Bong Joon-ho’s new film “Parasite” has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. This marks the second year in a row a foreign language film has been in the running to take home the big prize. Although it’s never happened before, there’s no reason to think a foreign film couldn’t win Best Picture someday. After all, the Best Actor and Best Actress awards have been handed out to foreign actors in years past.
Unfortunately for Joon-ho, this won’t be the year to break down the proverbial foreign film wall. If Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” didn’t win last year, “Parasite” definitely won’t garner the big trophy this year. I’ll tell you why in a moment. First, let’s set the stage.
The Kim family is poor. Father, mother, son, and daughter live in a substandard basement tenement in Seoul. Parents Kim Ki-taek and mother Chung-sook are both unemployed and actively seeking employment. Although upstanding and well-intentioned, they don’t appear to have any marketable skills. Their son Ki-woo is approached by a former high school classmate about a potential high-paying position. Seems the current college student friend has been tutoring a wealthy high school girl with her English. He’s preparing to study abroad for a semester, but he has a thing for the girl. He doesn’t want any “frat boy” to resume tutoring responsibilities, as he’d like to date the girl upon his return to South Korea. He does trust his old high school buddy, and before we can bat an eyelash, the crafty Ki-woo has passed himself off as an astute college boy and consequently landed himself a job.
When his student’s high-strung little brother is deemed to have artistic ability, Ki-woo passes off his own sister, Ki-jeong, as an art tutor. Next thing we know, dad is the new family chauffeur, and mom is the new domestic. Could the wealthy socialite Park family be any more gullible, we wonder? But in a sharp, poignant film like “Parasite” (during which we constantly wonder which family is the picture’s namesake), all is not as it seems.
You see, the Kims didn’t count on the former housekeeper’s husband to be locked in a secret basement, accessible by a hidden passageway behind kitchen furniture. It is when we learn of his existence that “Parasite” takes on a different hue. Previously, I was pleasantly reminded of the great Spanish director Luis Bunuel, who often painted cinematic portraits of the constant struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletarian class. “Parasite” could have (and, dare I say, should have) remained firm within such a structure.
Instead, Joon-ho steers his objet d’art in a wildly divergent direction – conjuring up images of recent Quentin Tarantino offerings, even down to the brutal ending, which seems too harsh, given the dark comedy of the preceding matters at hand. I never want to be accused of “classifying” any film, but I find it difficult to watch the primary characters continue hamming it up once one of their own has been killed. Further, I question the motive of father Kim Ki-taek during the finale.
The denouement is effective, as it ties up some of the loose ends, but by this time enough damage has been done (to the characters as well as to our patience) that we almost don’t care.
Don’t get me wrong – “Parasite” is a valiant effort. One of the year’s 20-best films, to be sure. But I applaud the intention over the end result. I respect Joon-ho’s direction, and his and Han Jin-won’s original screenplay, more than I love the film itself. Is “Parasite” deserving of a Best Picture nod? Probably not. I can think of a dozen films I would have put in its place on the list. But I can recommend it only with the caveat that its narrative deviates from our expectations so radically as to alter our perception of its merit. That makes “Parasite” a missed opportunity, even as I admire the overall effort.