Director: Joon-ho Bong
Writers: Joon-ho Bong, Jin Won Han
Composer: Jaeil Jung
Starring: Kang-ho Song, So-dam Park, Woo-sik Choi, Sun-kyun Lee
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Thriller
Director Bong Joon Ho is no stranger to critical acclaim. However, his country of origin–South Korea–has surprisingly been overlooked before now. Considering the nation’s growing reputation in producing some of the best horrors and dramas in cinema, it comes as a shock to learn that Parasite is the first South Korean to win the top prize (the Palme d’Or) at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Given it also won with a unanimous vote, does this mean that Parasite has the gumption to run the full gauntlet, becoming not just the first South Korean film, but the first international film to win the most popularized movie competition in the world–the Academy Awards?
And no, this has no relation to the anime with a similar name.
Violence/Scary Images: The second half of the film continually builds up a sense of dread, turning into a thriller. Several instances involving physical assault: punching, strangulation, pushing people down stairs, excessive blunt force trauma to the head. Realistic amounts of blood are seen in conjunction with injuries. Blood is seen pooling out onto the floor after a character is attacked. Characters are stabbed to death: not unnecessarily gory, but blood is seen seeping into their clothing. A character has a seizure. A character goes into anaphylactic shock. Characters are violently tied up against their will.
Language/Crude Humor: There is moderate use of the f-word and s-word, along with more minor swears and derogatory descriptions of characters.
Drug/Alcohol References: Multiple characters smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol to excess.
Sexual Content: No nudity. A married couple fondle each other to a climax. Their hands are seen grasping each other’s covered privates. This sexual act is not performed in private. A man develops a manipulative relationship with a teenage girl–they are seen kissing. There is a close-up of a husband’s hand squeezing the buttock of his wife.
Spiritual Content: There is a story about a ghost (brief mentioning, not shown as a horror), though the audience learns the true (comedic) explanation. There is some talk about fate, and whether it makes sense to plan one’s life given how little we’re able to control.
Other Negative Content: The movie follows a family of con artists. Their crimes include but aren’t limited to forgery and impersonation. Characters frequently lie and manipulate each other in order to benefit themselves. Characters darkly exploit a person’s food allergy and cause grievous bodily harm as a result. People are blackmailed. Numerous characters go out of their way to ruin other people’s livelihoods. A person is seen urinating in public. Characters are forced to confront raw sewerage which may cause some viewers to gag.
Positive Content: This film offers a darkly comedic look at the frustrations and painful truths of society’s class divide, highlighting the importance of respecting your fellow human being no matter their status.
Every year there are one or two solid pieces of storytelling; great narratives that are told well, that enrich the mind and satisfy the soul. In 2018, the criminally overlooked film, Leave No Trace, and the heartbreakingly truthful movie, Beautiful Boy, filled that role. 2017 was a wonderful year for cinema, delivering three: Manchester By the Sea, Silence, and Lion. As we near the end of 2019 and can reflect on the best dramas and tales of the past ten months, it’s clear that this time it’s The Farewell, and now Parasite as well.
It’s a fantastically paced story that’s supremely satisfying to watch. Yet it’s disingenuous to label Parasite as a pure drama. Director Bong Joon Ho has a knack for creating works that remind the world that “genre” doesn’t actually exist. It’s nothing more than a marketing ploy, telling audiences that if they liked one particular movie, then they might like something similar, capitalizing on humanity’s bizarre desire to separate everything into categories, even with topics as broad as storytelling. Parasite is yet another example of how Bong Joon Ho simply wishes to tell original stories, not conforming to more traditional narrative structures. He makes things wholly his own, presenting a ripper of a good story along the way.
