I’ve often reiterated the idea that Cannes Film Festival is much more appreciative of true filmmaking quality than the mainstream film awards, or at a very minumum than the Academy Awards. I am curious to see, based on the momentum Joon-ho Bong’s film is also gaining in the Western world, whether or not it will score at least one major award at the Oscars, will merely be there (like Cold War last year), or will just participate in (and likely win) the foreign film category. Objectively speaking, it’s faring very well: a 95 Metascore rating, an 8.6 overall on IMDb (which at the moment puts it #45 on the Top Rated Movies of All Time ranking), and as of late, a viral marketing campaign which has led to it grossing substantial amounts of money in markets where Korean films usually are in a less than rosy position. Irregardless of the ultimate outcome, Oscar talk is not something we should concentrate right now. We can instead talk about the 2019 Palme d’Or winner. Even better, we can just talk about Parasite.
A debate with no sides is the best debate
While Parasite is essentially a social commentary about class and social inequality – a simple glance at the title will suffice to cement this direction – it likewise has what other similar projects lack: a refined story. It does not simply bombard its audience with a poor excuse for a political agenda, but instead weaves an intricate web of characters, plot points and stylistic shifts with seamless grace. Essentially, it tells the story of a poor Korean family – Ki-taek, his wife Chung-sook, son Ki-woo and daughter Ki-jung – who by various means manage to ascend the social ladder and live completely different lives than the existence they had previously been accustomed to. Most of this is achieved in conjecture with the affluent Park family, as Ki-woo commences tutoring their teenage daughter in English, following a recommendation from one of his well-off friends.
Despite the game of stark contrasts, Parasite does not point fingers. It at no moment reeks of revulotionarism, doesn’t put forward a ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ agenda, doesn’t lecture its audience on anything, and doesn’t mix any sort of social justice formula into its content. Actually, it never overtly explains who the parasites from its title are. Each of the characters presented has their own life, hopes and dreams, and their behaviour is context-determined, but permanently remains grounded in the realm of justifiability. There are no villains, just as there are no heroes – in fact, morality-wise, Parasite so much like real life, that something it becomes borderline scary due to its realism. Even when it evades this grey area, it does so exclusively from a visual or storytelling standpoint, without compromising the consistency of the overarching theme.
Up, down and the game of perspective
Because explaining the story in any more detail than already done would do the film a huge disservice, I would like to instead place emphasis on Parasite’s less tangible elements. Stylistically, it’s a visual gem, and those familiar with Joon-ho Bong’s films would have probably expected this to be the case. As opposed to some of his previous projects, such as Snowpiercer and Okja, Parasite is less experimental in its style, opting for a more traditional perspective which instead becomes a sort of character of its own. It retains the pacing familiarity of Korean filmmaking, while sort of bringing its main theme alive through visual gimmicks and perspective shifts.
A good example of such a stylistic trick is space. Ki-taek’s family lives in a semi-basement, whereas the Park family resides in a high-up point in the city. The uphill journeys necessary to reach the latter from the former are visually emphasised by a number of gloriously framed shots, which get reversed during another almost allegorical journey which some of the characters have to make toward the end of the film. It’s not that simple, however – other perspective elements come into play, such as where certain sets of characters are inclined to look, what details they seem to recurrently miss, and how some characters use their surroundings or react to light. A seemingly banale display of nature such as rain can be either a poetic moment or an enabler of tragedy, depending on context.
The art of following and easy metaphors
Besides its brilliant use of perspective and outstanding camerawork – some scenes are purely phenomenal – Parasite excels in another visual department that is usually extremely difficult to master: character perspective. We previously talked how the film’s decor eventually becomes a sort of character of its own, which basically means that a character’s mere presence inside this physical space may perhaps be described as manner of interaction. For lack of a better term, each character performs a sort of unique ‘dance’ in its environment, with the movements betraying his or her intentions, depth of interaction and, ultimately, success. It could be described as Hitchcockian, all things considered, but in a brand of its own, if that makes any sort of sense.
In order to bring this to a point of vividness that transcends conventional storytelling, Parasite employs what is perhaps the best character shots I have seen in a long time. Each character’s physical trajectory is calculated in order to maximise meaning, regardless of whether or not the action itself stems from a deliberate or non-deliberate purpose. Maybe it somewhat resembles Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ in this way, but instead of choosing a couple of stylistic methods and sticking with them throughout, Parasite instead makes abundant use of perspective in order to tell its story and draw parallels. The mood of certain scenes is determined solely by their decor, and how the characters are situated inside that physical space – even with exactly the same characters, a scene can feel either cramped or claustrofobic, or relaxed and liberating. Close-ups alternate with wider shots that are set up in layers and framed within their environments, in a maddening game of stylistic parkour.
Parasite is perhaps the best film I’ve watched in the last two years, and whether or not it will ultimately get the mainstream success it deserves is of no import to me. It suffices that it strikes a perfect balance bewteen a real issue and a non-politicised angle, between entertainment and realism, between humour and darkness, and between art and more art. Watch it in Korean, with subs, and watch it now.