When Parasite won the Palme d’Or and then went on to get real Oscar buzz my initial thought was that South Korean writer/director Bong Joon Ho must have really stepped things up. It’s not that I didn’t like his previous films, quite the opposite, but I didn’t think they were the kinds of movies that got this type of award attention. Having now seen the film, I have to say that he hasn’t really stepped things up at all. This sounds harsh so I have to make this clear; Bong Joon Ho was already an excellent film maker but in my opinion Parasite is not the sudden step into incomparable genius that you might have heard.
The screening I saw last night was followed by the live broadcast of a Q&A with Bong and the first question he was asked was why he thought this film had connected with audiences and critics in a way his other work hadn’t. Interestingly he didn’t have any idea which is a shame because it was a query that occurred to me while I was watching it too and I still want someone to give me the answer.
Okay look, I’m absolutely not saying that Parasite is a poor film. Parasite is a brilliant film but there have been better movies to come out of South Korea just in the last few years; The Handmaiden, Burning, The Villainess, Train to Busan. I don’t know why this one is suddenly getting all of the focus. Can it really just be something as simple as good marketing?
Admittedly those last two films were an action flick and a zombie movie respectively so they were never going to be talked of for mainstream awards. Parasite is essentially a home invasion thriller though so also plays with familiar cinematic conventions. There I go again, sounding like I’m putting this film down. If Parasite is a home invasion thriller it is a very smart and sophisticated one but The Villainess and Train to Busan were also highly superior examples of their genres. The set up of Parasite (and I’m not going to give you any more than this because the less you know going in the better) is around a young man who tricks his way into the lives of a local rich family and then gets way too comfortable in his new affluent surroundings.
There is some very incisive social commentary here, with the man’s poor family representing one stratum and the much wealthier people he takes advantage of another. Interestingly both are depicted with some cliche. The less well off people are freeloaders and the others have more money than sense. Cleverly though neither is seen as morally or intellectually superior to the other. Bong Joon Ho’s Okja was brimming over with cultural satire as well though and actually carried a more powerful message. It got a little bonkers toward the end but let’s just say that Parasite goes off in some curious directions too. Bong’s Snowpiercer also had plenty to say about the have and the have nots with the former living at one end of a train and the latter at the other as it cruised around the world carrying the last of humanity following some cataclysmic turn of events. Both of these two films were great but Parasite, it has to be said, is neater.
Parasite also incorporates some excellent set design and camera sets ups. It is definitely a beautifully directed piece. The brilliance may be in its writing though as it’s recent BAFTA win for best original screenplay suggests. It is not too much to describe it as Hitchcockian as it slowly builds suspense but again, this isn’t new. If you want a South Korean director that stands as an equal to Alfred Hitchcock then I give you Park Chan Wook. This is the guy that gave us the aforementioned The Handmaiden and there are plenty of twists and turns in that but his 2013 movie Stoker is the one that really plays Hitch at his own game. In fact Stoker sits nicely alongside Parasite as it centres around a family home and also doesn’t follow conventional ideas of good and evil. Not only did it not get awards recognition though, it barely registered at the box office.
I don’t begrudge Parasite an ounce of its success. It is gripping, funny, stylish and full of superb performances and I hope it wins all of the Oscars it is up for. Still though it isn’t even my favourite of the foreign language films I have seen in cinemas in the last week. Don’t think of Parasite as the remarkable international movie that ‘finally leaps the subtitle barrier’ as I have heard it described in the press. Recognise it instead as only one, and not even the best, of an astonishing array of films to come from South Korea and other places outside of the US.