Yet in the past he’s had mixed results. The inconvenient truth is that people enjoy that sense of familiarity. Bong Joon Ho’s works therefore always have a quirky spin to them when they inevitably veer off the usual course and upend audience’s expectations. The Host was an oddball monster movie, bucking the trend of keeping the creature hidden from view, whilst also including a partly comedic family drama. Snowpiercer, arguably Bong Joon Ho’s most famous work in the West, offered up a biting criticism on society’s classist structures, though it was littered with comic book type violence, spinning off too far into the ‘weird’ category. The genre blend was even more uneven in Okja, as he tried to find the balance between a family friendly animal flick and political satire.
His work is fresh, and critics have kept an eye on him. However genre conventions have been popularized for a reason, and that’s because certain narrative formats and structures tend to resonate with audiences better. With Parasite, Bong Joon Ho has finally managed to master his craft. He has reigned in his wilder creative concepts and shaved it back into a more recognizable family drama setting, though he still maintains his signature off-kilter vibe when the story dips into thriller territory, all while simultaneously challenging traditional story progression. The result is a highly accessible and entertaining movie that will keep audiences guessing where the plot is headed next.
The movie follows the Kim family–a devoted married couple with an adult son and daughter, whom exist in a tiny apartment on the edge of poverty. Living by whatever means necessary, the son, Ki-woo, stumbles across the job opportunity of a lifetime when he’s recommended as a temporary replacement tutor for the daughter of a rich family (the Parks). The film is wildly entertaining as we watch the Kims con the Parks one by one, each gaining employment and the copious amounts of money that comes with it.
Admittedly the story is a little odd. It all seems too easy for the Kims, and despite the fun and games, a darkness develops over the narrative, to the extent that we begin to wonder whether our plucky and innovative protagonists are really the villains of the piece. Yet just as those doubts begin to linger, the movie changes things up in the most unexpected way. It’s a perfectly paced film that keeps the story rolling as the themes dig deeper and deeper.
It cynically analyzes the parasitic nature between the upper and lower class. The poor leech off the rich’s financial resources, yet in return, those in power feed off the hopeless servitude of those who otherwise have no choice. Bong Joon Ho taps into the classist rage that’s currently sweeping through South Korea. However, this isn’t a problem unique to one country, and Parasite’s themes are universal enough to appeal to any society that features a significant wage gap.
Art is a byproduct of society, and sometimes art in return influences culture. So it comes as no surprise that another South Korean film was released this year that explores similar themes–Burning. As its title unintentionally suggests, it is a slow burn, as the protagonist’s rage towards the upper class antagonist simmers and festers until it finally boils over. However it’s a subtle character study that’s more intertwined with South Korean culture, as opposed to Parasite, where its comedic elements make the story more accessible and enjoyable for worldwide audiences.
Parasite has little in way of flaws. That is, provided one doesn’t mind viewing some blood and violence, and blatant sexual content (albeit no nudity). The film’s ending, whilst a fitting conclusion, does feel unearned. Similar to the final season of Game of Thrones, one can logically see how a character ends up in a particular emotional place, particularly upon reflection, though it feels sudden and somewhat random in the moment. The only other criticism is with actress So-dam Park; there is one scene where her character’s alcoholic intoxication feels overplayed. But that’s it. That’s as nitpicky as I can get with this film.
Indeed, we’ve reached the stage of the review where in order to appreciate the majesty of this film, it can only happen in comparison with its cinematic peers. The Oscar darling drama, Roma, features superior cinematography (it has a tracking shot into the ocean!), though many people in the audience will no doubt find its three minute sequences of floor washing and scooping up dog poop boring. Parasite is the better crowd pleaser.
In comparison, Shoplifters is another critically acclaimed drama with a compelling story, though like Burning, it is on the slower, subtler side of storytelling. Capernaum is a brilliant drama (thoroughly recommend it as it’s like the real Slumdog Millionaire with its painfully realistic portrayal of poverty) though it’s ultimately hampered by its own downcast gloom, compared to Parasite’s more upbeat personality. Then there’s The Farewell, the other foreign language film (although it is made in the USA) that will no doubt compete alongside Parasite at the 2020 Oscars for Best Picture. The Farewell is more firmly within the drama genre, and is a wonderful melding of Eastern and Western values. Yet as strong as it is, The Farewell lacks the pizazz that Parasite oozes from every inch of its runtime.
