The aging, white, male makeup of the Hollywood power elite is ably reflected in the lack of diversity in awards voting members; Bong Joon-Ho’s blackly comic Parasite seems to have mopped up most of the diversity vote in the 2019/20 race, but that’s no reason to hate it. While it’s unusual for subtitled films to get a Best Picture nomination, only a sainted few (Life Is Beautiful, Il Postino) actually get the honour, and they tend to be awash with sentiment.
That’s certainly not true of Parasite, which, despite all kinds of bores coming out of the woodwork to acclaim its virtues, is a pretty good film when the dust settles. Bong Joon-Ho’s ventures into international film-making have, in my unfashionable opinion, been overblown duds (The Host, Snowpiercer), but he’s on home ground here and it shows. The premise is simple; a young man wins a position as a tutor to an affluent household, and seeks to get his sister employed there as well. Before long, his whole family have formed a parasitical relationship with his employers, but there are still a good few reversals to come.
The final burst into OTT violence feels like a lurch, but otherwise this is an immaculately conceived and crafted drama, with secrets well worth keeping. Parasite is a reminder of the pleasures of real cinema, not franchises, not world-building, not tying to do anything but engage, intrigue and then wrong-foot the audience with a great narrative. Wider meanings, political and social, are possible, and there’s an Upstairs Downstairs/Downtown Abbey comparison that’s there for the making. Ultimately, it subscribes to the Orwellian notion that class conflict is largely the working and middle class swapping places, and that the power elite continue unscathed, but even that notion may be giving too much away.
A key part of what makes Parasite interesting is the take on poverty, physical, financial and emotional; the protagonists subscribe to the fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality so beloved in 2020, but the perfect picture they subscribe to turns into a nightmare. The way the family view wi-fi as their daily bread, and look to the father to provide, feels modern and genuine. It’s a great film for Korean cinema, for subtitled and arthouse film, and for film-making generally; don’t read another review until you can see it, and enjoy the twists and turns before they become pop-culture 101.