A couple of days ago a South Korean film director made Oscars history, by having his film, Parasite, win both of the most prestigious categories that the Academy has to offer: Best Director and Best Feature. It was quite the moment, especially given the overall strength of the field this year, with strong competitors like Sam Mendes' 1917, Greta Gerwig's Little Women, and Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story. So is the praise deserved? Let's find out.
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho has for years made a name for himself across the globe by simply refusing to stick to a certain set of moviemaking rules or defining traits, and Parasite is perhaps the clearest example of that strategy, itself toying with genre conventions and audience expectations in order to consistently keep the audience at the edge of their seat.
While the movie is best enjoyed as a complete surprise, it's safe to say that Parasite is about a low-income family living in the Favela-like area of South Korean capital Seoul. One of the family members gets the opportunity to act as an English tutor for the teenager daughter of one the city's more wealthy families, and so begins the brutal, humorous and layered interplay between the family with nothing, and the family with everything. Telling you anything else would simply spoil the surprise of following Bong Joon-ho down the rabbit hole of social commentary, comedic exchange and choking twists and turns, so we'll leave it at that.
Parasite itself defies genre in a very deliberate way but could be compared to the dark comedies of the Coen Brothers, like Burn After Reading, or perhaps even Panic Room, where a seemingly simple and understandable situation endlessly escalates. But even that isn't doing Parasite justice, as it's hard to find direct comparisons to the overall sharpness and effectiveness of the experience of just letting yourself be constantly shocked and surprised throughout its entire runtime.
It's very clear from the off-set that Parasite is a piece of precision filmmaking, where much of the pleasure it gives the viewer is directly linked to the second-by-second positioning of the camera, of the actors, and of the soundscapes. It's like watching Michelin-star chef Nobu Matsushisa demonstrate the "folds" of Nigiri sushi; it's incredibly simple, but ultimately increasingly complex as it becomes clear just how precise each element, each fold must be in order to be effective. Parasite does not defy conventions in this particular regard, but it simply must be seen to be truly appreciated.
Despite the various South Korean actors involved not receiving any praise at this year's Oscars, they all deliver powerhouse performances. Both families embody the socioeconomic differences embedded in South Korean (and Western) society and we're given both a bird's eye view and a looking glass view at the inequality that defines us, and ultimately divides us. It is, however, the humane and believable way in which each character is written that impresses, as Bong Joon-ho and fellow scriptwriter Han Jin-won avoid stereotypes, archetypes and flaccid characterisations, instead opting for believable and humane portraits of the two families. Neither of them are particularly heroic, nor are they cartoonish villains - they just represent either end of the spectrum, each trying to do the best with what they have. At least from the off-set.
Parasite isn't only wonderfully acted, but it looks incredible too. While previous Bong Joon-ho films all have had a certain flair, Parasite is, at first glance at least, incredibly simple, but there's a certain hue to the colour palette, a particular lamp in the rich family's insanely luxurious house which casts a very particular shadow, and once you notice the small visual details of the incredibly rich backdrops, you once again appreciate the scalpel-like nature in which the cinematographers have created the locations where everything plays out.
Parasite is unique, wonderfully told and precisely designed, and that's why it's a bit of a shame that Bong Joon-ho ultimately gives in to some moviemaker basic instincts, and ends on a pretty sour note. While we will, of course, offer up no spoilers here, it's safe to say that while the entire film deftly navigates around genre-specific clichés, it sadly does end with a hollow bump rather than the bang that it builds towards, and while it would be to do the movie a disservice to call it bad, it is however not in tune with the rest of the movie's tone. One could perhaps argue that in an attempt to avoid all conventions, Bong Joon-ho ultimately steps into one - one of his own making.
But that hardly matters as Parasite is one of the more unique movies ever to win the two most prestigious awards the movie business has to offer. And it deserves them both, wholly.
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