This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Joe Tomastik’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
WHY I DON’T LOVE PARASITE
Usually, whenever a movie is beloved by most but I don’t quite have that same reaction, I just chalk it up to differing tastes and let it be what it is. Parasite, initially, was no exception when I first saw it back in late October (Halloween night, to be exact). When I saw the movie then, I said it was very good, great even, but that something was keeping me from loving it. I was having a hard time figuring out what that was, however, as I couldn’t think of any substantial flaw outside of maybe the last third being a little weaker. So I went on simply liking the movie a fair bit, without fully understanding what was holding it back for me.
However, reading and watching the reviews and reactions to this movie that have come out before and after … damn. The highest rated movie ever on Letterboxd?! A 9.38/10 on Rotten Tomatoes?! And the actual reviews themselves calling it one of the best movies of the decade, making it sound like this mind-blowing, transcendent experience akin to the second coming of Jesus … to say the reaction to this film is positive would be a huge understatement. And because of that, this is one of the few times where I’ve wanted to see a movie a second time solely because of the audience reaction. What was I missing? Why was there this barrier that seemed to exist between me and a film that I couldn’t find many flaws with? Why was I not seeing the masterpiece everyone else saw? Well, after seeing it again, a few things did get a bit better for me, but at the same time it started to finally click where my less enthused reaction had come from … and why, sadly, that reaction remains the same even after two viewings.
But before going into those issues, I’ll go over what makes the film still work so well.
Firstly, let’s just dive straight into the big twist of the movie: the former housekeeper, Gook Moon-gwang, has been hiding her husband in the house’s underground bunker for over four years, in order to avoid the loan sharks he’s indebted to. When the two families discover each other’s secrets, the movie’s narrative shifts from a family conning their way into employment under the Parks to two impoverished families battling for territory right under the Parks’ noses. From what I've read, everyone seemed very shocked by this twist. But while I didn’t see it coming, it didn’t stun me or anything. My main reaction to it was, “Yeah, this feels like it fits.” I thought this way because, well, war between the poor had already been happening beforehand. What the Kims had been doing is essentially targeting innocent lower-class workers in order to take their places, all while the Parks are blissfully unaware of any of it. As well as latching onto the Parks like … well, parasites.
The Kims’ conning in the first half was my favorite aspect of the movie. For one, even someone who’s not financially struggling can tell you that getting employment requires at least some degree of bullshitting and connections. We clearly see (as do the characters) that the Kim family have a lot of skills that make them highly qualified for the jobs they get. And yet they still need to resort to underhanded, dirty methods to get the jobs, methods that ironically could be put to use as a profession in and of themselves. It feeds into a common saying that it’s not what you know that matters, but rather who you know. But that’s just how the system has been set up.
It’s also set up to have those without wealth need to target and step on each other to get ahead … but even then, “ahead” is often a dead-end position underneath those much more well-off. Even at their most prosperous moment – that being their time living in the unoccupied house – the Kims are still not “successful” themselves. They’re still only getting a taste of the life they crave, a taste that they’ll have to leave behind once the Parks return. They remain the insects feeding off of the larger, more dominant animal; it gives them a form of prosperity for the moment, but their positions haven’t changed. And by the end, that remains the case even more so. In spite of their dreaming, fantasizing, and oft-debated planning, they’re all either back where they started or even worse off.
And something I only somewhat noticed the first time around but which stood out crystal clear on second viewing is that, all this time, the Parks are completely oblivious to any power struggle or suffering going on literally under their noses. They show many forms of detachment from the plights of society, not because they don’t care but because they genuinely don’t see it. Nowhere is this more clear than in how they react to the rain. We see the impoverished struggling to stay afloat, their homes flooded, scrambling around in the wreckage that results from the rain. Meanwhile, the next day, Yeon-gyo is expressing how nice the rain was and how it has benefitted the weather today for her son's party (plus, even Da-song's tent allowed him more shelter than the Kims' home!) What one family views as a blessing that brings them joy causes the other family suffering and loss. Mr. Park’s expression of gratitude for the rain as Mr. Kim looks on in pure bitterness is one of my favorite moments in the movie.
