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'Parasite': For Richer or Poorer

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires Film Critic
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"You see, sir, rich people and theorists, who are usually rich people, think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches, as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned."
— John L. Sullivan's butler, "Sullivan's Travels" (1941).
I think I was about 6 or 7 when someone thought it whimsically wise to inform me that, "The rich get richer and the poor have more children." If memory serves, I at first thought the aphorism rather silly and ungrounded in any sort of reality. I mean this is America, and although our family had yet to make its fortune, I also doubted I would soon be bestowed with a little brother or sister. Still, I suspected there must be a nub of truth in the cynical bit of sociology.
I've since come to believe that economic disparity resides at the heart of all the world's ills. Offering its absorbingly perceptive point of view, writer-director Joon-ho Bong's "Parasite," about an indigent, South Korean family of four who inveigle their way into the good graces and purse strings of their very wealthy counterparts, supplies a dramatic update of the Marx-Engels thing. Through its ruminations, witty observances and twisty-turn truths about human nature, the thinking, caring viewer will be splash-in-the-face reminded that, because of greed, ignorance or a combination of both, our species has yet to solve the heartache of economic inequality.
I mean, those pictures of starving children sitting in pestilence-laden filth outside of nightmarish hovels that accompany the solicitations you regularly receive in the mail are for the most part 100 percent legit — and probably not as ferociously depicted as really exists. We eat, drink and send our kids to good colleges — we lucky 1 percent, who nonetheless might wrestle our consciences in anguish. Can we really make a difference? Must it be true that the poor will always be with us?
But Mr. Babbitt will have none of Mr. Goldberger's fashionable, bleeding heart hypocrisy. He thinks Jacob Marley was a fool for shrieking at Scrooge's bedside that, "Mankind was my business." And over the centuries he's developed an entire bogus philosophy in defense of the Haves. 
Expect no answer to the problem in this film but just a good old college try courtesy of Joon-ho Bong who, with co-writer Han Jin Won, astutely delves into the complex tapestry of the relationship between the landed and the impoverished. Following the ins and outs of how Kang-ho Song's patriarchal Kim Ki-taek and his brood find their way, under assumed identities, into the employ of the upper-crust home of Park Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee) and his analogous nuclear unit, the life-sustaining stratagems of each class are tellingly displayed.
While it is humorously rolled out that each group has both incisive and deleteriously prejudiced views of each other, it is also made quite clear that our poorer protagonists in this superbly etched panoply of class struggle have not landed behind the eight ball for lack of ingenuity or
through sloth.
The tightknit and devoted Kim family isn't dirt poor for lack of trying. None of the ventures to which Dad jestingly alludes while they pursue their first endeavor based on beguilement is nearly as half-baked as the schemes Ralph Kramden championed in "The Honeymooners." It's just that things haven't worked out for them — yet. But while they're obviously painting themselves into a corner as they first practice to deceive, it gets rather giddy for a while, a bit Robin Hood-ish, the poor to whom they give being themselves. We celebrate their shrewdness and the Parks' gullibility, as if it were all somehow fair. Yet it's a guilty thrill; we know their charade is immoral.
For the Mother Theresa-inclined, there is much to mull. However, for those who don't care to muddy themselves in contemplation of the inequities that plague homo sapiens, but rather prefer the more action-packed, head-in-the-sand film genres, don't despair. There is a surprise
occurrence that'll raise the hairs on the back of your neck as push comes to shove in the most unexpected way. Now, a whole new set of sorrowfully frightening, realistic horrors are foisted upon us to either ponder or disavow.
Aesopian in its muckrake, director Joon-ho Bong's exquisitely filmed movie manages to accomplish what the great Preston Sturges did in his "Sullivan's Travels" (1941), albeit in a clever variation on the theme. We are plied by an enticing comic path, and before we can say Jean Valjean, are waist-deep in trying to figure out just who or what might cure the "Parasite" of poverty that so afflicts us.
"Parasite," rated R, is a Neon release directed by Joon-ho Bong and stars Kang-ho Song, Woo-sik Choi and Hye-jin Jang. In Korean with English subtitles. Running time: 132 minutes

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