Parasite (Joon-Ho, 2019): South Korea

Reviewed by Matheus Clorado. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2020.

A METAPHORICAL LOOK AT BONG JOON-HO’S MISE-EN-SCÈNE IN PARASITE

Parasite’s first frame presents us with hung socks in the foreground, a window illustrating boundary lines in the midground, and the tar of a busy slum street in the background. This view conveys uneasiness, as if I, as the viewer, were trapped in an elevator and could see the floor where the ceiling is supposed to be. A car moves right to left breaking the trance. The credits and tranquil music are non-diegetic elements.

The initial shots introduce our protagonists in their elements, establishing recognizable frames that will be deepened later on. Jessica and Kevin are finally successful in their WiFi search by the toilet, which is at the top far right edge of the frame. This usually means insignificance but it draws attention as a dominant contrast for this toilet is at an unusual location, thus reminding us again that we are at below-street level. “Climb up here!” is one of the first lines, a sign of perfect harmony between the script and the director’s choices to bring it to visual completion. Bong Joon-ho’s mise-en-scène, i.e. the arrangement of all visual elements in the screen, is precise and essential to the experience it creates. It fulfills its duty of driving the theme of the film.

The children exhale tech-savviness as expected. The family shares a small device in their shared struggle of folding boxes for extra income. Fumigation begins outside. The camera moves right to left as everyone but Mr. Kim stops working as clouds of chemicals take over their room. Then, the family is seen from a high angle, enhancing the feeling that they are below ground and looked down upon. When the mother stands to peek at the street, her head is left off the frame, once again reminding us that we are with the family below street-level in their basement.

It’s evident to me that with these subtle details, the director begins to populate his story’s world and also reflect the world his characters live in. As our protagonists strive together for more income, they immediately become relatable as they are fighting their obstacles. With that idea well established, we can point out that Bong Joon-Ho’s main theme in this film is certainly economical class segregation. Now, let us take a deeper look at a few scenes and discuss how that theme is achieved with mise-en-scène choices by the director.

A quick and easy example is the children’s display of a deceiving nature, used for survival’s sake with the Pizza Generation’s employee. The frame I mention is the one where the employee is awkwardly in the middle between Kevin and Jessica, who succeed at changing her mind. Such frame, with three focal points, is somewhat disturbing adding to the awkwardness the Pizza Generation’s employee feels at that same moment.

For instance, Min’s arrival explicitly denounces Parasite’s metaphorical content. Like most of his previous work, the director’s social commentary is well enveloped with his filmmaking skills. Looking up to Min from the basement, Kevin admires his college student friend, and so does his family. A low angle is used in addition to the evident entrapment feel created by the window. In my opinion, you could say Min acts as a stepping stone to Kevin’s wishes and it’s no surprise that he gifts the latter with a rock in a box, which Kevin finds “so metaphorical”. The rock is a valuable object that holds intrinsic interest, an inanimate object that has its presence magnified due to its importance to the story’s progression.

The first encounter between Kevin and Mrs. Park leans on a suspenseful score, on the aggressive movement of filmed subjects walking closer towards the camera, who also happens to move away towards the unseen, and on their right to left movement up the stairs and once again, into the hallway. In my opinion, it resembles Stanley Kubrick’s famous shots from The Shining in addition to the obvious metaphor of social climbing.

Da-hye’s first lesson is a series of reaction close-up shots on the eye-level angle. They keep us in the scene and enhance the emotional connection to the teenagers, almost as if we could hear their heartbeats. After Kevin feels her pulse, the scene is abruptly cut to another close-up shot. This time around, it’s on the money a happy Mrs. Park is now willing to pay Kevin for his English lessons. This is also the point in the movie when Kevin is “baptized” Kevin by his host family. I say, host family, instead of an employer, due to the hospitality provided by another employed person at the house: Moon-gwang, the housekeeper. As tutor and patron share the same benefit of snack service at this point, I believe this is an important illusion supported by mise-en-scène as it will change after the following events. Then, what seemed like a friendly relationship between tutor and employing family reveals itself as much more dense than that.

Looking at Da-song’s introduction next, the formal postures assumed by the housekeeper, Mrs. Park, and Kevin are interrupted by arrows shot their way by Da-song. The 180-degree rule, a cinematographic guideline that suggests that left/right relationships between the actors in a scene should be maintained following an invisible axis creating 180-degrees, is broken here and so are their formal postures. As the housekeeper plays closely with Da-song in the faded background (which will be a trustworthy display of their connection for later in the film, when he becomes her only source inside the house) as Kevin and Mrs. Park take the couch for a more intimate, casual talk. These changes evoke honesty as well, relaxing Kevin’s perception of the family which is the viewer’s perception. That’s how important Bong Joon-Ho’s frame composition is.

