how one subterranean spirit is replaced by another as a sort of domestic earth bound incubus.
The occupying family are agents of chaos. They are let loose to avenge negligence and destroy the corruption of wealth. For one moment in time to overturn the occupying power and reclaim what is theirs turning the placid grass of the lawn into a sacrificial killing ground. What is theirs is theirs. The final act reminiscent of the opening of Fraser’s Golden Bough, sees that one underground presence is replaced by another, one priest of Nemi replaced by another.
The film’s construction, comprising long held takes comprising many medium and long shots mainly from a mounted camera allows the viewer to see into the frame and absorb the elements of the picture. The viewer has to read into the frame. In this respect Gong’s film is characterised by restraint understatement and humour. This is not in yer face bucolic high jinx with the ancient ones, as represented by over-the-top films such as Midsommar and some British box office offerings. His settings and his playing out of the characters are all held in low key, allowing the dramatic crescendo to build up and climax in the final blood bath.