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PARASITE (GISAENGCHUNG)

Producer:  Jang Young-hwan, Kwak Sin-ae and Moon Yang-kwon
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writer: Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won
Stars: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Lee Sun-kyun, Park So-dam, Cho Yeo-jeong, Lee Jung-eun, Chang Hyae-jin, Jung Ziso, Jung Hyeon-jun, Park Geun-rok and Park Seo-joon
Studio: Neon

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After stumbling badly with the over-the-top “Okja,” Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho returns to form, and then some, with “Parasite,” a tour de force that straddles the line between comedy, melodrama, social satire, thriller and horror movie—a genre mash-up, to be sure, but one so artfully contrived and executed that although it runs over two hours, it’s hard to take your eyes off it for a minute.

The film begins with a portrait of the Kim family, who live a hand-to-mouth existence in a depressing half-basement apartment in Seoul, earning money by—among other things—folding boxes for a pizza-delivery service. There are four of them: sad-faced Ki-taek (Song kang-ho) and his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), a surly ex-shot-putter, and their children Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam). The siblings are devastated when they lose the WiFi signal they’ve been cadging from a neighbor, and the family’s marginal finances are imperiled further when many of their pizza boxes are refused because of their shoddy appearance.

A hint of good fortune enters when Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) gives the family a landscape rock as a gift from his uncle, who swears it can bring them luck. He also offers Ki-woo a job replacing him as English tutor to Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the daughter of wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Park (Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeong); Min-hyuk is going to study abroad for a time, and needs someone he can trust to spell for him, since he’s interested in the girl and wants her left in relationship limbo while he’ gone. Securing the job requires Ki-jung, a talented forger, to confect university papers for Ki-woo, but the scam works.

Ki-woo quickly takes advantage of his position to secure various jobs for his family in the Park household. On his recommendation Ki-jung is taken on as the art instructor, named Jessica, for the Park’s hard-to-control, supposedly precocious son Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon). After she in turn gets Mr. Park’s chauffeur (Park Geun-rok) fired, Ki-taek is hired in his stead. He in turn persuades the Parks that their long-time housekeeper Lee Jung-eun (Gook Moon-gwang), who had previously served the famed architect who built their house, has an infectious disease. She’s promptly dismissed, only to be replaced by Chung-sook.

Thus far “Parasite” is a darkly comic take on the socio-economic divide in South Korea, with a family of genial grifters taking advantage of an upper-class clan. (One might note that Ki-woo betrays Min-hyuk as well, since despite his pledge to the contrary, he begins romancing Da-hye.) If that were all the film was about, one could chalk it up as a sharp, rather nasty satire and leave it at that.

But Bong takes us to a very different place when the Parks—who are depicted as absolute villains no more than the Kims are drawn as totally sympathetic (although the employers do take advantage of their hirelings and, on occasion, speak of them with obvious condescension)—go camping to celebrate Da-song’s birthday (a tradition to take the boy’s mind off the trauma he’d suffered when he encountered a ghost on that date a couple of years earlier). The Kims take over the house in their absence, treating it cavalierly as their private domain.

Their fun is suddenly shattered when a surprise visitor appears to threaten their fun—and more. “Parasite” now enters a thriller mode that, while laced with violence and menace (as well as shards of black farce), seems positively mild compared to the horrors that follow in the last act as economic and class divisions suddenly explode. A postscript introduces what might just be one curve too many, but that’s a minor quibble.

In the hands of a less capable director, “Parasite” would have stumbled from episode to episode, genre to genre, tone to tone, and wound up a mess. Bong, however, manages to shape it into a virtually seamless whole despite the radical changes the narrative makes along the way. It’s truly a virtuoso performance by a director whose control never fails or flags.

His cast appears to have been in complete harmony with his vision; the quality of the ensemble work is exemplary. Some occasionally play to the rafters, but that’s in line with the demands of the script (and Korean style). The technical side is equally strong, with sweeping camerawork by Hong Kyung-kwon and smooth editing by Yang Jinmo, and Lee Ha-jun’s production design, which creates a perfect dichotomy between the Kims’ dingy subterranean flat and the Parks’s austerely attractive mansion, is extraordinary: a sequence in which a flood strikes the poorer areas of the city is also astonishingly realized.