Curiosity is enhanced by frames such as the ones where the protagonist takes half the space of the frame and a wall or a barrier fills the other half of the frame. Close-up shots of the watching eye are unperceived by no one else rather than the viewer. For example, Da-hye spying on Jessica’s interview with the mother. Keeping the eye-level angle, through cross-cutting and the 180-degree rule, the dialogue between Jessica and Mrs. Park flows naturally and informs us of Mrs. Park’s role in the family. I found it interesting that Jessica indirectly asks the housekeeper to leave them alone because that meaningful action removes the third element from the frame, elevating the comfortable level of its visual appearance.

The plan advances at a quicker rate with the next scene. Jessica leaves her underwear under Mr. Park’s seat in the Benz. Parallel editing connects the back seat to the driver seat during the dialogue, until Jessica realizes an opportunity out of the driver’s tenacious flirting attempts. She gazes outside, as they drive by street violence acts.

The second arrival of the wealthy family’s patriarch clarifies his powerful presence. In accord with this scene’s score, his wife wakes and abruptly stops, again, what she is doing due to his arrival at the house. This time around, though, Mr. Park is quiet and shows her an envelope. Shortly after the camera follow his right to left movement through the living room towards the kitchen, Mrs. Park rushes to keep up and asks him, feeling the strangeness of it all: “Is something wrong?”. The family eats at a driver’s cafeteria and Kevin declares with a smile that all of that “is so metaphorical”. Sound, text, editing, camera movement, and intrinsic interest objects such as the underwear in the envelope move the story forward in perfect harmony.

The narration on top of cross-cutting draws us into the fast depiction of “how it all went to peaches” for the housekeeper after Da-hye exposes her allergy to Kevin. These choices seem more than reasonable, considering the different timeline, settings, and people involved in their takedown plan. The discussion starts at Pizza Generation, where they’ve evolved to paying customers, despite noticeable disapproval from their server. The focus goes to the red hot sauce, a vital part of the plan, and another example of intrinsic interest. Frame by frame, the pieces come together and gullible Mrs. Park believes the housekeeper is a TB patient. When the housekeeper comes in contact with, in Da-hye’s words, the “forbidden fruit”, the family has officially taken the bait, biting the metaphorical apple of ingenuity. They seem, at that point, as victims of forgery and even taken advantage of by the Kims. The parasite has been fully installed just in time for the storm, an essential point in the movie, when things can no longer return to normal, referred to as the halfway point.

Mrs. Kim bows to “Driver Mr. Kim”, and helps him carry the loads of presents Daddy Park bought for his kids, especially the troubled young son, whose birthday is coming up. Mrs. Kim’s new quotidienne is scored by classical music, and the loosely framed shots use circular camera movements to follow her feminine delivery of god-worthy ripe fruit for her children to her husband’s intimate secret touch. It is as if that freedom gets interrupted when they are photographed with their backs to the camera, a common shot throughout the film, which enhances its enjoyable mystery feel. It has a greater purpose, however. The camera transitions from objective, when The Kims are photographed in the profile position, each in one side of the frame helping the family with the purchases, to subjective, when the camera moves backward and rotates in a way that the couple’s backs are now to the audience that like the camera, are invisible to the characters, yet very close to them. Full body and close-up shots are used during important interactions between the entire family. The camera is a witness and often entrapped with the family in a room such as the kitchen, the bathroom, the basement, or under a bed.

During the storm, proxemic patterns are interesting to be mentioned. The family hides under a table (this is so metaphorical) after fighting the man living in the home’s secret basement, who’s been feeding off their kitchen (this is so metaphorical), and share intimate space with each other. Mr. Park and his wife lay on the couch, observing stubborn Da-song out in the rain, and are unknowingly sharing their personal space with their employed family. In addition to their strange sexual interactions, the two families are so close that Mr. Park smells Mr. Kim’s “scent”, another familiar image gesture that will come back just as the bathroom toilet did, a “scent” which he defines as a “poor person’s smell” or less harshly put, a “badly housed citizen” who may also rely on public transportation. This is extremely important evidence to my statement about Parasite’s theme. It’s clear that the families are distinct from each other, a fact pointed out even by a young kid as Da-song who has little prejudice. Their economical status affects their social interactions, suffering segregation as a side effect. The family lives “more accordingly” in cheaper houses. Their children’s access to school and food is compromised and their parents fight hopelessness. This is the harsh reality captured by Bong Joon-ho’s piece. His choices, exemplified a few times in this paper, are crucial to telling this story appropriately and visually, which is the duty of a filmmaker.

