Notes From the Margins…

Parasite: A Film for Our Times

  • February 21, 2020
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Donald Trump isn’t generally known for pronouncements on world cinema.  But he and his fans seem to believe that he has the right to express even the most vapid opinions on everything, and given that Hollywood mostly despises him, it isn’t as surprising as it might seem at first sight  to find the Emperor of Mar-a-Lago taking a break from his electoral preparations to pontificate on the Oscars.

“How bad were the Academy Awards this year, did you see? ‘And the winner is … a movie from South Korea,’ ” the Great Man told  a rally in Colorado. “What the hell was that all about? We’ve got enough problems with South Korea with trade, on top of it they give them the best movie of the year?”

Pauline Kael eat your heart out, because this is cutting edge film criticism.  None of your woke Hollywood elitism here. After all, what the hell is going on with the world, that a South Korean movie should win the Oscars?  It’s political correctness gone mad – or something.   “I’m looking for like, let’s get ‘Gone with the Wind’ — can we get like ‘Gone with the Wind’ back, please?” the Gilded Monstrosity went on. “‘Sunset Boulevard,’ so many great movies.”

So many.  But Trump rates a dewy-eyed eulogy to the Confederacy.  Who would have expected that?  It could have been worse.  Given the depths to which we’ve plunged these last few years, he might just as well have mentioned Birth of a Nation, and few would have batted an eyelid, except that he probably hasn’t heard of it . But the point was clear: the best movies are American movies – movies made by white people for white people.  That’s what America did when it was great.

As most people with a brain will know, the film that displeased the capo dei tutti capi was Bong Joon-ho’s (what kinda name is that, huh?) Parasite, which broke with Hollywood tradition and won best picture award, even though it was a foreign-language film.

I saw Parasite yesterday, and it fully justified all the plaudits it received.  It’s a magnificent and completely engrossing achievement that fully succeeds in everything it tries to do.  It is part-black comedy, part- thriller, part-social satire, which weaves all these different genres into a profound and ultimately tragic meditation on class, inequality and rampant consumerism.

As Trump says, it is surprising that Hollywood should have given best picture to a film like this is, but not for the reasons that he thinks.

As a writer, I’m always interested in how cinema draws on a range of ingredients to tell its stories in ways that go beyond the script itself.  Cinematography, direction, acting, editing, music – all these components determine whether a film works or not and whether even a great written script lives up to its original potential.

Parasite is cinema firing on all cylinders.  Its foundation is a witty, clever and completely original storyline that Harold Pinter or Julio Cortázar would have been proud of, that positively bristles with nuance and intelligence, whose plot twists come out of nowhere and seem entirely justified in the context.   Boon Jong-ha transforms this material into a jewel of cinematic art, enhancing and building on its original premise using the full box of tricks available to a skillful and visionary director.

All this is even more remarkable, in that the film essentially oscillates between two locations: the ultra-modern, architect-designed house where the Park family live in untroubled luxury, and the underground cockroach-infested basement flat where the Kims eke out a precarious hand-to-mouth existence until the opportunity unexpectedly arises to infiltrate themselves into the lives of the former.

I won’t describe the plot, in case you haven’t seen it.  There are elements of Parasite which reminded me of other films depicting master-servant relationships, from The Servant, The Remains of the Day and Gosford Park.   Like these films,  Parasite explores the tensions and the black comedy in the quotidian reality of domestic lives built on envy, dehumanisation and exploitation. But Bong Joon-ha goes beyond mere social satire to draw a broader picture of the parallel and intersecting lives of the rich and poor, which is not only South Korean but global in its implications.

“It’s all metaphorical!” cries the young conman Ki-Woo.  In Parasite, it certainly is.  In a succession of dazzling images, metaphors and plot twists,  the film shows the abandonment of society by the rich, and the terrifying gulf between a tiny elite that has more than it could ever possibly need, while a large percentage of the world’s population is forced to survive at varying levels of precarity that families like the Parks are not even aware of.

Though there are some real laugh-out-loud moments in Parasite, the film is really a tragedy, because the world it depicts is tragic.  It is our world: a global society hollowed out by decades of reckless concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people; by the disintegration of the public sphere, to the point where the rich live in gilded bubbles without the remotest idea of what is taking place beneath their feet – in the Parks’ case, quite literally.

You can be certain that neither Trump nor many members of his audience yesterday will have seen that film,  because what red-blooded American patriot would want to see a film with subtitles, right?  This is a pity, because in a roundabout way, Parasite is a film about Trump, Ivanka and Jared Kushner, and so many people like them.

And some of those more humble Americans who think that Trump and his family actually care about them might have learned something about the dystopian social dynamics of our collapsing  21st century world.

For those who think that cinema has moved on since Gone With the Wind, I urge you to see this tremendous film, which looks at the current state of things straight in the eye, and makes you laugh, weep, and gasp – and ultimately reminds you that this world has to change or we are all lost.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Daniel Margrain

    24th Feb 2020 - 6:11 am

    I saw the film yesterday. The review perfectly encapsulates my thoughts. A magnificent cinematic experience.

  2. Julietta Schoenmann

    25th Feb 2020 - 4:13 pm

    Great review Matt and so on the nail regarding the gulf between these two families. It’s a story that transcends the boundaries of the country it’s set in and depicts a contemporary scenario that is familiar to many. No wonder this film has resonated with audiences worldwide. I’d like to do a triple bill of this, ‘Shoplifters’ and ‘Burning ‘which explore similar themes.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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