Directed by Bong Joon-Ho
Screenplay by Bong Joon-Ho, story by Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin-won
Starring Song Kang Ho, Lee Sun-Kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Jung-eun and Jang Hye-jin
The Oscars sure are an eclectic bunch. Usually when you describe somebody eclectic it refers to their tastes, specifically to mean varied tastes. That they like serious drama as much as they like camp. That they like arty films as much as they like populist films. That they like John Wayne as much as they like the anti-John Wayne. Basically, it’s meant to say a person who likes both sweet and savory.
But when applied to the Oscars, the meaning should be more along the lines of having a lack of taste. Or, rather, a lack of knowing what taste they have. After all, some years the Best Picture goes to an artier film like Moonlight. Other years it’s deadly serious films like Spotlight or 12 Years a Salve. Then in other years still, middle-brow junk masquerading as high art wins the big prize, like Crash and Green Book. It’s all just so…erratic.
The same can be said about the Best Director Oscar, where it’s never really clear from the awards given what it takes to be “best” at directing. Some years the award goes to the most technically challenging movie, like The Life of Pi or Gravity. Then it’s to the film that’s more about tone and performance and pace, like The King’s Speech. Then, it’s a gimmick, see e.g. The Artist and Birdman). Others still, it’s about marshalling the biggest force (Titanic). So varied are the winner for Best Director – varied except for the race and sex of the directors – that if you were to look at the history of the winners there’d be no way to discern a real consistent through line as to what is good directing, except that it sometimes requires technical dexterity. And sometimes, it doesn’t.
Ultimately, all this is meant to say that while Parasite is probably the most unexpected Best Picture and Best Director winner in the recent years of the Oscars, by virtue of being the first foreign language film to take the top prize, it’s also the most predictable, given the one defining characteristic of the Oscars is that they are nothing, if not, unpredictable.
What’s It about?
The Kim’s are a family on the skids. They try to scrape along as best they can, but no scheme, nor employment, seems to work out for them. In their best days, they barely get by. When a tutoring gig happens to fall into the lap of the Kim’s son, Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-Shik), he uses quick thinking, and opportunity, to find a position for his sister, Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). Before long, they’ve managed to manipulate their employers, the Park’s (Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeong) into employing the rest of the family as well. Only, employment comes at the expense of other laborers in the Park’s employ, who aren’t nearly as ready to give up their gigs. Especially with the secrets they carry around. Naturally, this has tragic results.
Any Good? Deserving Winner?
Parasite is very much a black comedy of a movie, wrapped up in a suspenseful jacket, sprinkled with tragedy and more than a little taste of social commentary. In the hands of a lesser director than Bong Joon-ho, anyone of the varied tones of the film would probably reach out and strangle the rest. But Bong is not a lesser director and contours the tones so precisely that they draw you easily through the movie without even the slightest hint of whiplash.
And whiplash certainly was possible here, given the first hour of the film plays out almost like a heist comedy in the vein of Oceans 11 – at least tonally. It’s a bit on the jazzier side – relatively – and moves along fleetly, as we watch the Kim’s use their cunning and a lot of deception to wind themselves into the Park’s life. In this stretch of the movie there is not a wasted moment and every detail informs the plot and the characters in turn, a fact that plays even better on second viewing, when you can truly see the threads Bong pulls.
In the second hour the film gradually – at times, not so gradually – lays in the thriller elements. But unlike your run-of-the-mill thriller, this one plays them a bit cockeyed. Indeed, some of them, like the twist of the man in the basement, exists very much in the weird comedy space, coming as it does from out of left field, even as it carries a strong threat with it. By managing these tones, and the performances, Bong makes the film transcendent.
If the film has one flaw, though, it is the left field introduction of the man in the basement. In some ways, this part of the plot feels a bit like weird-for-weird’s-sake and I bristled at it. After all, the points the movie wanted to make could have been made just as easily by deleting the man in the basement plot altogether and shifting his bits into the hands of the other actors. At the end, it would make the film that much easier to take while also reaching the same conclusions. That said, it’s not such a flaw as to kick me out of the movie, because it doesn’t.
