Parasite (2019) screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, directed by Bong Joon-ho

Parasite won the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. And it won a stack of awards at the Academy Awards. Best Picture. Best Director. Best Screenplay. In other words it was a critical and a box-office success. It made money.

This is a film about money and class. But when we talk about theme we sometimes get lost and wander away from the main purpose of a film (and often a book) which is entertainment. I hooted with laughter and had those moments when I cringed. In other words, I was hooked and wanted to see what happened next.

As working class I identified with the Kim family. Being bottom of the pile isn’t some metaphorical concern for the Kim family. They live in a sub-basement in South Korea. Most of us don’t really know what that is. It’s below ground. But not in that fancy way the rich in some parts of Kensington, London, for example, are burrowing to create carparks and swimming pools and tennis courts that are carefully modulated by air filters and heating. Below ground in the way domiciled servants used to live, hidden away from the main house. The highest part of the Kim family home is the toilet pan. Park So-dam as Kim Ki-jung (Jessica) and her brother Choi Woo-shik as Kim Ki-woo (Kevin) scramble up on the toilet pan to try and—fail—to get a signal for their phones, at below pavement level. Song Kang-ho as Kim Ki-taek (Mr Kim) and his wife Ang Hye-jin as Chung-sook are watching a video on their phone about how to fold and pack takeaway boxes. While the woman onscreen makes it look easy. They have less success. But with all the family helping, they figure they’ll make enough money to eat. A drunken man comes and pees against the bins above them and against their ‘window’. The Kim family are below shit level and being peed upon.

The metaphorical becomes played out in the film’s denouement to great effect. Shit travels downward.

Meanwhile, Lee Sun-kyun as Park Dong-ik (Nathan) father of the Pak family and business executive lives on the top of a steep hill. He has all the markers of wealth. But he has inherited the live-in housekeeper of Namgoong, the architect and previous owner of the house. The housekeeper, Lee Jung-eun as Gook Moon-gwang is competent and suitably deferential. Park Dong-ik tells his wife Cho Yeo-jeong as Choi Yeon-gyo there’s a line between being deferential and being over-familiar that he would never allow his employees to cross. He’s the boss and they should know their place.  Choi Yeon-gyo certainly does. She knows her husband is in charge. But with her housekeeper, she’s in charge of domestic matters and taking care of their son and daughter. Jung Ji-so as Park Da-hye is also a deferential daughter, with a closeted and controlled life. Jung Hyeon-jun as Park Da-song is the spoiled baby of the family, with an obsession with North American Indians.

There is grass outside to set up a tent and trees. There is also a bunker room built below the house big enough to contain the basement housing and street the Kim family are crammed into.

The two families mirror each other, but the distance between them is so vast that it would easier to travel from North Korea to South Korea.

How the Kim family gets inside the walls and protectorate of wealth is beautifully worked and quite simple. They fake it. And as an audience we want the plucky Kim family to succeed.

Kim Ki-woo makes the first breach in the wall. He is recommended to the family by Park Seo-joon as Min-hyuk, a friend, and Da-hye’s English tutor, who is going to study abroad. His sister helps him to Photoshop some suitable accretions. He poses as a Yonsei University student, and is hired as a replacement English tutor, and dubbed ‘Kevin’ by the Park family after Choi Yeon-gyo sit in on their first lesson.

 His sister follows the same route. When ‘Kevin’ overhears Choi Yeon-gyo speaking about being unable to get a suitable art therapist for her genius of a son, he respectively suggests that he might know. Kim Ki-jung (Jessica) ‘an art student of Illinois State University’ might be free, but she’d need to come and interview them.

With the Kim brother and sister inside the house they have more leverage, and find ways to oust the chauffer and housekeeper and replace them with their dad and mum. The Kim family have gone from being unemployed and unable to pay their phone bills or eat to being in full employment at rates of pay they could only imagine. A new equilibrium has been reached, but everybody is faking it.

So far so good, becomes so far so bad, when the Pak family go on a suitably high-class camping holiday.  Gook Moon-gwang buzzes the door just when the Kim family are relaxing in their new ‘home’, spilling drinks, smashing glasses and behaving uproariously. The old housekeeper asks to get in claiming she’s left something in the basement she has to pick up. She knows the master and mistress are away, but claims it won’t take her long. Letting her into the house changes everything again.

Appearances need to be kept up, when Choi Yeon-gyo phones home and tells the new housekeeper that the camping trip has been a wash out and there’ll be there in eight minutes, and demands a cooked meal, the clock is ticking.

Drama and comedy combine. Every scene adds to and fits in the other like a Babushka doll. There is no one denouement, but a series of denouements. Superbly crafted and a joy to watch. The question remains who are the parasites and for what reason? Discuss.  

The Mole: Infiltrating North Korea, BBC iPlayer, writer and director Mads Brügger.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000nr85/the-mole-infiltrating-north-korea-series-1-part-1

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000nr87/the-mole-infiltrating-north-korea-series-1-part-2

A cautionary tale. Otto Warmbier, a student of the University of Michigan was freed by North Korean officials after being detained and sentenced to 15 years for allegedly stealing and defacing a poster from a North Korean hotel where he was staying as an exchange student. He remained in a coma and died upon his return 13th June 2017 to Cincinnati, the United States.

That puts into perspective the risk Ulrich Larsen, the Mole (of the title), took in infiltrating North Korea in a sting operation to set up a factory to buy arms and manufacture methamphetamines on an island in Uganda, selected by ‘Mr James’ using Google maps for that purpose.

