Published on August 21st, 2019 | by Noah Dimitrie0
What the heck is Bong Joon-Ho’s new Palm D’or winning film, Parasite? Is it Drama? Horror? Comedy? Perhaps. What it really is, is a masterpiece.
I really think that Bong Joon-Ho shines when directing films in his native tongue. The drawbacks on Snowpiercer and Okja (both of which I still enjoyed) were that the balance of satirical wit, emotionally-driven characterization, and viscera were not quite as precise as they needed to be. It must be something in the water over in South Korea, because his Korean-language films (The Host, Memories of Murder, Mother) seem to carry their own weight of tonal uniqueness without grunting and perspiring along the way. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Bong, as one of the world’s most fascinating and distinctive auteurs, has pieced together a more concise body of work on his home turf. But it’s not so much that his films’ subject matter and themes are culturally specific; rather, his calling card as a filmmaker — as he has revealed through his filmography — seems to be the craftsmanship of a genre unto himself, defined by unbelievably palpable atmospheres and an unprecedentedly successful confluence of tones and genres. His best films feel quintessential to Korea, born out of a unique mindset not only towards society but also towards storytelling.
Parasite, which rightfully earned cinema’s top honour at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece. It is a film that not only succeeds at entertaining the hell out of just about anyone who watches it (I’d honestly show this to my mom, who probably hasn’t watched a film with subtitles in her entire life. That’s how undeniably fun-to-watch it is). Yet, what makes this film so remarkable, is that the film isn’t just a masterwork, it’s his masterwork. The film solidifies Bong’s unique sensibility as an auteur of the highest order, a director who not only has ambition and originality but also has put it into practice enough to nail it completely.
I’ll go light on plot specifics because it is just so much more rewarding if you aren’t familiar with any of its savvy and calculated twists. What I will speak to is the film’s thematic subtext, which strikes the perfect equilibrium of being evocatively branded upon the viewer’s brain but also subtle and poised enough to show and not tell. It finds a striking contrast between the rich and poor and plays around with these wildly different social classes like a kid mixing his Star Wars Legos in with the Harry Potter ones. That wildly imaginative dualism is made apparent in almost every shot, the mise-en-scene shaped by either the poor family living in their cramped basement apartment or the very rigid, Po-Mo mansion that they find themselves working in (the house’s beautiful, expensive décor is made to feel eerie; think the egregious modern architecture seen in Tati’s Mon Oncle or Playtime). Additionally, the lower class family, the titular parasites, are greedy and manipulative, seduced by materialism and jaded by their lack of socio-economic fortune. They’re the protagonists in this story, but they’re far from the good guys. As their get-rich-quick scheme unravels, they don’t exactly respond to the sobering realization of their weaknesses with any form of dignity. Come to think of it, I can’t recall a single innocent and/or pious person in this film, except maybe the rich kids, who are more so spoiled than consciously unethical.
This film is equal parts funny and horrifying. As I said before, its genre is just Bong Joon-Ho more than it is solely comedy, thriller, horror, etc. The film doesn’t work from any pre-conceived point of reference (i.e. “what beats should a comedy or thriller follow?”). It just tells its story and lets it flow naturally. I suppose you could boil it down to a kind of funny, con-artist romp, but then the second half takes a sharp left turn into Hitchockian territory and sends all your built-up notions and assumptions flying out the window. It becomes rather violent, but without much of the gratuity or sensationalism required from a horror flick. It’s a film in which the thematic substance — essentially the socially-relevant underpinnings and signifiers worked into the fabric of the narrative — do not conflict with the film’s entertainment value. The genre of Bong Joon-Ho is not cut down by the need to contrive excitement; instead, that highly coveted edge-of-your-seat quality synchronizes with the subtext perfectly, to the point where it becomes impossible to really distinguish between them. Therefore, it earns the freedom to play around with its tone and iconography. There’s even a well-timed meta motif in which a character often remarks that thing “are so metaphorical,” capping off the film’s playfulness with a pinch of self-awareness. And it somehow only adds to the brilliantly enlightening experience of watching Parasite.
I know it’s probably the biggest cliché in the book, but this is truly the film we need in 2019, not simply because of its timely and relatable message, but because of the balance of skill and playfullness with which it is presented that makes that message so effective. I think its my favourite film of the year because it just nails all its many moving parts, weaving them together into a dense but endlessly watchable yarn. When the credits rolled, my initial urge was to immediately watch it all over again, not out of the need to clear up my confusion but to just gawk at it, like a perfect specimen being paraded around. I say “paraded” because if there’s one thing the film lacks its humility — and that’s not a bad thing. It knows its good, it knows that its characters are dimensional and its satire has perfect pitch. It’s confident as hell and it’s not afraid to show it. If a film doesn’t meet its perceived level of brilliance, it can be painfully obvious and usually devastating. But in a great film like this, confidence just adds to its magnetism. For anyone who even remotely knows good cinema when they see it, Parasite is undeniably a force of nature.