A study of haves and have nots

Philip Cu Unjieng - The Philippine Star
A study of haves and have nots
Parasite won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Festival, the very first Korean film to take home the prize.

Film review: Parasite

MANILA, Philippines — One would be hard-pressed to find a film full of social commentary that also entertains as much as Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite. The director of The Host, Snowpiercer and Okja, to name a few, you knew it was just a matter of time before some prestige accolade would be bestowed on this Korean director. Well, Parasite won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Festival, the very first Korean film to take home the prize, and the film is showing exclusively at select SM cinemas. Anyone who lives and loves cinema should be making a mad dash to catch this film before it disappears from our screens.

For those in the dark about Cannes’ Palme d’Or, cinephiles will swear that along with the Venice and Berlin top prizes, this distinction outweighs the Oscars by a mile. At Cannes, when you’re in competition, you’re competing with entries from all over the world; whereas the Oscars’ Best Picture is limited to films produced in the English language. Bong has been credited with films that are a constant, smart mishmash of genres; and unlike his other films that had fantasy elements, Parasite is steeped in social realism while still managing to subtly mix genres.

At one level, it’s a study of the haves and have nots, as represented by two modern Korean families. One lives in a sub-basement, in possession of street smarts and guile but down on their luck. When by sheer luck, the son is hired to be the English tutor of the teenage daughter of a young, super-rich family; then, a richly humorous game of deception and misrepresentation is set in motion. This section is priceless as the unemployed father comments about how dumb the rich can be.

There’s an Upstairs Downstairs farce going on at this point, and the stakes of larceny are pushed higher and higher. And then, with no warning at all, we’re thrust into a different kind of pitch black comedy, where blackmail and coercion coming from unexpected quarters suddenly develop. The flashes of comedy are now eclipsed by bursts of visceral violence and outright criminal behavior.

Before long, we’re being stretched tighter and tighter, to the point where we know something or somebody will snap — it’s about desperate people pushed to breaking point, and we’re glued to the screen as events unfold in a dizzying pace. This is where Bong is so masterful — keeping us, the audience, guessing and on the edge of our seats. We’re thinking, “No, is he taking the story there?” and then he does, but also takes it into a completely different direction. 

Bong himself has described Parasite as a “comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains.” And yes, it’s the class divide, it’s the plight of modern man and it can get heavy-handed — like how one family’s sub-basement is completely flooded and all possessions lost after a thunderstorm at night; but the sunshine of the following morning means the rich family want to hold an impromptu party with no thought at all for what the underprivileged family is going through. But it is Bong driving home a point; and obviously, the Cannes jurors were in awe.

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