What Went Right With… Parasite?

A review of Bong Joon Ho's Parasite

After Parasite‘s historical Oscar win, making it the first international, non-English-speaking film ever to win “best picture”, this movie is now in danger of being overrated with almost no mainstream critic calling attention to its flaws. Critics are calling Parasite a “masterpiece” and it currently holds a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes meaning it’s a hair’s breadth’s away from being perfect. In my opinion it’s not “perfect”. But hold on, when has an Academy Award ever been given to the actual best film from each year? The answer is never. Okay, so being “the best” is subjective, but in instances like these, all mainstream critics have seemingly come to a consensus, meaning there’s no criticism of Parasite out there at all. Let’s face it, most of the time an Oscar is awarded for a film-maker’s previous neglected work, hence Brad Pitt’s performance in the classic Twelve Monkeys getting zip followed by his “acting” award for the very mediocre Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It seems that the 2020 Oscar for writer-director Bong Joon-Ho is also for one of his previous undervalued works. Either that or because 2019 was such an arid year for memorable films, Parasite is considered the best of a bad bunch.

I won’t go into details about the plot of Parasite but let’s cover the basics: there’s a rich family living up a hill, the poor live at the bottom, and the poorest live even further underground. This visual metaphor for class is one of the film’s most effective elements working much better than Jordan Peel’s Us. With lines like “They are rich but still nice. – They are nice because they are rich.”, we the audience understand the motives of the piece but the film’s initial idea of class and wealth gets lost somewhere toward the end. More on that in a bit.

There’s a magnificent, flowing, poetic feel to the first act where the poorer family wheedle their way into the lives of the rich. In terms of writing, there’s some fantastic lines including some about people making plans (“You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all.”). Kang-Ho Sang (who plays the dad of the poor family) is particularly brilliant, his acting very subtly conveys the feeling of embarrassment and anger without over-exaggerating his facial expressions.

Aside from the memorable lines and acting however, like I said, where the film falters is toward the end. Although pivotal to the finale, the worst thing an upper-class person can do to the class below (according to this film) is turn their nose up to the smell of poor people (they are the human equivalent of the “stink bug” seen in one of the first scenes). Aside from this, the rich family aren’t particularly evil, they may be occasionally snooty but they haven’t benefited from nepotism and they don’t look down upon the poor with contempt or scorn. The rich “simple” wife (brilliantly played by Yeo-Jeong Jo) also says she hasn’t ridden the subway in ages which means at some point in her past she didn’t have a chauffeur-driven car. So if the rich have climbed the ladder of hierarchy to get where they are (and they aren’t really oppressing anyone) what’s the point in the film?

There could have been a biting comment about the hierarchy of class, with the ex-poor, newly working, upwardly-mobile family saying the previous workers smelt worse than them hence looking down on them and perpetuating the idea of class snobbery but no, the plot instead descends into self-defence or accidental violence, almost in the realms of slapstick rather than clever, subtle conversing. And whilst on this topic, even though certain scenes are setup for comedy, getting free fumigation and stealing Wi-Fi confirms that the central poor family (and therefore the working classes) are the parasites. The fact that the poverty-stricken family lie and cheat and “feed off” not only the rich but the previous workers, the “parasite” is most definitely them; there’s not much contention or argument to be had here. This could be a great comment about how people trample on the backs of their own class as they strive for money and power, but this movie lacks the narrative to convey this message. In any case, with a monkey’s paw-style rock charm being the centre-piece of how the poor family obtain their wealth, this means making money may be luck rather than skill, or magic rather than parasitic which makes the film’s opinion even less coherent.

Parasite is a flawless film up to and including the family’s hustling, printing fake documents and recommending the next family member like an upturned Three Billy Goats Gruff. The poor family take jobs they’re arguably not qualified to do, but they do it so cleverly and cunningly that you’re with them all the way.

