Parasite15¦ Blu-ray, DVD
Although it feels far from it right now, living as we are in such turbulent, uncertain times, progress is being made – in cinema at least. Last year South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite made history, by becoming the first non English film to ever win the Academy Award for best Picture. It was also the first ever film not in English to win the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in Motion Picture.
It’s almost frightening what kind of impact this can have, particularly when you take into consideration its financial rewards. With a humble budget of around $11 million dollars, which to put in context, may just about pay for Tom Cruise’s right foot and knee in a Hollywood blockbuster, it ended up taking a hefty £266 million at the box office.
What’s just as impressive, is that it took on the stiffest competition in a tough year, including Sam Mendes’ 1917, Todd Philips’ Joker Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time...in America, and Scorsese’s The Irishman. But looking back now in hindsight, was it deserved?
Living in the smallest, dingiest of apartments in South Korea is the Kim family. Conditions aren’t great, but they get along and are keen to look out for one another. When seriously sharp-minded son Ki Woo’s (Choi Woo Shik) affluent friend recommends him for a position as a tutor for a wealthy family’s daughter, the Kims are suitably excited.
After meeting with Yeon Kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong), mother of the Park family, Ki Woo impresses her enough to get the job. Instead of leaving it that however, he then cleverly gets positions for every other member of his family – sister Ki Jung (Park So Dam), mother (Chang Hyae Jin) and father (Song Kang Ho), without actually revealing that they’re all family members.
With all of them now working for a wealthy family, making excellent wages and enjoying a better quality of life, it feels like they’ve finally made it. Then one day, when they have the Park home to themselves, they get a visitor who changes everything.
With some distance between then and now, it’s a fair question to ask, did it actually deserve to win? After all, with Hollywood under such harsh scrutiny following the revelations of Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign that quickly followed, and the Academy’s staunch penchant for privileged white, male talent, the industry was clearly keen to be seen to be doing something.
To that end, Parasite is a deserved winner. It’s a film about social divides; the haves and have nots, and the have nots wanting to have more. Not only does it reflect the differences in classes socially, but physically too. Wherever the geographical bottom of their community is, The Kim’s appear to live just below it; so much so that their tiny apartment is often mistaken for a urinal by passers-by.
The Park’s however, live in what feels like a fortress in the clouds, far removed from any tangible connection with the rest of the outside world. This physical chasm between them is played on just as much as the social one.
There’s also more than a little of Shakespeare to proceedings, with the film suitably split into two familiar halves of both comedy and tragedy. The first half is playful and has a hint of the likes of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels about it, as we see the family, use their guile to gain the trust of their rich employers, all of which is fairly whimsical. The second half however, has shades of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games as events become far darker.
The result is a thoroughly absorbing take on social divides, and one family’s keenness to reduce them. The direction is smart and slick, with some wonderful performances from the entire cast. Its weakest link does feel like the final third, with its gear change that not only crunches just that bit too harshly, but also makes little sense under a minimum of scrutiny.
Because of that, it does feel like a number of its American Oscar nominees were actually more deserving of the prize, with gold possibly being awarded to Joker in our eyes, but that shouldn’t take away from neither Bong Joon Ho as a fascinating, creative storyteller, nor the incredible historic achievement of his impressive film, that wasn’t just a win for this small South Korean film, but all of world cinema. And that in itself is surely worth celebrating.