“Parasite” is a trenchant commentary on the economic divide that exists in today’s South Korea, one made all the keener by Bong’s ability to meld elements of comedy, satire, suspense and horror in presenting it. This is one of the year’s best films.

ONE CHILD NATION

Producer: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang, Christoph Jorg, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements and Carolyn Hepburn
Director: Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: Amazon Studios

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The Chinese government continues to insist that its “one-child” policy, which was on the books from 1979 to 2015, was a success, and in purely numeral terms it was. As this documentary by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang notes, it did “solve” a perceived problem of overpopulation due to a birth rate that, it was believed, threatened the country’s socio-economic future by preventing an estimated 300,000-400,000 births.

But the film also shows that the consequences were horrifying, in terms of brutal enforcement and the emotional devastation it inflicted. “One Child Nation” is a sobering indictment of the harm a government can do to its people when it attempts to engineer social policy.

Wang, who co-directed the film with Zhang as well as shooting it in collaboration with Yuanchen Liu and then editing the footage to its present eighty-five minute running-time, was born to a village family while the policy was in force, but her parents received an exemption: they could have a second child, but only with a five-year interval between the two. When her younger brother was born, he became the apple of their parents’ eyes, chosen to continue school while Wang was sent to work. She later emigrated to the United States and became a mother herself, inspiring her to undertake this, her first film, from a sense of personal need.

In a way Wang was fortunate. Couples wanted their one child to be a male who would carry on the family name, so often female infants were simply abandoned, to be picked up by strangers or left simply to die. Some were “collected” by traffickers who sold them to orphanages, which then profited by putting them up for adoption abroad. Other children were simply seized from rural families as the equivalent of fines, and then offered to prospective adoptive parents outside the country as orphans—at a hefty price, of course.

Even that procedure, as unsavory as it might seem, was relatively benign compared to what was happening elsewhere. Forced sterilization and abortion was commonplace, sometimes through compliance prodded by a vast propaganda program, but often by compulsion of a far more physical kind. The number of victims, both the dead and the sad survivors, is simply incalculable.

Wang begins her investigation with her own family, interviewing her mother (who still believes that cannibalism would have occurred in China had the policy not been imposed by the party) and brother, who still feels guilty about how he was preferred over her. She talks to an uncle who weeps remembering the daughter he abandoned in the market, only to watch her die, and an aunt whose daughter was given up for adoption.

She then moves to a wider circle of locals, like the village head who presided—reluctantly, he says—in enforcement, and “public health” workers who actually performed operations, like a midwife who estimates she performed tens of thousands of sterilizations and abortions over the thirty-year period and who, under advice from a priest, now aids couples dealing with problems of infertility in order to make amends.

Wang continues her outward reach, interviewing traffickers who were punished for taking advantage of the policy and a journalist named Jiaoming Pang, now residing in Hong Kong, who left the mainland when his investigations revealed the horrors which the one-child policy caused. (Given the current state of affairs in Hong Kong, he might have to flee again before long.) Viewers should be warned that his photographs of abandoned fetuses left in landfills are deeply disturbing.

Having taken viewers down what might be described the circles of a man-made hell, Wang offers a measure of solace by discussing the work of American Brian and Long Lan Stuy, adoptive parents themselves, who have developed a database to try to reunite Chinese adoptees with their biological families. Using it she tries to find her aunt’s daughter, and in another case an adoptee reconnects with her twin sister in China.

Zhang also notes the replacement in 2015 of the one-child policy with another that prescribing two as the “perfect” number, and gives examples of the new propaganda campaign to promote the idea—made necessary by the reality that there are now simply too few young people to care for the country’s aging population—ironically, a result of the previous policy. Can the failure of one experiment in social engineering be corrected by another? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, this shattering documentary is hard to watch and hard to forget.