Part of the success of the film’s tone is surely the result of having a stellar cast to play it, featuring great performances top-to-bottom.
The best of them is Song Kang-ho as the father of the Kim’s. His whole ethic as a character is that having no plan is the only plan that never fails, which explains why he and the family are in the straits they are in. But rather than simply say this is his ethic, Song fully acts it. But he doesn’t play it as if he’s a lazy slacker, because he isn’t. No, he’s fairly wily and industrious. Rather, he plays the character as somebody who only lives in the moment, realizing that looking beyond it is dangerous.
Equally as good, but in a different way, is Cho Yeo-jeong as the mother of the Park family. In her role she’s asked to be a wealthy, kept woman, who’s a little dim, but also wears her emotions openly. Others might’ve truly played the character as a moron who can’t do for herself, but Cho always keeps her grounded and fully recognizable to anybody who’s worked in the service industry.
The rest of the cast are all pretty much magnificent, down to the Park’s children, who are generally seen – sort of – but not heard. The least of them is Lee Sun-kyun as the father of the Park family. While everybody else in the film feels so perfectly right, Lee alone feels completely one-dimensional. Inauthentic. To be fair, his performance might simply be what Bong was calling for, because by making him a bit too broad and playing him as a villain, it makes it easier to hate him and not be regretful when he dies. But by making it easier to avoid the regret in his death, the film is just a slight bit weaker than it could have been.
I made clear in my Oscar Ballot 2019 post that I preferred Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… It spoke to me like none of the others did. Aside from that, Hollywood is where I lay my heart, but if there were one other film in the list I’d be satisfied with winning, it was Parasite. It wasn’t my favorite of the nominees, but that didn’t mean I disliked it. Moreover, Parasite is such an outside the usual realm of things pick, and was just weird enough, that it’s victory would mean something, no matter what I might think of it.
Going back to see it a second time I’m still not changed on what I preferred, but as I said, Parasite is even better on a second viewing. Knowing what was coming actually made the film better, because even though I was deprived of the fresh surprise of it, now I got to see every bit of the film at work. I got to see everything set up. See every plot turn hinted at. I got to see the clockworks running. For instance, when Mr. Park says, idly, at once point, that the housekeeper eats enough for two people, it’s not simply the laugh line it was at the start, but now foreshadowed something else.
The ultimate question of the film though, is the meaning of the title: who is the parasite? Is it the Kim’s, making their living by feeding off of another? But if that’s the case, then it’s only in the sense that they are remora living off the scraps of the hosts, without harming the hosts in any way. Or, is the parasite the man in the basement, literally living off another without their knowledge? Or is the Park’s themselves, feeding off the labor of others, and turning those below them against one another for their own gain. Many would probably come to the conclusion that this film is an ‘eat the rich’ kind of story, as ultimately being on the side of the Kim’s. And I agree with this: the Kim’s are the hero of a sad story, but at the end of it all everybody in this story is a parasite to some degree, while we should be on the Kim’s side, it’s only because in this story, they have no power to free themselves of being a parasite.
A Note of Donald Trump
This past week Trump took exception with Parasite winning best picture, and many attacked him as not being able to read and all that. Part of me finds all that funny and agrees. Another part of me wonders if he actually saw it and realized that maybe the movie was a direct attack on people like him and so he hated it for it being an attack on him.
And don’t forget 52 Before 62.
 Assuming it’s possible for the inanimate object of an Oscar statue to somehow become anthropomorphized. Perhaps it’s better that I should say “Oscar voters” are an eclectic bunch, but I won’t. After all, the point of communication is simply to communicate and as long as you understand what I meant from what I said, does it matter exactly how it’s said?
 I was tempted to say John Wayne and Dennis Hopper, based on the apocryphal story of John Wayne wanting to beat Dennis Hopper’s hippie-ass that one time in the 1960s. But, given how Dennis Hopper slipped over to a certain sort of conservative politics in his later life, the two were probably more similar than we like to imagine. It’s also the same reason I didn’t compare John Wayne to Jon Voight.
 This is not to say that either one of these films is actually bad. They aren’t. But they’re just not particularly good, either.