All good thrillers look at motive. Danish director and writer Mads Brügger made a documentary film, The Red Chapel, which had mocked the absurdity of life in the Democratic Republic of North Korea (DRNK). It made him persona non grata with DRNK officials but his documentary was well-received internationally. Mads Brügger received an email from Ulrich Larsen. Larsen asked the Danish director if he would be interested in making another film about North Korea.   

Ulrich Larsen born in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Catapulted into the West. Works as a chef, but is on long-term sick leave and lives off sickness money paid by the Danish government to him and his family. There’s nothing here that marks him down as a risk taker or suggest motive.

In contrast, Jim Latrache-Qvortrup ,who is given the name ‘Mr James’ and the false identity of a billionaire playboy, willing to gamble, is ex- French Foreign Legion, ex-crook and ex-businessman, which may be the same thing. Mr James is a risk taker. It’s there on his CV.

So here’s the sting. Ulrich Larsen joins the Korean Friendship Society in Denmark. Very quickly he moves up the ranks and comes to the notice of Alejandro Cao de Benos. Alejandro runs the Spanish Korean Friendship society. He’s a Spaniard, but with dual citizenship and a North Korean passport, and he has contacts to the very top of Korean society.

Oslo 2106, Alejandro asks Ulrich (they are on first name terms now) wants him to find people who’ll invest money in North Korea. From 50 000 to one million Euros. This needs to be done discretely. United Nations sanctions against North Korea mean exports and imports are closely scrutinised.

Mads Brügger assigns ‘Mr James’, an actor with the perfect background, to support Ulrich. Ulrich and Mr James meet Alejandro in Madrid 2016. Mr James explains ‘our minimum investment is 50 millon Euros because otherwise the revenue isn’t interesting’.

Alejandro lets his friends in North Korea know they have a potential investor in North Korea.

Mads Brügger gives Ulrich and Mr James a chance to step away. We know they won’t. But he warns them not to mock the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un or former leaders (his father) or any senior figure in North Korea, not even in a light-hearted way. He tells them there will be lots of toasts, lots of boozing, and if they can’t handle that they shouldn’t go to Pyongyang. His last stricture is they shouldn’t record anything. But here’s where it gets interesting.  Ulrich and Mr James agree to go to Pyongyang in January 2017.

Ulrich Larsen is now regarded as an insider. He is encouraged to record meetings because they assume it is for the benefit of the Korean Friendship Society. It is, however, for the benefit of Mads Brügger documentary film maker.

Ulrich makes several trips around Europe in 2017. Alejandro has been arrested by the Spanish authorities on illegal arms offences, and can’t travel. Ulrich needs to go and see him in Madrid to report back to his leader. Ulrich has already been to Pyongyang, and now it’s time to go back to the North Korean capital with Mr James. 

Mr Kang Chief of Cultural Affairs, Mr Ri Cultural Affairs are there to meet Mr James and Urlich

Mr Kang comes up to Ulrich’s room and asks him, ‘this man, are you sure he has all the money he is talking about?’

No real security checks have been made on Mr James. Two days of courtship, seeing the sights and drinking. Then it started getting serious

They leave Pyongyang, and visit an arms factory in what is described as a slum town.  In the basement, with big conference table, they meet the President of the factory Kim Rong-Jul and other officials. The President of the factory speaks good English. Taking out the catalogue of their weapons systems and allows Mr James to peruse it.

Menu: this is what we can sort you out with

Scud Missiles $14 million

Scud-E Missiles $25 million 1350 km range

Agreement between James (Taga Investment) and Narae Trading Corporation (arms factory)

July 2017

The trail goes cold for about a year. Then Alejandro and the North Koreans come up with a strategy to avoid United Nations sanctions and American satellites tracking exports and imports.

It involves using corrupt officials and buying an island in Uganda for $5 million. Flying a plane from Pyongyang with ‘humanitarian aid’. Loading the plane with weapons and flying it to their island. North Korean officials provided blueprints to construct a hotel and golf course on top of the island and below it, facilities to produce methamphetamines and weapons. It would be protected by Ugandian officials and labelled tourism. Payment for their services would involve triangulation, because it would come in oil.

Amman, Jordan, 2018. Mr James and Ulrich go to Jordan to meets Mr Dousouki, face to face.

North Korea needs oil because of sanctions. From Russia to Dubai to North Korea?

‘It’s like the mafia. Russia gives you the contract.’ Ulrich (laughs) ‘We are the mafia.’

Mr James signs contract for $3.2 million shipment of oil.

Mr James is an actor with no money. Ulrich is a filmmaker with no money. Yet they have exposed corrupt officials in Uganda and Jordan. They have infiltrated the top levels of North Korean society and showed how sanction- busting works. They put themselves in mortal danger.

For what? Entertainment? Ulrich admitted he’d been lying to his wife about where he was going and what he was doing. Wow, that must have been some whopper of a lie. I’m just nipping out to Beijing to meet some dodgy characters; I’ll bring back a pint of milk.

Mads Brügger when he made his own documentary was risking himself and other actors—with relatively low risk—the product, a documentary, only appearing when they were outside North Korean. Here the risk doesn’t seem proportionate to the gain.   Jim Latrache-Qvortrup and Ulrich Larsen got away with it. What if they hadn’t? Otto Warmbier defaced or stole a poster. North Korea, a militarised society in which loss of face can mean loss of life, who pays when things go wrong?

Entertainment and entertaining, but not at any price. Mads Brügger has externalised costs, but reaped the benefits. Capitalism in tooth and claw.