The Parks are well-intentioned, but oblivious. They treat their help with respect and courtesy and seem to genuinely like and respect them, but don’t realize the darkness underlying who they’ve hired. And can you really blame them entirely? Their lifestyle easily allows for this kind of naivety. The Parks’ meaning of “crossing the line” has different connotations for the Kims. Like so much else, what’s innocent and minor to the Parks is deeply cutting to the Kims. What appears to be a commonplace inconvenience, such as a flickering light, comes from a much darker reality.
And yet in a cruel irony, we see how utterly helpless they are without their poor, particularly when they are without a housekeeper for only a week and they’re at a loss regarding how to care for their house. This is what I enjoyed even on first viewing but like even more now: that all the conflict, deception, and bloodshed is done for the purpose of getting shelter under people who are far less competent and intelligent than them, but just so happen to have the riches, resources, and therefore the power.
The directing does a great job of visually representing all of this. The clearest way it does so is in how it plays around with elevation. It’s instantly noticeable that the Parks’ abode is largely underground, in the slums, with a window giving them but a glimpse of something possibly better above them. And then of course the Parks’ house is on this elevated hill, the entryway a set of stairs that makes it seem like you’re ascending into a higher plane every time you enter. And yet within that house is the underground bunker where more impoverished dwell, almost literal bottom-feeders. There’s even a really subtle tilted shot outside of the store where Ki-woo and his friend meet, indicating the very slight step up in luxury that this store represents for the poor child. Then there are other noticeable choices like how the angles allow the poor to even somewhat resemble parasitic bugs, particularly in the rain sequence. It's all great for visually getting its themes across. Additionally, the sets are great, the shots are well-composed, and the cinematography is gorgeous.
… And yet, in spite of all these brilliant elements, things that should be making me drool over this movie … something was keeping me from feeling complete, unrestrained love for it. All of the ingredients are there, but something’s just missing. And I’ve thought for quite some time in order to figure out what that was. What was it that was causing me to view it as less than the sum of its parts? Why was there this distance, this inability for me to fully connect with the story, characters, and overall directing? After watching it a second time, even though I found nearly everything overall a bit better than before, I ended up pinpointing the causes.
The primary one that I finally noticed is that I find that the movie’s direction, while strong for all the reasons I’ve stated, comes across as sometimes distant, cold, and sterile. For me, there are many instances where the scenes and writing didn’t come across as real, natural events that we the audience are witnessing. It instead felt like what it is: a constructed, meticulously planned out story. Which, yes, obviously it all was planned and constructed, as almost all movies are. But movies are supposed to take a constructed situation and make it feel real and spontaneous, as opposed to staged and scripted. I often don’t get that with Parasite. As I watched, half the time all I could see was that planning. That is, it felt so polished and staged to the point of not always feeling human. When characters speak sometimes, I only hear lines written on paper as opposed to something a real person said. When a shot sometimes shows certain imagery, I only see a built set as opposed to a real location. And it’s not because it's bad lines or bad production, not at all. But ... I don’t know, something about the direction just created a sort of barrier between me and the movie.
The best word I can come up with for it is “artificial”. Parasite sometimes feels artificial to me. It’s very meticulous and impressive, yes, but so meticulous that it loses a lot of its humanity. Precise and calculated, but in a way that makes it feel calculated. A movie that’s crafted so deliberately can resonate with me extremely strongly; Kubrick’s done it, David Fincher’s done it, and even someone as inconsistent as Shyamalan has done it. This movie in particular, though, feels like it’s held back a bit by it. Not enough to make the film unenjoyable or less intelligent, but enough to make it less impactful. Even a lot of the humor, while very well-written, felt just the slightest bit stiff, and the violent moments felt very watered down and lacked a sort of punch I feel they needed.
Because of this, there are large swaths of this movie where I felt nothing emotionally. Not shock, not fear, not happiness. Not boredom, thankfully; I did overall want to know what would happen, and would look forward to what I knew what would happen in the rewatch. But for a good chunk of the scenes, I didn’t find myself truly caring about anyone’s fate or even about the story.
