Parasitic Sounds

Still from “Parasite.”

Even movie soundtracks are going green.

That’s the color of the vinyl used for the forthcoming double LP of the score of Parasite, the Palme d’Or-winning film of South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-Ho that continues to rake in world-wide box office cash. Its current proceeds of more than a $100 million internationally and nearly $20 million in the U. S. may be meager compared to that of Frozen II, but these numbers count as huge profits for a foreign import, especially one that savages, literally, the yawning economic gap between rich and poor.

The sumptuous Parasite soundtrack album will be out in January from Sacred Bones, a label based, inevitably, in Brooklyn. The company’s name deftly‚ if unwittingly, captures Marx’s notion that fetish commodities are like figures from “the misty realm of religion.” We have reached the apogee or nadir (take your pick) of luxury hipsterism when cinematic mood music—short tracks, mostly running to a minute or two—are accorded cultic retro rites and offerings such as a green double album.

Green doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable. The production process for LPs requires quantities of toxic chemicals, a great deal of energy for cooling and drying, and PVC, thought to be carcinogenic and set to be banned by the European Union. Thus Brexit could be a boon for Albion’s vinyl craze, though the biggest producer of LPs is GZ Media over on the mainland in the Czech Republic: the firm presses some thirty million discs a year. The Dutch company GreenVinyl produces LPs that purport to be environmentally friendly, even if their hue is the traditional black. These eco-audiophiles claim that their records sound better and make for a better world to boot. The Parasite vinyl may be the color of money, but it is hardly sustainable.

Whatever the case, the Parasite soundtrack from Sacred Bones will come out too late for the holidays, but in time for awards season. The album will retail for $28; throw in another three bucks and you can get it in peach instead.

Bringing the music out on LP is a canny move, both trendily retro and unapologetically reactionary, appealing to the supposed diversification underway at the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and also to the larger geriatric voting bloc that still fondly recalls the distant decade when they upgraded from shellac to vinyl.

There are even murmurings, doubtless incited by agents of the artistically and commercially vibrant South Korean film industry, that Parasite could be the first non-English language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Perhaps a soundtrack statuette, it strains having bored into the consciousness of Academy voters at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, awaits Parasite composer Jung Jae Il.

Jung’s music is clever and cagey, finely calibrated to this gory comedy of manners in which a family of four (the Kims) from Seoul’s sometimes sewage-drenched lower elevations insinuates itself into the lavish lives and excessively elegant home of way-higher-ups—also a family of four (the Parks), though a decade or so younger.

The film’s biggest joke and its most cutting moral is that the proles are as greedy as the patricians. In a winner-take-all world, the most inviting course of action is simply to take the winner’s take for yourself, let all others be damned: “me first” tramples class consciousness.

The impoverished but ruthless invaders don’t just want jobs (the college-age children as tutors, the parents as driver and maid), they want to overthrow their patrons. The soundtrack spurs on this palace coup, choosing its musical wares from as glossy a catalog as that which must have advertised the super-designed, super-expensive objects in the rich family’s modernist palace of concrete and glass. Jung tastefully selects plaintive, occasionally purposeful piano solos; somber, lurking strings that sometimes break out into sneering, virtuosic brilliance; bells that are part Asian kitsch, part signals of Hitchcockian suspense; percussion, now lashing, now furtive, but always disquieting; gnawing electronics that hum and hiss like a state-of-the art air-handling system in need of high-priced servicing; and sarcastically happy choral outbursts that mock aspirations across the socio-economic spectrum.

Not included on the soundtrack are two baroque arias, both comparatively quite long and both crucial to the movie’s mission. Jung alludes to this bygone musical era with his use of jingle-jangle electronic harpsichord when the college drop-out son walks up through the finer precincts of the city to the mansion for his interview. In his backpack are forged credentials that will secure him the job as an English tutor of the rich family’s teenage daughter. For this traversal of the city, from the grim basement apartment to the stunning villa far above, it’s as if Handel we’re listening over the shoulder of that dogged devotee of early music, Addams Family butler Lurch tinkling away at his ornate harpsichord. Along with the ginger steps of pizzicato cello and double bass, and smugly ominous chimes that trace the young man’s journey, Jung’s score treats us to the sardonic off-screen strains of an archly cosmopolitan Seoul-man with ruffled cuffs, right hand at the keyboard, left hand reaching for hatchet.

Both arias are taken from Handel’s magnificent opera of 1725, Rodelinda. Like Parasite, it is a story of usurpation, the King and Queen of Lombardy and their rightful heir represented in the movie by Mr. Park, a handsome and snobbish captain of high-tech, his frustrated wife and their recalcitrant kids. The nouveaux riches of global capitalism are the new ancien régime. The scheming Kims believe they have the right, and they certainly have nefarious skills, to elevate themselves to royalty. Their son might marry the teenage daughter …

First though, the loyal housekeeper must be gotten rid of to make way for Kim’s wife so that she can join her husband and two children already working in the wealthy household. These machinations pitting poor against poor are shown in an extended montage sequence accompanied not by Jung’s finely crafted musical stylings but instead by a shift to another century with Handel’s aria “Spietati io vi giurai” (Cruel men, hear me swear).

In defiant, poised coloratura and long-held tones high in her range, Handel’s queen broadcasts her mettle against the evildoers who have apparently killed her husband and, at least for the moment, have upended the rightful order of things. Her refined, exalted morality and the spirited elegance of its musical representation work in the film in comic contrast to the base, yet artful doings of the interloping Kims.

The movie’s plot—in both senses—finds its climax in the mansion’s back garden. The driver and lord of the manor hide together behind an expensive shrub. They are both dressed in Native American headdresses and make ready to jump out and surprise the birthday boy, the young son of the rich man. This troubled and unpredictable kid fears a ghost in the house and has spent the previous night in a wigwam outside. To a more caring father, ambushing the lad might seem like a bad idea.

For the occasion the smartly dressed mother has ordered up a lavish garden party of international delicacies, both culinary and musical.

The guests are served another aria from Handel’s Rodelinda—“Mio caro bene!” (My dear one!) in which she sings arabesques of delight that her suffering and pain are now over: her husband is alive and the pair is restored to the throne.

It might seem a strange choice on Mrs. Park’s part to have a soprano sing for the occasion, but this is a celebration more of the family’s status than of the boy’s birthday. The aria is the only music in the film that all the on-screen characters hear, and it at first seems to be just one more affectation. Handel’s music is both out of place and spot on, the frosting on the birthday cake and salt in the deep wounds of poverty and wealth. Suddenly, high-class opera fuels low-class rage. The violence will even cut into the rejoicing of Handel’s aria. There could be blood on backyard grass greener than the green LP that itself offers no haven for the real baroque.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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