Skip to main content

Leave it open, we'll get free fumigation.

Parasite
(2019)

(SPOILERS) I had the ending of Parasite spoiled for me before seeing the film – it was difficult to avoid, given the time that has passed since its US release. Albeit, more in terms of the manner in which violence suddenly erupts than the specifics of who perpetrates it. Some of these mentions alluded to it coming out of nowhere, and thus being tonally inconsistent with the picture. It’s a view I can’t really get on board with, except in so much as there’s nothing so graphic hitherto. Otherwise, though, there’s an air of foreboding and dread running through at least the latter half of the film, however leavened it as points by Bong Joon-ho’s satirical swipes.

Has Parasite been overpraised? Probably, but that’s rarely not the case with a Best Picture Oscar winner (or nominee, come to that). More impressive is that a film so atypical of standard Oscar fare got within a sniff of the prize, let alone waltzed off with it. Sure, the Academy has swung the way of (broad) satire before, most notably with American Beauty this century (well, by a whisker; it was given the statuette in 2000). And sure, Bong’s tendency towards Hitchcockian suspense sweetens the pill. But there’s an unease at the heart of Parasite that’s much less common to feted fare, a sense of how the flames of social fragmentation, as depicted in this microcosm, might be fanned and suddenly explode into mayhem, given the right ingredients, and thus how the bastions of Hollywood themselves, in their ivory towers, might be infiltrated and suddenly dispatched. Perhaps the Academy thought, if they looked poverty in the eye, it will shrink away from them.

The satire in Parasite isn’t actually all that sharp, but it undoubtedly sustains itself much more effectively than the clumsy gesturing of Bong’s most recent efforts, Snowpiercer and Okja. I was expecting – dreading slightly – this film to follow course, and in its early stages, it does rather have a sense of an Ealing comedy by way of Mike Leigh. The Kim family are introduced as indolent types most obsessed with how they’re going to get decent (free) wi-fi signals and avoid habitual drunks pissing outside their window. But once son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) gains entry to the affluent Park household, posing as a university student so as to tutor their daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the rest of the family quickly follow suit in inveigling themselves, as art therapist (Park So-dam’s daughter Ki-jung) for haunted son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), driver (Song Kang-ho’s father Ki-taek) for dad Dong-ik (Lee Sun-Kyun) and family housekeeper (Jang Hye-junn as mother Chung-sook).

It’s thus a determinedly heightened mood Bong is inviting, one that resists too much probing analysis (the question of why they the Kims Lee Jung-eun’s original housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang in on that fateful evening is really as unrefined as: because there wouldn’t be a movie, or at least not one with such perverse twists, if they didn’t). The essential thesis, when, as is noted at one point, there are hundreds of job applications just for a menial position, is that all it takes is that one stroke of opportunity to show what the downtrodden are capable of (Bong flirts with a talismanic piece of rock as a harbinger for their success, only to reject its properties).

That said, Bong’s approach does, at times, reminds me of Leigh’s self-righteousness, where we’re supposed to empathise with the protagonists as actual people (who, thoroughly unscrupulous as they are, are crucially a family who spend time together and enjoy each other’s company) while the one-percent parasites are ignorant, bigoted fools who deserve what they get. Which is a take, but it’s a less than nuanced one. There’s no effort to by Bong to get to know the Parks, except in as much as they reflect the Kims, and in particular, the manner in which Dong-ik motivates Ki-taek.

That’s also true of the reveal that Moon-gwang’s husband Oh Geun-saw (Park Myung-hoon) has been living secretly in the Park’s underground bunker for the past five years. It’s a very literal depiction of the rich blithely living off the poor, imprisoning the poor, and then, the poor turning against each other in violence for the scraps left them by the rich. Again, it’s the visualisation here that carries the power, rather than the somewhat rote subtext; the very thing of the vast, unknown underground basement lends the proceedings an unsettling air, one that might be even more pungent if we were encouraged to see the Parks as human beings too.

I wasn’t entirely convinced of the necessity of Parasite’s epilogue. On the one hand, it provides the neat circularity of Ki-taek becoming the prisoner in the basement, now serving a self-imposed sentence for murder (notably, a murder committed by a man aware of his own emasculation, as his wife jokingly points out about him at one point, and as he – scarily – jokily acknowledges). On the other, it further emphasises the almost fantastical remove the picture is capable of, with its unlikely Morse code messages, both sent and received, and a new family taking over the Park house without – presumably – bothering, or the estate agents bothering, to glance at its architectural plans. There’s also that Ki-woo’s impossible dream is a little too routine. Mostly, though, I felt Bong was tying everything up too thoroughly, so allowing the impact of the climactic birthday party to dissipate.

And as is often the case, I came away convinced Bong is a better director than writer; he’s a top-flight genre director, and only a so-so social commentator. Fortunately, here the two dovetail much more effectively than in the last few efforts. The scene of the flood and its fallout, contrasted with the Parks’ oblivious luxury is perfectly rendered, while his execution of the suspense/comedy sequences prior to that (the Kims hiding under the coffee table, the slapstick of Chung-sook pushing Moon-gwang down the bunker steps) is masterful. And ultimately, Parasite makes for an unusual Oscar winner, not just for being – to Donald’s chagrin – one not in the English language, but also as the one that most deserved the prize out of the contenders.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

All the way up! We’ll make it cold like winter used to be.

Soylent Green (1973)
(SPOILERS) The final entry in Chuck Heston’s mid-career sci-fi trilogy (I’m not counting his Beneath the Planet of the Apes extended cameo). He hadn’t so much as sniffed at the genre prior to 1967, but over the space of the next half decade or so, he blazed a trail for dystopian futures. Perhaps the bleakest of these came in Soylent Green. And it’s only a couple of years away. 2022 is just around the corner.

Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
(SPOILERS) Black Hawk Down completed a trilogy of hits for Ridley Scott, a run of consistency he’d not seen even a glimmer of hitherto. He was now a brazenly commercial filmmaker, one who could boast big box office under his belt where previously such overt forays had seen mixed results (Black Rain, G.I. Jane). It also saw him strip away the last vestiges of artistic leanings from his persona, leaving behind, it seemed, only technical virtuosity. Scott was now given to the increasingly thick-headed soundbite (“every war movie is an anti-war movie”) in justification for whatever his latest carry-on carried in terms of controversial elements, and more than happy to bed down with the Pentagon (long-standing collaborators with producer Jerry Bruckheimer) to make a movie that, while depictinga less than auspicious intervention by the US military (“Based on an Actual Event” is a marvellous catch-all for wanton fabrication), managed to turn it into a parade of heroes pe…

Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…