Parasite, Bong Joon-Ho's latest film, won an impressive four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Coupled with the film's Palm d'Or at Cannes last year, its place as a contemporary classic is undeniable. Yet, it's not its accolades that have defined the film's success, but the questions it raises, both in the film and through the reactions these accolades have managed to provoke.
The film itself is very, very good. It's unsurprising in many ways too. Not only is the story incredibly original (hence the Best Original Screenplay award), but it's filmed by a maturing director who made a statement with his 2003 Memories of Murder film, before capturing a wider international audience with Snowpiercer.
Bong Joon-Ho's English-language debut Snowpiercer - itself an adaptation of a French graphic novel - already begins to explore the themes of class division in a very literal, yet interesting premise based on the sections of a perpetual motion train being divided into have and have-nots. Very much like J. G. Ballard's novel High-Rise, the film takes apart the permanence of division through action - a call-to-arms for those being metaphorically shit on. All represented through a physical division in one self-contained setting.
Parasite not only carries the baton of his earlier work, but lifts it to the top of the mountain to light its warning beacon. Intelligent writing helms us in to create a claustrophic thriller, so taut that its comedic moments are incredibly dark, almost moving, in their granting us respite from the white-knuckle plot.
Following one family living in poverty, the film watches as they begin to embody the lives of those they work for as they manipulate the high-power family into embracing them, all the while unlocking some dark secrets that give us an insight into both sides - the rich and the poor - and the frailty of the line that divides them. Although catastrophic in its real-world implications, this line between the two exists as much in the mind as the pocket. Without going into detail about opportunity, or lack thereof (an aspect many critics wish to have been better explored) Parasite focuses its glare on how the two sides view each other and highlights their similarities as much as these differences. It gives the title a more hazy place. Who are the parasites and why?
To make it believable, a stellar cast was assembled to convincingly portray the two families so successfully that the audience can become fully immersed in the story, without giving individual performances more than a second thought. It's only after the film, once you're able to take a much needed deep breath, that their quality becomes clear. South Korean cinema is one of the most exciting in the world at the moment and this will sit atop its canon as an export to the rest of the world.
The way its languid, yet unpredictable and unorthodox storyline twists and turns is evocative of recent horror classic The Wailing, another S. Korean effort that intertwines insights into the country's society and values, whilst creating an entertaining watch that nods its head towards both popular culture and ancient national mythology.
It's this Korean-ness that has also worked in its favour - mainly due to the outcry it has caused after the director's Oscar winning speech being delivered in Korean - his native tongue.
The Oscar's ceremony is one of the most vulgar displays of wealth and priviledge on the global entertainment stage and has recently been subject to numerous scandals, controversies and failures in an effort to appear both genuine and 'woke' - two traits that can be difficult to reconcile. After cries of the Oscar's lack of diversity, it seemed that those in charge of judging were content with shoe-horning diversity into their winners, something that appeared to many as a sort of entertainment version of Affirmative Action.
Whatever side of the fence you were on, there was ill feelings from those on the other. You were either priviliedged and racist, or disingenuous and eschewing artistic quality for the sake of appeasement. This year though, despite some desperate speeches that have been being warmed-up for throughout awards season (Joaquin Phoenix, you're guilty as charged), the ceremony and winners seemed fairly evenly spread.
Still, this wasn't enough for some. It was the first ever foreign language winner of the Oscar's most prestigious award and for many, that wasn't ideal. To ice the proverbial cake, the speech came in another language. Twitter, as usual, went into meltdown about this. The fallout is double pronged. One, it has raised important questions about where people actually stand and how much people (the actors, critics and audiences alike) mean what they say. It has outed many faces as being no more than hypocrites. Unfortunately, it also means that the film's elegant cinematography and subversive message risks being overlooked.
Many award-winning films do have such messages, but none have done so as deftly and with as original premise as Parasite. Although it's a 'soft' film - one that is undoubtedly violent, but equally as dreamy and clearly satirical - its social realism is cast aside for a sort of social surrealism. It's message though is unavoidable and inkeeping with a lot of its fellow South Korean film and television productions.
Inequality is rife, it is damaging, dangerous and must be mitigated. That such a film, in another language, won this award, might be a genuine tipping point for the award - which to many is the pinnacle in cinema - as it is representative not of the clammy speeches about 'doing better', nor of the organisers ham-fistedly giving people an award as a means of making sure diversity quotas were hit, but a genuine acceptance of these issues for an audience that is globally influential. By giving Parasite this great platform, more people will inevitably watch it and of that mass of people, some will take the message on board and begin to ask of themselves and those around them how it all came to be.
The film doesn't evoke a passive response, nor does it paint a one-sided picture of class relations and familial strife, but allows for layers to be exposed and developed, giving the audience fodder for their own opinions. Parasite, like its name, burrows deep into you (the host) and works away at you long after the credits have rolled. Bong Joon-Ho's delicate, vulgar and ultimately rewarding film asks us to think seriously about our differences and to examine what priviledges, or lack thereof, allow us or force us to do. These aren't identity politics 'privildges' either, but ones caused by free-market capitalism, deepened by country's whose governments have no desire to change.
It might have been unwittingly done, but it's a perfect metaphor for the whole world of cinema and art itself, as well as award ceremoines like the Oscars whose whole identity only perpetuates the phenomena that the film attacks.
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