Updated: Apr 14, 2020
Anyone who claims that a film demonstrates a society is vastly exaggerating. Societies are extremely sophisticated entities with layers on top of layers of complexities that embody thousands and millions of people. No narrative Film with the running time of 90 minutes or even 3 hours- with limitations that a drama structurally has- can conceive of reaching a considerable depth of an active and ever-changing organism such as a human society.
On the other hand, films can seize the imagination of society by pointing at a specific issue that has already captured the mental state of the public. The latter is what “Parasite” has done and by far is the biggest proponent of its success.
From this point of view, Parasite is comparable to another film that managed giving voice to an issue already in the thoughts and minds of a vast majority of people. That film is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which was made in the middle of the cold war and amid the ever-rising fear of nuclear war.
Kubrick smartly, by choosing comedy as the genre, made the film the avenue for the public mental discharge. It is not a coincidence that Parasite also has a very strong comedy overtone.
One characteristic that both of these films do share is the direct approach to the issue at hand. There’s no evasiveness, and there’s no subtext. It’s right there in front of you. In Dr. Strangelove, Major T.J. King is riding the atomic-head missile as he's waving his cowboy hat as the bomb hits the earth. In Parasite, the housemaid’s husband Geun-se is bleeding to death on the millionaire’s mansion’s back yard as he screams “RESPECT” to the owner! Everything is direct and straightforward. Is there any other way to make a comedy after all?
The direct approach in Dr. Strangelove is more the byproduct of its genre, but in the case of Parasite, there’s at least one more variable in play. The direct messaging in Parasite is partially the product of our times. We are living in an era that subtlety and subtext are considered old fashion; Symbolism and metaphors are frowned upon. There’s no holding back these days; there’s no secret or hidden message; everything is accessible and right in your face. Things should be efficient and practical. Some may call it Postmodernism.
Both films have a devastating ending. In Dr. Strangelove, we watch as the mushroom-shaped explosions of the atomic bombs fill the screen with the soothing music of Vera Lynn “We will meet again,” which gives the film even more cruel ironic quality. Death and despair served with sarcasm.
In Parasite Bong Joon Ho shows us the dream, and how beautiful the future can be but right before we become comfortable with it, he pulls the rug out from under us. We are back at the dirty underground home we saw at the beginning of the film, but this time there’s no rays of sunshine coming through the small window. It’s dark, cold, and it’s snowing. The main character is sitting in the dark, finishing his letter to his fugitive dad, who is hiding in another windowless underground room. He ends the letter by saying “so long,” and we all know deep in our heart that the dream is just a dream, and reality is as dark and as cold as the room.
So long... Will we meet again?
The connection between these two films doesn’t stop here. It is not a coincidence that the threat of the atomic bomb is very much prominent in Parasite. At the scene where the old maid is holding her cellphone send button as a threat to the low-income family while mimicking the North Korean national TV anchor, the filmmaker seems to pose this question to us: What the real danger is? North Korea’s nukes or the poor living conditions of the unjust world? Poverty can also be a weapon as powerful as a bomb to hold the underling subordinate.
Dr. Strangelove has two major differences compared to Parasite, which makes the film more enjoyable on the second view, in my opinion. One is the approach to the story, and the second is the structure.
Kubrick’s approach to Dr. Strangelove is to escape the specificity of the characters for the sake of the bigger picture, the "Idea" of the film. Kubrick reduces the characters to caricatures of their real-world equivalents. As a result, we can laugh at them, and at the same time, the film draws our attention to the thematic statement of the film. The exaggerated version of this approach is the recent film “The Platform.”
Parasite, on the other hand, relies heavily on our understanding of the characters, which one can argue weakens the applicability of the film’s theme to the real world. Especially, if we pay close attention, we find out that we don’t know enough about who the characters are. They are poor, and there are some clues here and there in the film, but that’s almost it. In Parasite, characters are not symbols, nor are they specific. The film sacrifices the depth of characters for wild plot points. Some may argue that’s what the film is and not all the movies are supposed to do that. I agree, but this is precisely where the deficiency of the film lies mainly because it does not do sufficiently for what some of the film’s fans wildly believe its forte is, which is the film's ability to explore its Idea of inequality and the gap between rich and poor.
In the next part of the analysis, I will talk more about the film’s story structure, characters and how they add to the theme of the film or take away from it.