Dir: Bong Joon-ho
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film, Best Production Design, Best Film Editing.
For Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean black comedy thriller Parasite to be talked about seriously as a not only a best picture contender at this year’s Academy Awards, but also to be discussed seriously as a potential winner is a major achievement. “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films” said Bong Joon-ho as he accepted his Golden Globe for best foreign film, perhaps making his pitch to be considered not just best “International” film, but best film at this year’s Oscars. A recent anonymous Academy voter disclosing their voting choices (and reasons for their votes) said they didn’t think this should win best picture because foreign films shouldn’t even be nominated alongside “regular” films! The commerciality of great films in cinemas that need subtitles has always been a major problem. Cinema going audiences almost inexplicably don’t like anything that presents them with even the smallest modicum of a challenge, no matter how high the reward, when heading into the cinema. This was evidenced by previous Best Picture winner The Artist, an excellent little movie, that saw walkouts across the multiplexes of the U.K. and the U.S., not because of the language barrier but because it was a ‘silent’ film. Exceptionally easy to watch and actually a fairly light and breezy piece, the title cards, black and white photography (some people can’t handle black and white bizarrely) and academy ratio combo proved too much for many viewers.
This is why for the survival of great cinema (hold tight, I am about to chastise some of you now), it’s vital you don’t stream this one illegally on your laptop, as there seemed to be a spate of in advance of the movies UK release on Feb 7th. You may think you loved Parasite, (putting aside the fact that if you didn’t see Parasite on the big screen then you absolutely missed most of what the movie was about) but you can’t truly love something if you don’t respect it. If ‘educated’ film goers (i.e. people prepared to watch a South Korean film) are avoiding the cinema in favour of illegally streaming a great movie with subtitles, then box office for something like this just won’t live up to expectations. When that doesn’t happen distributors, the press etc will simply stop trying to bring movies like this into cinemas and to the attention of the public, because movies with subtitles, or indeed just movies of this less mainstream type aren’t big money makers, and the next time there is a Parasite, you simply won’t get to hear about and enjoy it, and eventually they will stop getting made. If you are going to stream something make it something uber commercial that is guaranteed to rake in the super big bucks with or without your patronage.
The remarkableness of Parasite’s success doesn’t stop with subtitles however. It is, in the best possible way, and by deliberate design a wonderfully odd movie. Nothing earth shattering but definitely odd enough to allow you to delight in the deliciousness of it’s somewhat sadistic world view and indeed is prone to wrong footing the viewer throughout. It’s a movie that takes pleasure in doing the one thing that so many movies get wrong. Keeping it’s mystery alive throughout. Even the worst of films can often start out with real promise. As soon as the central idea of the movie comes into the plain site the film becomes a chore to get through as it goes through the motions. All good horror directors know that showing the monster ends the suspense (a convention that Joon-ho spectacularly broke in an earlier movie of his). Here Joon-ho shows us the monsters right from the beginning but only reveals their monstrousness piece meal, and then makes you question to which side the morality is weighted. As such revealing too much about the premise would be wrong and somewhat misleading but the film is largely about the class divide between the poor and the privileged and the strange impulses of human behaviour.
Centred on a working class family who are down (literally living in a fairly grim basement flat) on their luck when the opportunity arises for the son of the family to step in as a home tutor for the daughter of a rich family living in a beautifully designed and clearly expensive suburban home. The family then worm their way into the home taking on different roles of employment posing as unrelated to one another through a slightly farcical, but humorously done, series of employment references, each one essentially recommending the next in a chain of lies about their qualifications as tutor, chauffeur and so on. Of course this storyline is essentially built to unravel, and in what might otherwise be a silly turn of events, in the hands of Joon-ho it oozes style and wit.
It’s a beautifully shot and in it’s most bravura moments calls to mind another ‘out of step’ best picture nominee 2012’s Beasts Of The Southern Wild for it’s spectacular use of lighting, colour, and water. The cast are all near perfect, and all performances convey the right amount of malice, obliviousness or reactionary behaviour aided by an excellent script and even better direction by Joon-ho. It’s social commentary is plain to see but never outweighs the immediacy of the film’s next twist, the characters current predicament, and never weighs down the narrative at any point, indeed it does what any great movie about social divides does, drives it forward, class is the engine that powers the script. It’s a film that demands to be seen in a cinema, on a big screen, because the collective sense of dread that Joon-ho inspires through beautiful timing and witty pacing is one that can only really be discovered as a whole room holds it’s breath and the big screen and sound envelope you in the craftsmanship which screams class. In fact unusually for a film that mostly takes place in one space a best production design Oscar would not go amiss given the superlative design of the set and indeed it’s probably chiefly how Joon-ho utilises the geography of the space with his camera that has won the film more than 100 awards including a well deserved Palme d’Or at Canne (the first unanimous vote since 2013). How the film will stand up to repeat viewings is anyone’s guess and I suspect it might lose a little something in a second run through, but the first time in a cinema for a movie like this in 2020 will be always be cracking experience and not one you should live through your laptop.
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