Thursday, June 16, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Parasite (2019) 2h 24m

On Saturday, 18 June, at a special start time of 6:01pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club digs into one of the most ambitious and complex pictures ever to be considered a family drama, Bong Joon-Ho’s *Parasite* (2019) starring Song Kang-Ho, Sun-Kyun Lee, Cho Yeo-Jeong, Choi Woo-Sik and So-Dam Park.  

Not long ago, when our co-founder and long-suffering host confessed to a lack of clarity regarding my own motivations vis-a-vis the club, I invited her to think of Jeff Albertson—the unappealing and generally insufferable comic-book store owner from The Simpsons. (“Worst. Episode. Ever.”) The suggestion wasn’t altogether serious but it’s not without merit, either: Square pegs like me who allow themselves to get too deep into a specific socio-cultural diversion such as comic books or role-play games or movies are very often pretty hard to take—or, hopefully in my case, occasionally hard to take. We don’t try to be, trust us; we just are.

This matters here because fanatics of this type are often reflexively unwilling to accept the cachet of any successful offerings from the more commercial end of the form. If a movie is popular without really adding much to the state of play of the medium, a devoted cinephile is supposed to hate it (think *The Notebook*). If a movie is popular despite unconventional positioning or craft—perhaps embraced as the result of clever marketing designed to foment over-heated word-of-mouth—a cinephile is supposed to really hate it (think *The Crying Game* or *The Blair Witch Project*). And if a movie is popular despite unconventional positioning or craft, but also because of its conscious attention to the retail-moviplex aesthetic (*The Hurt Locker*, *The Departed*, *Intersteller*), then our poor cinephile is supposed to really, really, REALLY hate it.     

Where am I going with this? I’m going to the unforced brilliance carried off by Korean superstar-director Bong Joon-Ho with his surprise 2020 best-picture winner at the Academy Awards, Parasite. I’m going to a film with mall-cineplex polish, brisk unconventionality, and clever marketing, but one that also works better as a thought experiment than even some of the most anti-commercial indies.  And once I’m there, I’m very happily staying for about the next hundred and fifty minutes. 

In Parasite, writer-director Bong-Joon Ho (the phenomenal craftsman of such modern Korean epics as Snowpiercer, The Host, and Memories of Murder) has somehow outdone even himself. In Parasite he has crafted a picture so delicately constructed and so unpretentiously cohesive that its eventual payoff feels less like a device, and more like the real-world-plausible turn of a story that we hadn’t even realized we’d accepted with such intimate absorption. In Parasite he has given us a quibble-free gem of escapist narrative.  

The first ninety minutes or so of the picture are relatively straightforward and relatively easy to relay without spoilers: A South Korean family, struggling to stay (lower) middle class is beset on all sides by a series of unlikely misfortunes. They struggle, but the struggle feels normal--or at least unsurprising--in the context of their neighbours, friends, and the unfolding of the city's economic and political and even climatological fortunes. Things keep going from bad to worse, vignette after vignette, until a scintillating opportunity presents itself in the form of a potential grift. The marks for this con are a household of privileged economic elite, and the simple plan is to discredit their staff, person-by-person, in order to replace each of them with yet another “recommended” (and false-credentialled) member of the family. 

If all is not as it seems here, then it certainly seems unfamiliar in a familiar way. Grifts are crucially about misdirection, and movies about grifting are implicitly expected to leverage that uncertainty in order to keep us guessing right along with the mark(s). That’s the contract we’ve signed from the moment we sat down, however unwittingly. Dog bites man stuff, to this point.

But the real genius of this picture is that the familiar set of conceits is a grift in and of itself. The actual movie, the movie that we’re watching, ends up scarcely about the family’s attempted grift at all—a fact we learn in precisely the sort of bolt-from-the-blue reversal that we imagine would befall us after being grifted in real life. This choice is scrupulously intentional and it resides at the beating heart of an almost chemically compelling story, the sort of sudden misdirect that has been tried so very often in big-twist movies, and has fallen so very flat in those lesser films with less vision and less craft. 

This being said, it’s worth the attendant risk to let slip here that the last third of the movie is coloured with a radically different tonality from what has come before, to an extent that at least some audience members might find the new situation unusually challenging to watch. Parasite is a long movie that starts out not-quite-a-comedy, and stays that way long enough to give us the clear sense that we know what we’ve gotten ourselves into. By the time it’s over, though, “not-quite-a-comedy” is just about the very last thing that any reasonable person would ever think to say about it all.

I hope everyone will plan to join us this Saturday, 18 June, at a special start-time of 6:01pm, for this superlative accomplishment in thrillingly ambitious storycraft. Many movies get described as ‘unforgettable’ but this one really, truly, is.  

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