An international film with domestic relevance. Writer-director Bong Joon-Ho delivers a thought-provoking satire on the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. Winning the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Joon-Ho’s film is perhaps a new interpretation of the Wes Craven cult film The People Under the Stairs with a brilliant message of the lengths one goes to climb out of poverty in a world of massive income and opportunity disparity. For those whom may be worried that you’ll be distracted by the subtitles, you needn’t worry. To be perfectly candid, the visual storytelling and acting is so incredibly good that you won’t need the subtitles to follow the story. You’ve no doubt heard from the various critic circles that this film is a masterpiece, that it’s one of the best films of the year. That hype train is barreling past station after station, will it ever come to a stop? The short answer is not any time soon. But is the hype justified by the cinematic experience? In the opinion of this critic, no. I had incredibly high expectations for this film based upon everything I was hearing and reading, but it just didn’t do it for me. After the brilliant first half of excellently crafted suspense, foreshadowing, and plot setup, the second half loses the intrigue and just takes one convoluted turn after another for the sake of complicating the plot in an effort to make it say more than it actually does. Much of the griping tension is lost by the time the anticlimactic showdown comes to pass. What hampers the execution of the second half is taking too many predictable turns. It’s like a research paper that has a brilliant thesis, background, literature review, and method section, but the results are lacking in advancement. But, what the film lacks in plot execution, it makes up for in lavish visuals and exquisite production design. That house is a character in and of itself! While it may not be the best film of the year, it is one to watch in order to support original, independent stories that are slowly dying because of the increased difficulty to seek funding and theatrical distribution in a world dominated by superheroes, space fantasy, and remakes of animated classics.
Jobless, penniless, and, above all, hopeless, the unmotivated patriarch, Ki-taek, and his equally unambitious family–his supportive wife, Chung-sook; his cynical twenty-something daughter, Ki-jung, and his college-age son, Ki-woo–occupy themselves by working for peanuts in their squalid basement-level apartment. Then, by sheer luck, a lucrative business proposition will pave the way for an insidiously subtle scheme, as Ki-woo summons up the courage to pose as an English tutor for the teenage daughter of the affluent Park family. Now, the stage seems set for an unceasing winner-take-all class war. How does one get rid of a parasite? (IMDb)
Where this film shines brightest is the production design, specifically the house and neighborhood designed and built specifically for the film. Honestly, this is on Kubrick levels of cinematic immersion. From a principle photography point of view, this allows for the structures to (1) be designed to accommodate the action, blocking, and general movements of characters (2) externalize emotion or bring to light a reality that lies beyond our naked eye and (3) allow for efficient camera movement, artistic placement, and simply brings the setting in the screenplay to life to the very last detail. As I watched the film, I wondered where they found the perfect basement apartment and upscale house because the locations fit the characters and narrative perfectly. Then when I learned that both locations (not to mention the Ki’s neighborhood) were custom built, then it make sense how it could have been so perfect. That is commitment to narrative integrity right there! From the architecture to the interior design and furnishings, the art direction of this motion picture is astounding! It certainly stands out against the backdrop of most of the films to have hit theatres this year in terms of its visual appeal, scope, and scale of the story.
You’ll be hard pressed to find another film this year that has the brilliant setup that this one has. From the moment the film opens, you are hooked. All throughout the first act, the conflict that we are going to encounter in the second act is setup and foreshadowed with extreme precision. It doesn’t take long to develop these characters as members of South Korean society that are having a tough time climbing out of poverty; furthermore, the first act paints a portrait of a world that appears to be stacked against them. All that changes when a cousin gets one of them hired as a tutor to a wealthy family. For how the rest of the setup unfolds, you’ll just have to watch the film. I appreciate how this film takes the home invasion plot premise to a new level by subverting what we expect from home invasion or heist films. In addition to developing our ensemble cast of central characters, the first act also successfully provides excellent exposition so that the audience never feels lost in this non-english speaking film. Sometimes American audiences can get lost in international films because of the language and cultural barrier. Fortunately, the language is never an issue in this film and there is virtually character for everyone in the audience to connect or empathize with. From the opening until about midway through the film, the plot is engaging, suspenseful, and the tension ratchets up greatly.
Unfortunately, most of the tension and suspense begins to decline as we near the anticlimactic showdown of the film. This is where the film lost me. Not lost me in that I couldn’t follow it–quite the contrary–I found the latter half of the film predictable and derivative. Gone is the ingenuity that I loved during the first half. There was such genius in the setup that I expected more out of the conflict and resolution. Don’t get me wrong, the film is still enjoyable and even intriguing at times in the second half, but not nearly to the levels it was during the first act. It’s almost as if Joon-Ho did not imagine the ending before writing the second act. There is stark contrast between the precise focus and direction of the first half and the lack of direction in the second half. There are some moments that I want to highlight from the second act though, that I truly liked. There is a scene in which the Park family boy notices that all the newly hired help smell the same. Of course, his parents dismiss that as childish foolishness, but thanks to dramatic irony, we know that he is close to ruining the entire charade.
More than than the film itself, I am mystified by the intense hype train that continues to zoom through social media, picking up new people at every turn. It’s a good film, but I cannot reconcile the motion picture I saw with the proliferated accolades on social media the the web. You’ll hear that this is “the best film of the year,” but just a couple weeks ago, The Lighthouse was the best film of the year, and before that many claimed that Midsommar was the best film of the year. Seems like we get a best film of the year every few weeks. The danger of dissenting opinions on films like Parasite and The Lighthouse is the critic and cinephile establishments seeking to revoke your membership card because your taste is simply not refined enough to appreciate the artistic masterpiece right in front of you. Of course, it is entirely possible that the film is just not AS outstanding as so many want to claim that it is, but jump on that hype train out of fear of missing out or being seen as an outsider. So to that point, I feel that Parasite is a solid film, even excellent in the first act, but the second and third acts hold the film back from its full potential to truly be a masterpiece of cinematic art.
Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!