Last month Bong Joon-ho made history when he won amongst others the Best Director and notably the Best Picture Oscar for a darkly comic social commentary Parasite, a film which also scooped the Palme d’Or at Cannes back in May. Watching the film and upon reflecting afterwards, it is hardly a surprise given its status as a gripping and intriguing piece that balances humour with tragic undertones.
Ki-taek lives in a cramped and squalid ground floor apartment with his wife Chung-sook, son Ki-woo and daughter Ki-jung, their financial struggles implied not just by their living arrangements but by small things such as their desire to seek fre WiFi at the expense of their neighbour. Struggling in their careers of selling pizza boxes, the family see an opportunity to escape their mundane life when Ki-woo accepts an offer at the behest of a friend to work as a tutor for the daughter of a wealthy family whose lifestyle marks the flip side of them.
Before long he integrates into the family to the point where his parents and sister deceitfully gain jobs working as a driver, housekeeper and art therapist hiding from their new employers that they are all related.
As their charade continues, the family see their new lifestyle as an escape, but of course the ruse can’t go entirely smoothly and the dynamic is challenged by the uncovering of secrets they would not have prepared for. Joon-ho develops the characters and their motivations by focusing more on the comedy in the first half, such as a recurrent gag involving a drunken resident who urinates in the street in full view of the basement flat window, culminating in a slow motion scene involving a bucket of water.
Compare that to the seeming bliss the Parks endure in their secluded mansion, a world away from the near-claustrophic setting the Kim became accustomed due to the implied multiple loss of jobs the father has gone through.
As the Kims worm their way into the Park household, the film does so in a manner akin to Pedro Almodovar’s darkest dramas, their methods to gain status at the expense of others illustrated, notably when they take advantage of a housekeeper’s peach allergy through the guise of supposed tuberculosis.
The first half is more about the characters and the emphasis on the contrasting of the lives in which the two families live their lives, requiring patience as the story sets up the characters’ and their actions and then presents the job in the second half of the family being tested as they battle to maintain their meticulously-designed con game. It is from then on that the film notches up a gear turning into a hugely engaging thriller with a sense of unpredictability thanks to the revealing of a unique twist, a testament to the originality of Joon-ho’s screenplay. His direction is littered with shots that reminded me of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and the films of Michael Haneke, whilst scenes of suspense play amongst his strongest points.
The highlight comes when the family take advantage of having the house to themselves treating it as their own, only for circumstances to force them to try and flee the house without being caught seeing as all four are only meant to be in the house together in a professional capacity. A particular sequence inside a living room is a lesson in creating suspense, made more impressive with what comes before it and the subsequent scenes that then follow, as if enough has not occurred then.
It is not often that humour, suspense and tragedy are involved in the same film, yet the film works because it is so competent at all three of those features. The final moments are a reflection on the ambitions that lie amongst us; its summation making for a poignancy in a film about those who just want a good life and struggle how to get up to where others have done so with apparent ease. Its timeliness is clear in an era where the gap between rich and poor narrows and how the cinema can take us to places we have an understanding of and twist into unorthodox areas.
If recent cinema has shown anything, it’s that foreign films are better than American and the film that usually wins the Palme d’Or or the Foreign Film Oscar turn out to be much better than what won Best Picture. This year Parasite won both the Foreign Film Oscar (renamed the International Film Award) and Best Picture, making for the first time in years that the Academy have got it right with the top prize, a symbol representing how foreign language cinema is worthy of the top prize America has to offer. The BAFTAs showed it could be done in the 1970s when they awarded Truffaut’s Day for Night Best Film and after 92 years, the Academy have finally followed suit.
With Parasite, Joon-ho has made one of the most original films of recent memory, a versatile and engaging study of class, ambition and society that stands out as the finest Best Picture Oscar winner since Argo and the best Palme d’Or victor since Amour. Kamsahamnida, Bong.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: ***1/2