I also feel like the movie doesn’t always take advantage of what it could do with what it shows us versus what it doesn’t, and how it shows them to us. For instance, maybe it could have shown the light flickering earlier on, creating some sneaky foreshadowing that makes the reveal of what’s causing it all the more chilling? Maybe the son having seen a ghost could have been established earlier, again making the reveal of what it is more jolting? Maybe show that the housekeeper is stealing food, only for us to soon realize who it’s actually for? I know she said she bought the food with her own money, but you could have it where she does steal it in this case.
Or, going back to the rain analogy, we see the Parks looking comfortably at the rain from their home, and several minutes later the Kims are suffering in it. Now, how much more powerful would that have been if these two events were shown at the same time? That is, intercut with each other in a single scene? This is a nitpick, I know, but I couldn’t help but think it while watching. It’s things like that which make me consider the movie’s flow to lack conviction, not always having that cleverness or drive to play around with the audience in a way that could really engage with me. The scenes in general just sort of move from one to the next. Sometimes it does something clever in that regard, but not nearly as much as it could have.
I suppose it doesn’t help that the Kims are very immoral people in this. In the end, I ended up feeling far more sorry for the Parks. While both families had someone killed, the Parks did nothing that should warrant someone coming after them. Da-song lost a father for no good reason other than some madman stabbed him completely unprovoked, with the most petty of motivations. That's not even including what they did to the innocent driver and housekeeper (I know she turned out to have a dark side, but they didn't know that at the time). It also makes the plight of their plans going wrong resonate less, since I can't help but now attribute part of their downfall to a form of karma rather than just the system beating them down.
But another source of distance for me is – I’m sorry, I’m just going to say it – the language barrier. I’m not talking about the subtitles; I’ve used subtitles for several English-speaking movies and it was a non-issue. I’m talking about the different dialect, the different speaking mannerisms that come from how people of this country and culture speak. This isn’t a flaw whatsoever, and I’m not at all insinuating that Korean people are harder to empathize with just because they speak differently, or that they shouldn't speak differently. However, because it is different, I don’t get that immersion that can come from how a line is delivered, the intensity and inflections in a character’s timing or how they emphasize certain words the way English speakers do. This creates another layer of disconnect through the whole thing. Again, THIS IS NOT THE MOVIE’S FAULT, OR THE CAST'S. And the actors do great from what I can tell, and Cho Yeo-jeong especially sells her character's personality with just her expressions. It’s just the cultural differences that I’m not able to completely work past. And it could be why so much of the dialogue felt artificial to me: it’s because I could only connect to it on a script level and not a performance level.
As you can tell, pretty much everything about the movie is something I consider at the very least good. But a lot of it just has something … off. Like everything about it is a solid 9/10, but each has that extra 1 point that’s missing. And ultimately, I think that those many 1s just ultimately added up to give me an experience that fall frustratingly short of truly wowing me. Again, to reiterate, these things are not nearly enough to make me dislike the movie. On their own, they’re mostly minor. But combined all together, and I think I finally see why I find it so hard to connect with it more deeply than I do.
In all honesty, I think that I was so swayed by the surrounding hype that it made me assume that I shouldn't find anything wrong with the directing or storytelling. That whatever issues I end up having would have to come from the story itself. But as I separate myself from the hype … no, I think something got lost here. I couldn't fully connect with the movie emotionally. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how smart, thematically rich, or expertly crafted a movie is. If it doesn’t connect with me, there's a problem.
Nonetheless, despite what all these complaints could suggest, I still do really like Parasite and consider it a very good movie. Everything about it is either good or great: the story, the writing, the direction, the visuals, all of it. I just sadly don’t consider it to be as good as the sum of its parts. But thankfully, those parts are all more than strong enough to still make the movie a memorable and enjoyable experience. It’s just a shame that I can’t bring myself to call it much more than that, when an overwhelming majority clearly can.