Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (Gisaengchung) offers up a deliciously suspenseful thriller, taking the audience on a dizzying, but orchestrated and commanded ride. All the odds are against it, with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and 1917 the typical Oscar bait, but I think for a number of reasons that it’s more than deserving of a best picture win.
It’s hard to describe Parasite without giving too much away, but it follows one lower class family that gradually infiltrates an upper class family by replacing the Help they have currently. In clever and cunning sequences, eventually we reach a point where one family is essentially transposed onto another, the result of which is a fascinating exploration of the deep-seated class-divide. It’s a modern parable for when the grass always seems greener, exposed through the parallels that run through the families. Bong Joon Ho uncovers the ugly side of both, the Park family are seen for more than their wealth, and Ki-Woo’s family find themselves living as subordinates in a decadent home that is not their own. A gradual unravelling of both classes ensues and we’re given a fascinating insight into primeval greed and jealousy and how that erupts from within.
Neon is the fiery production company that has ploughed Parasite through awards season. Incredibly, it elbowed its way on to the Jimmy Fallon show in which Bong Joon Ho had his translator in tow. Bong can speak perfect English, but he prefers to do his interviews in Korean, and more power to him. The language and responses in interviews are so eloquent, considered and rounded. Whatever language he answers in he intimately knows what kind of movie he has made and what it means and it shows. Neon marketed the film as a humorous, but cutting satire, using the tagline “act like you own the place.” Although not the strongest of messages, it has certainly attracted curiosity and helped the foreign language film gain momentum.
It’s incredibly difficult to make a film that is equally humorous as it is devastating. His subtle but directed commentary on the class divide with the two families is incredible. There’s a wafer-thin line that he explores, taking baby steps over and back to reel the viewer in. The theme of ascension and descension is revisited over and over, as the upper class family desperately hang on to keep their heightened existence and the lower class family grapple with the fact that the only way to get up there is by undercutting others. That line is beautifully and succinctly captured in the harrowing climax, both families finding themselves at the edge of this delicate class line that they’ve been programmed not to cross.
This could revolutionise the apprehension that people have towards subtitled films. Sometimes we put Hollywood up on a pedestal in terms of its standard of output. And then we remember that cultural differences is what makes a universal subject interesting and that someone over in Seoul is making a film that not only transcends language boundaries, but cultural ones too. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would be the safe choice for the Academy because it’s a black and white depiction of an era they know too well. Parasite is well deserving because it handles a universal theme in a powerful and devastating way and it’s incredible how much it has affected people that have seen it. The Oscars like to honour when something reflects a societal conscience and I think this could be the one it chooses. It’s about time the Academy looked further than the Hollywood hills.