Current references to products “brought from the U.S.” comment on Capitalism’s influence on those families’ daily lives, without losing the context of where they live, expounded by references to North Korea, nuclear power, bunkers and news anchors. I enjoy the parallel between Morse code and WhatsApp, all used by the poor households (i.e. the Kims and the housekeeper’s family).

By contrasting the two families that were secretly leeching off Mr. Park’s family, it’s clear the director’s point here is to show their relationship to money is predatory to each other in complicated ways and self-serving. The individual need of each family is held higher than the common good, or the collective. Mr. Park’s comments on the subway smell give us a better hint of what that means in their metropolitan region, and perhaps national reality.

“If I had money, I’d be nice too!” shouts Choong-sook as the shot switches from medium body to a long shot including the magnificent piece of architecture the house is in the frame.

Through outstanding parallel editing, the former housekeeper, Moon-gwang, vomits in the toilet just before more sewage water shoots out of the toilet in Jessica’s flooded bathroom. This style of editing continues on as it compares their homes during the storm, their sleeping quarters, and closets until Mr. Kim and Mrs. Park are side to side on their different versions of a busy day. I guess we could say at some point the actions are simultaneous and cross-cutting takes place.

Despite the disaster situation evident after the storm, The Parks seem unaffected by it, still only concerned about imaginary lines to be crossed and unpleasant smells coming from other people. Mrs. Kim’s back is in the foreground of a frame where Mrs. Park points at the glass window in the midground about party duties involving the tent outside in the background of the frame.

The labor seems unappreciated under the new circumstances. Close-up shots on Mr. Kim’s facial expressions provide evidence that he cannot take it anymore. Kevin, who once was looking up in admiration of Min, now stares down at the party through the glass and asks Da-hye if he fits in that setting. Da-hye will continue to cling on to Kevin, just how he clings on to the rock gifted to him. This intrinsic interest object represents his hopes and obstacles. It holds promise and it is a burden. It is this rock that sends him to surgery.

The isolated figure of a bleeding man draws attention to that edge of the frame. He holds a knife and covers his face from the unusual sunlight. Absolutely a dominant contrast. Close-ups on protagonists’ facial expressions draw out the action scenes as it unfolds. The Tarantino-like ending is slowed down for perfect understanding and perhaps, shock.

Jessica’s parents help her, while Mr. Park yells desperately to get “Driver Mr. Kim” to drive. The star-crossed lovers, Kevin and Da-hye (their Romeo and Juliet tone now clearer than ever), are seen together: Da-hye carries Kevin’s body on her shoulders. The success of the party scene lies in the great exposition of key information through dialogue and mise-en-scène such as the history between Da-song and Moon-gwang’s husband, Geun-sae, the Taiwanese cake shop, Da-song’s convulsions, the Scouts Club, the subway people smell and the imaginary boundary line Mr. Park so appreciates.

The families won’t act in solidarity even when they share the most basic human instinctive wish of saving their children. The full front position is used quite a lot with Mrs. Park’s facial reactions. That position is important in bringing more vulnerability to the surface of that character. The idea of fate is evoked by the bird’s eye angle after Mr. Kim stabs Mr. Park and is confused about his actions. He rotates amidst the wreckage of the party outcome.

The letter from Mr. Kim at the end informs us that he has taken the now “available position” as the parasite underneath the kitchen, in the secret basement, using Morse code to communicate to his survivor son, practically taking Moon-gwang’s husband’s place. The movie closes on a boy’s wish to reunite his family and give them the house they weren’t able to get in their lifetime. It is, after all, about economic differences in society. And it is about family. It is relevant to all of us. 

Bong Joon-ho weaves the brilliant script and amazing performances with exuberant mise-en-scène, recessive colors, high-key lighting mostly, and meaningful proxemic patterns and frame composition. By doing so, he advances and elaborates on his auteur status in the art film circuit. But more importantly to the scope of this paper, Joon-ho visually tells his story.

Through story and emotion-appropriated angles and shots, editing, and smooth dialogue exposition, the story unfolds comfortably before us as long as he wants to do so, for Parasite go places quickly with its unreliable genre behavior.

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