Reel Review - Parasite (2019)
Parasite—director Bong Joon-Ho’s Best Picture Winner at the 92nd Academy Awards and Palme d’Or winner at the 72nd Annual Cannes Films Festival—isn’t his best work but it’s still an impressive turn. An at-times-fun, at-times-frightening and at-other-times-farcical spiral of a film, there are elements of comedy, suspense and horror to keep you entertained, though it can leave its viewers trailing behind as it runs off with itself.
The Kim family—mother Chung-sook, father Ki-taek, son Ki-woo and daughter Ki-jung—are living in squalor with little in the way of prospects when a friend gifts them an auspicious scholar’s rock, fabled to bring success and wealth to whoever has possession of it. Soon thereafter, Ki-woo lands a tutoring position for a wealthy family and with some strategic “planning” the Kim’s begin to imagine a life for themselves beyond their penury.
This is likely one of the most decorated films of all time though the reasons for all of its accolades seem less based on merit than on industry-insider recognition of Joon-ho’s previous works, Okja and Snowpiercer, that critics lauded but that Hollywood largely ignored during their respective year’s awards circuits.
One of our main characters starts the film by drawing attention to some of its literary elements—a seemingly deliberate act by writer/director Bong Joon-ho to break the fourth wall and let the viewer know that this film is aware of itself and the absurdity that is undoubtedly about to pursue. After the first act, however, this is a device that Bong Joon-ho drops altogether and without reason and we’re left feeling a little out in the cold, wondering if we’re meant to be laughing or cringing at what we’re seeing. This is where Parasite loses some marks.
In all of Bong Joon-ho’s previous work, most notably in his strongest film Snowpiercer—there is an element of self-awareness to the rich metaphor that he creates. It has the effect of being disarming by being self-deprecating, as if the prettiest person in the room deliberately made funny faces to let everyone know that they don’t take themselves so seriously. This self-awareness breaks the barrier between you and the screen and allows you not just to observe the events but to relate to them, to feel them. In Snowpiercer, this is accomplished through a speech delivered by Tilda Swinton’s character. In Parasite, however, we lose this unique fourth-wall breaking device as the script becomes increasingly preoccupied with itself, making it difficult to relate to the metaphor unfolding before us regardless of how great the other elements of the film are.
Further, if Parasite was intended to be a commentary on wealth and income inequality and capitalism as it was billed, then it is a bleak statement that is as disillusioned as it is hopeless. Our “protagonists”—or the characters with whom we are meant to empathize—are, as the title of the film suggests, parasites. They are not the hard-working proletariat, kept under the boot of those with greater social status in an unjust and intractable system. In fact, decent people are almost absent from this film altogether. They are, all of them, dishonest, unscrupulous grifters or inexplicably aloof. It’s a thinly drawn strawman of an allegory that is beneath the tremendous gifts of Bong Joon-ho and we’ve seen better.
Nevertheless, Parasite is a technically well-made film with strong artistic vision. Jung Jae-il’s phenomenal score didn’t get nearly enough credit. The ensemble rightly won itself the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Over the course of its considerable two-hour and ten-minute runtime, there are more than enough pearls along this thread to string you along to the end.