Episode #97 of The Swampflix Podcast: Parasite (2019) & Vertical Class Warfare

Welcome to Episode #97 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our ninety-seventh episode, James & Brandon discuss one of 2019’s great crowd-pleasers and one of its most divisive oddities: Parasite & Us. And because both films deal in vertical class warfare, they then descend below ground to wrangle with C.H.U.D. (1985). Enjoy!

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-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Parasite (2019)

“Money is an iron.”

This is the thesis statement of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a beautiful film about the lengths that one family living in poverty will go to in order to climb the ladder of social success. As stated by a member of this quartet, money is an iron, as it irons out all the wrinkles in life, both metaphorical and literal, leaving behind flawless skin and a life virtually devoid of the anxieties of the common man.

A couple of years ago, a friend was taken on a date by a man of great wealth (she never mentioned his name, either to maintain the air of mystery or possibly due to an NDA). She described the evening, in which they were seated at a table in a clearing that was essentially devoid of people, servers appearing seemingly out of thin air when more wine was needed or to deliver unidentifiable gourmet foods and then disappearing back into the bushes. At the end of the night, when her host was driving her home in a wine-buzzed state, he tapped the rear bumper of another car. My friend watched as the wealthy man got out and talked to the other driver, the scene playing out in the Lynchian halo of headlights: no arguments, just a civil conversation, until finally her host took out his wallet, handed the younger man an amount of cash, and at the end of their discussion, the victim hugged the man whose car had struck his own. “In that moment,” my friend said, “I realized my whole life was a lie. Nothing matters. Money can do anything.” Money is an iron.

Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik, of Train to Busan) lives in a half-basement apartment with his parents and sister, all of them working odd jobs, like folding pizza boxes, to scrape by. One day Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) visits the family to deliver a suseok shaped like a mountainand meant to act as a charm to bring the family wealthand ask Ki-woo to take over his position as English tutor to the teenaged daughter of a wealthy family whose patriarch Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) is the CEO of an IT company. Ki-woo, who is naturally bright but was unable to afford college following his required military service, is initially reluctant, but agrees to interview for the position with school documents forged by his sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), and is accepted for the role by the relatively simple-minded family matriarch, Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong). Noticing that the couple’s younger, undisciplined child, son Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon), likes to paint, Ki-woo secures a job for Ki-jeong as the boy’s art teacher, under the guise of a friends cousin from art school in the U.S. With a little more finagling, he gets his mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, of Snowpiercer) positions working for the Park family as well. And that’s when things get . . . weird.

To say more would be to spoil the film’s various twists and turns, although all of them are foreshadowed beautifully: Ki-taek’s tendency to leave the windows of the family’s hovel open results in disaster, Ki-woo’s obsession with and allegiance to the rock that is meant as a talisman for the family’s upward mobility brings him nothing but misfortune, even Ki-jeong’s fortuitously lucky guess that something “traumatic” happened to Da-song when he was younger turns out to be true, after a fashion. For the Park family, money is an iron, as it not only frees them from difficulties others experience, but protects them from even having to be aware of them, as they live in an ornate, sun-kissed mansion surrounded by a perfectly manicured and maintained lawnthe only vegetation that we see in the entire film. Approaching the Park home from the street, there is only a set of stairs and a garage door visible, but once inside, the walls at the edge of the property make the house and its inhabitants seem completely isolated, the shrubbery creating an optical illusion as if there is no world beyond the edge, no starving people living in easily-flooded basements just subway stops away.

The Parks are not malicious people, just naive and separated from the rest of the world. The Kims are not evil either; they are merely trapped within a social structure that offers no legitimate or straightforwardly moral methods to escape from their social tier. The rules are different for the rich, and it shows in the way that they treat their domestic employees: Ki-taek may be treated like a trusted advisor and even a friend most of the time, but Dong-ik doesn’t hesitate to remind him that he is being paid when the former is hesitant to participate in a roleplay for Da-song’s birthday. The Parks also remark upon Ki-taek’s smell, noting that it is musty and “like the subway,” not that any member of their family has set foot in a subway in years, and Dong-ik’s involuntary reaction to being confronted by the scent unexpectedly plays a major role in the film’s resolution. Further, the Park family even fetishizes poverty at one point, as husband and wife lie together and he whispers to her about the eroticism of the “cheap” panties (actually Ki-jeong’s) that were found in the backseat of his car earlier in the film.

Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Okja (2017)

In one of our very first posts as a website we declared Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi epic Snowpiercer the Best Films of 2014. My assumption is that it rose to the top of our list that year mostly because it was so much movie. As with a lot of Asian cinema, Snowpiercer never ties itself down to a single genre or tone. It constantly shifts gears from humor to terror to action spectacle to political satire to whatever whim it feels at the moment as its story progresses from one dystopian end of its train setting to the other. It was near-impossible to know what to expect from the director’s follow-up, then, except that it might similarly spread out its eccentricities over a bizarrely wide range of cinematic modes. Okja is just as deliciously over the top, difficult to pin down, and tonally restless as Snowpiercer, although it does not resemble that film in the slightest. If a movie’s main virtues rest in its ability to surprise & delight, Okja is an undeniable success. It’s not something that can be readily understood or absorbed on even a scene to scene basis, but its overall effect is deliriously overwhelming and expectation-subverting enough that it feels nothing short of magnificent as a whole.

Tilda Swinton & Jake Gyllenhaal star as the public faces of an evil meat industry corporation that’s attempting to improve its image with a new, falsely fun & friendly attitude. As part of this evolution within the corporation, they promise to breed a new form of domesticated animal to help maintain the world’s demand for (supposedly) non-GMO meat supply, a “superpig.” The unveiling of this superpig breed is structured as a kind of reality show contest and the movie follows one of 26 worldwide contestants within that frame. Okja, a superpig who has been raised free-range in the forests of South Korea, is officially declared “the best pig” (recalling titles like Babe & Charlotte’s Web), winning the dubious prize of being torn away from the little girl who raised her as a close friend instead of an eventual source for food. Before their separation, we get to know Okja as a kind, selfless animal with human eyes & a hyper-intelligent aptitude for problem-solving (not unlike the intelligence of a real-life pig). After she’s unceremoniously removed from her home and sent to face her fate as meat, we get to know the little girl who raised her as our de facto protagonist. The movie gradually reveals itself to be a coming of age quest to free Okja from her corporate captors, protect her from the well-meaning but idiotic animal rights activists who want to use her as a political pawn, and return her to her home in Nature. The rest is a blissfully messy blur of action set pieces, wild shifts in comedic tone, and a brutally unforgiving satire of modern meat industry practices.

The cuteness of Okja herself and the film’s occasional dedication to a kids’ movie tone (despite its constant violence & f-bombs) make it tempting to look to Babe as an easy animals-deserve-empathy-too comparison point. The truth is, though, that Okja more closely resembles George Miller’s terrifying action movie nightmare Babe 2: Pig in the City, where the grand adventure staged to bring its very special superpig home is a nonstop assault of bizarre imagery & comedic terror. There’s a constant threat of danger in Okja, ranging from car chases to meat grinders to stampedes through an underground shopping mall. The CGI in service of this spectacle is shoddy, but in a flippant, Steve Chow kind of way that is so irreverently cartoonish it could not matter less. Oddly, the performances work in much the same way. Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Shirley Henderson all stand out as intensely bizarre sources of nervous energy that exist far beyond the bounds of human nature, but in such a casually absurd way that it somehow fits the film’s ever-shifting tone. Gyllenhaal likely wins the grand prize in that respect, often resembling more of a rabid duck than an adult man. In any other context he’d be too broad or, frankly, too annoying to function as anything other than a distraction, but it’s somehow just the jarringly over the top touch the movie needs.

Okja is too much of an ever-shifting set of complexly self-contradictory tones & moods for it to be wholly described to the uninitiated. It’s both a scathing satire of modern meat industry & a slapstick farce poking fun at the activists who attempt to dismantle it. It’ll stab you in the heart with onscreen displays of animal cruelty, but will just as often giggle at the production of farts & turds. I can try to describe the film as an action adventure version of Death to Smoochy or a more deliberately adult reimagining of Pig in the City, but neither comparison fully covers every weird impulse that distracts & delights Bong Joon-ho as he chases his narrative across multiple continents. Just like with the similarly divisive Snowpiercer, I can’t promise all audiences will be onboard for the entire ride (Gyllenhaal in particular is sure to be a frequent point of contention), but Okja does offer something that’s increasingly rare in modern action adventures of this blockbuster-sized scale: the wildly unpredictable. You may not appreciate every individual turn in its impossibly twisty road, but oh, the places you’ll go.

-Brandon Ledet