Then there’s Joker. It’s the people’s choice at the moment for 2020’s Best Picture. Like Parasite and Burning, it also touches upon the inequality between social classes. However its message is presented without the same complexity as the aforementioned films. Its derivative nature is only more pronounced when it stands alongside fresher, more original stories. Crucially Joker lacks rewatchability, something that Parasite captures, thanks to its quirky combination of dark social commentary and unabashed level of entertainment. Joker has Parasite beat for Best Actor, but everything else points to Parasite as the better film over all.
This is a film that’s on par with Whiplash… WHIPLASH!! You only see a movie of this caliber once every couple of years! Provided you have no spiritual issues with content guidelines, I honestly don’t know how else to convince you to see this film, as I’m giving it one of my highest honors. I don’t want to completely hype this up beyond any film’s ability to meet expectations, but it’s hard to see how anyone could find Parasite utterly dissatisfying (although there’s always one).
The only thing left to discuss is whether this movie has the capacity to be the first foreign language film to take out the Best Picture award. While there’s some Oscar buzz around Honeyland (and not just because it focuses on bees), Parasite will no doubt win the newly renamed Best Foreign Language Film category (now simply titled Best International Feature Film). Historically it’s considered the most criticized category of the Academy Awards for three reasons:
- There can only be one entrant from each country, which grossly limits the competition should one nation have several strong contenders for that year. (Also there has been some debate in the past as to how one defines a “country”).
- If the winner of this category has effectively beaten the best film of every other nation barring the United States, then there’s a question as to whether it’s redundant to also include it in the Best Picture category? Should Best Picture merely be restricted to films made in the USA?
- Since their inclusion eighty-seven years ago, no foreign language film has won Best Picture. Stemming from the previous point, this is starting to subconsciously reflect America’s worldview as opposed to an assessment of the quality world cinema.
Parasite has the capacity (and the socio-political timing) to achieve the unthinkable. The Academy Awards has a tendency to “right past wrongs” (even though it can never really do so given the nature of annual competitions). It also has a crippling desire to remain relevant; to be the trendsetter of culture and not merely the follower. Given the industry’s hyper focus on diversity these past few years, particularly with casting choices and narratives, there is a lot of external pressure for the voters to shift their gaze in the same direction. Yet controversy still struck in 2019 when Green Book was awarded Best Picture; a film that certainly has the veneer of diversity, though it lacks depth and the true authenticity that a win for Roma would have brought.
To truly end the rumors of patriotic bias, the Academy Awards does at some point need to grant an international film the top honor, lest the International Film category become a joke. Bong Joon Ho has the track record to pull it off (as the Academy leans towards rewarding established careers as opposed to first-timers), and Parasite stands well on its own, free of any potential accusations that a Best Picture win is merely a token gesture.
There are some films yet to be released which might challenge Parasite’s dominance. The two upcoming war films, 1917 and Midway for example, are yet to show their talents. Yet if there was ever a time for an international piece to win the top award, that time is now. Because if a near-perfect film like Parasite is overlooked, like many foreign films before it, then it breeds a depressing question…
What exactly does an international film have to do in order to be properly given its due in the United States of America?
+ A solid, satisfying piece of storytelling. + Quirky but not too weird. Breaks genre but not to the point of distraction. + A wonderful microcosm of a larger socio-political issue. + Bong Joon Ho's best work. + It's an international film that can win Best Picture on its own merit--not a byproduct of tokenism.
- Might be too violent or sexualized for some viewers. - Questionable character development in the final act. - The acting in one scene is subpar. - The fact that it has made me extremely nitpicky to even write this list.
The Bottom Line
It's an entertaining, satisfying story that hits the right tone and pace. It's hard to fault, and manages to stand above any 2019 release that dares comparison. This is one of the best films of the year. Don't miss it!