Each year for the past few years, I have attempted to watch as many of that year’s Oscar nominees as possible before the awards are presented. It’s just a little personal challenge for fun, and I’ve had varying degrees of success in both seeing the films, and making predictions (ok that’s stretching the truth- my predictions are always failures). This year the nomination announcements caught Me by surprise somehow. I’d managed to completely miss the Golden Globes (whose nominations I usually use to get a jump start), and for the first time ever, I have not seen a single one of the nominees already on my own. Doh! Lots of work to do! Last year I wrote up reviews of all the nominees I managed to see, and published both my predictions, and my reactions. I hope to do the same this year, but I’ll try to write up my reviews individually as I see the films, and then will do a big prediction post at the end. Today we focus on…
(6 nominations, including best picture, director, foreign language film, editing, original screenplay, and production design)
“They’re rich, but still nice.”
“No, they’re nice because they are rich. If I was rich, I would be nice too. I would be much nicer.” [proceeds to smack a dog]
(Note: This quote is based on my best recollection. I tried to look it up for accuracy but have seen it translated differently in different sources.)
This movie is Downton Abbey on acid. It’s a tale as old as time; the conflict between classes and their differing views of the world, but told with a demented twist. Well, with several demented twists. The Kim family is poor. The parents have a long history of short stints working minimum-wage jobs and struggle to make ends meet. They live in the lowest point of their city, in a subbasement looking up at a crappy alley where winos piss on their one window day and night. The Park family lives high up on a hill in a gated mansion, with a lush green lawn and enough disposable income to make all of their children’s dreams come true. When the Kim family has a chance to scam their way into working for the Park’s as their household staff, they jump at it. And then things start to go wonky.
Getting to this point is the first half of the movie. It’s a clever comedy, a light caper full of hijinx as they craft their master plan. To me it brought to mind films like Ocean’s 11, where technically we’re watching bad people preparing to do bad crimes, but they’re so gosh darn likable and amusing that it’s ok. Except, maybe it’s not ok? A couple people get hurt along the way. But… they’ll land on their feet, right? Also maybe the family’s not actually THAT likable? Or are they? We feel for them and their plight, and we cheer for their resourcefulness, but are they going too far? Are they preying on the vulnerable? Also, it’s not really funny, is it? They are desperate and hungry with no way out. We should not live in a world where people have to live like this, in a shitty sub-basement like subhumans. Their desperation is a tragedy.
The second half of the movie takes a sharp turn into… something undefinable. It’s part horror, part thriller, part drama. Like I already said, things go wonky, but I hesitate to say much more about the plot. But know that things get very dark, and they get very dark very fast. (In other words, maybe don’t bring the kiddos along for this one.) The Kim family is suddenly forced to reconsider their actions and their place in the world. As viewers, we have no clue what they are going to do in their new circumstances, which makes for a very tense, very exciting section in the middle of the movie that will have you on the edge of your seat (at least, I was on the edge of mine).
In perusing other reviews, a lot of folks have stated that this film defies the restraints of genre. I definitely agree- it would be difficult to pigeonhole it into any one category. Partially this is because the tone changes drastically throughout the film, which, frankly, I think made the film feel a tad incohesive. Some scenes and subplots just pulled me in way more than others, because they were presented so unevenly. On the other hand, these constant changes helped inflate the contrasts between the classes.
At first glance, this movie does not seem at all like a typical Oscar movie. It’s basically a wacky thriller with a crazy unrealistic plot. But the film’s main strength, and what separates it from other wonky tales, is the consistent attention brought to the contrast between the classes. These contrasts are present, whether subtly or not, in every single scene.
Compare, for example, these shots of the Kim family’s daughter, Ki-jung. In one she samples the simple luxury of a bubble bath in the Park household. In the next, she is trapped in her family’s flooded home, sitting on top of a toilet as is sprays literal shit across the room (my favorite shot in the whole film, and I’m disappointed that this was the only screenshot of it that I could find).
Ki-jung is a talented, clever, resourceful young woman with insane amounts of potential , but with virtually no opportunities to achieve anything with her skills. She is, frankly, awesome. Her counterpart in the Park household, Da-hye, is a complete void of a character- vapid and useless and expressing virtually no interest in anything except for whether boys think she is cute. She, of course, is destined to live her entire life in comfort in luxury, as is apparent by her parents shelling out money to hire her tutors.
But writer and director Bong Joon Ho goes far beyond plot and storyline to illustrate the gap between the class divide. The visuals are constantly reminding us of which parallel world we’re experiencing at any given moment. The architecture changes. The clothes change. The abundance of open space changes. The food changes. The freaking weather changes. And if you’re REALLY not getting it, the point is really driven home in an extremely effective sequence where we follow the Kim family as they walk all the way from the shining pastoral house on the hill, down, down, down, and down some more until we reach their decrepit hovel at the bottom of the city.
This film also repeatedly brings in our sense of smell. Just look at the photos above and tell me you’re not smelling the perfume and feces through your screen right now. Smell is used by the film to dehumanize the poor Kim family more tragically than anything else in the story. It’s this detailed, layered storytelling, present throughout a clever story, and forcing the audience to come face to face with class inequality, that makes Parasite a truly remarkable film.
I’ll finish this review by saying that I came into Parasite with unrealistically high expectations. I estimated that it would be my favorite of this year’s nominees. I also realize that coming in with expectations like that means I was sure to be disappointed. So… is this my favorite of this year’s nominees? No. Might it be if I had come into it without expectations? Maybe. It is definitely not for everybody (again, reminder, things get dark). Regardless, I thought it was a damn good movie.