Given that South Korea is without a royal family, oligarchs, or tax-avoiding businessmen, the message might be lost in translation for us in the West. With a royal family here in the UK (not to mention multiple unscrupulous businesses who thrive off the misery of the working classes) the “parasites” are definitely not the poor here, in fact we commoners sometimes refer to the Royal’s leach-like qualities, taking taxes and living lavishly off the population. Like I said, in this film, the parasite is arguably the poor family which is an odd message to convey especially given Bong Joon Ho’s completely underrated Snowpiercer was also about the class system but which contained a message that was much clearer (not to mention more dangerous and therefore less palatable for mainstream critics).

On a side note, it’s strange if you’re a conspiracy theorist like me, that “Parasite” won lots of awards during the Asian Coronavirus outbreak but I guess that’s not for this article. It’s also odd that the best films of the year (Joker and Parasite) involved brain-injury-related laughing as well as classism and wealth disparity at the core of their stories. Was this the Academy trying to acknowledge the ever-popular mental illness issue or attempting to look as though they’re embracing the disenfranchised? But I digress.

The problem with Parasite being overrated and its Oscar rival Joker being underrated (take a look at any review aggregate site for proof) is that Joker had a much clearer and more daring opinion which most likely, led to the mainstream critic and awards circle dismissing it. I’d argue that Joker was much more coherent and moving, making it the better film of 2019. I guess Todd Philips will nab an Oscar in 15 or 20 years when he makes a movie that’s not as good as his DC classic. That’s how it seems to work. In addition, Bong Joon Ho in all likelihood will make a better film than Parasite but Todd Philips, given his filmography, may never make another film as good as Joker again; surely his change in tone and direction was worthy of a prize? Regardless of this, I’ll concede that Parasite is preferable to Quentin Tarantino’s utterly overrated Once Upon A Time In Hollywood picking up any award this season.

In terms of Korean cinema, Chan-Wook Park’s Oldboy was the masterpiece that never got an Oscar. In the same way that Moonlight was judged as the greatest “black” or “black gay” film (or Get Out being one of the best “horror” films of all time 🧐), most movie-goers can surely see past this recent spate of overrating. This is liberal prejudice in a nutshell: white liberals ignore a subculture or demographic for years and decades, then when the bigotry becomes obvious, they toss a few coins (in this case awards) at a random minority regardless of merit and they think everything is fixed. Unfortunately, morons who have been oppressed or overlooked seem to forget history when they’re given a token award. After years of systematically ignoring minorities, when it becomes all too obvious that the industry is controlled by a bunch of racist pricks, they have a collective overreaction and begin to praise certain minority movies a little too much. Parasite is the Academy Awards acknowledging that they’ve ignored hundreds of classics from Asia in the same way they ignored black American talent for decades. As much as I want international acceptance of foreign cinema or black cinema, I don’t approve of overrating something so that the uninitiated upon seeing something less than flawless, will think this is the best minorities have to offer.

Don’t get me wrong, Bong Joon-Ho is a great film-maker and his direction is once again brilliant here. Parasite is a very good film but there’s something lacking; a final punch that could have lifted the satirical story-line to something genre-defining and relevant for the times we live in. At the point that Parasite becomes potentially poignant (the birthday party scene) instead of ending on a high note, it continues… and continues… and this elongating of the plot lessens the effect of the story. In the same way that the lunatic asylum scene lessened the effect of Joker, this protraction of plot is unnecessary. Whatever Parasite‘s original intentions in terms of message (and whether you agree with my summation of who the “parasite” is) the lasting impression of this film is a missed opportunity. This film doesn’t convey much more about class and wealth than the public already know or believe, and regardless of how talented the writer-director and actors are, if Marty Feldman and John Law’s “Class Sketch” can succinctly convey this message in under 2 minutes, what’s with all the overrating?

Parasitic Critics.

Writing: 7/10

Directing: 9/10

Acting: 8/10

Overall: 7/10

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