Class struggle has long been an interest of Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho, a concern articulated most recently in his splashy, partly English-language adventures Snowpiercer and Okja. He returns to that fertile well—of the haves and have nots, of the seeming impossibility of transcending station in the face of looming economic systems—in Parasite, a wonder of an allegory that premiered here in Cannes on Tuesday night. What starts as something of a caper comedy eventually, and rather startlingly, shifts into something far starker.
Parasite concerns two families, living in the same city but otherwise worlds apart. The Kims are a clan of scrappy paupers, living in near squalor and scrambling to eke out a basic existence. They’re smart, though, and resourceful, so when son Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) is given an opportunity to tutor the teenage daughter of a wealthy industrialist, the whole family, both sly and desperate, seizes on it. Their targets—or are they saviors?—are the Parks, casually rich and blithely kind.
Bong and co-writer Han Jin Won are careful not to make their caricatures too arch. Though crazy things do happen in Parasite—this is a Bong film, after all—they’re always crucially grounded in something human and real, making the satire sting just that much more.
It’s not all satire, though. In the film’s first hour-plus, we’re also served a cleverly mounted con-artist tale. Bong points at various absurd inequities faced by Ki-woo’s family, while reminding us that they’re still lying and cheating—and derailing other people’s lives—to get what they need. There’s a wicked righteousness to that, especially as it stands in contrast to the Parks and their witless privilege. But the forlorn trick of the movie is how it slowly zeroes in on just what this all means, how serious the stakes really are. What kind of hunger necessitates such madcap deception?
A deep and howling one, as Parasite gravely determines. Though still animated by Bong’s lively and inventive verve, the second half of Parasite grows grimmer and sadder, leading to a conclusion that’s surreal and devastating. Bong’s main metaphor, about the people upon whom wealth is built, is illustrated with blunt poetry. I staggered out of the theater thrilled by Parasite’s singular vision, yes, but also feeling pretty wrecked. For all its particular intimacy, Parasite wrestles with something rather huge, giving urgent voice to those left behind during South Korea’s—and many other countries’—economic boom. There’s an anger at work in the film, but what’s more effective is its ruefulness—its ribbons of abiding hope, frayed and tattered but still there, somehow.
I’m being really vague about plot details because Bong, like several other high-profile directors screening films at Cannes this year, has pled with critics to not reveal too much about what happens in his film. Which is fair—and anyway, it’s best that you discover Parasite’s ingenious contours on your own. It’s a wholly enriching film, featuring a uniformly excellent cast (Cho Yeo Jong, as the flighty but warm Mrs. Park, and Song Kang Ho, as the patriarch of the Kim family, are particular standouts) and oodles of prodigious, nervy camerawork.
The film speaks to our times so bracingly that you almost resent it for saying what it does so unignorably, for bringing to mind all the crushing unfairness of the world here at this luckiest of film festivals. I hope Parasite will live a fruitful life in the United States, where its story of aspirational flailing ought to resonate with many. In its bittersweet way (emphasis on bitter), Bong’s mighty film profoundly ruminates on what it is to want and need, all the pain of seeing a dream so close by and yet too impossibly big to be grabbed, despite so much fervent reaching.
Another Cannes film that speaks volumes is writer-director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. From a distance, this French period film has all the trappings of refined prestige fare that makes dutiful melodrama out of the repressive modes of yesteryear. (The film takes place in the 18th century.) But in Sciamma’s gifted hands, the film escapes cliché and becomes something glorious—a study of forbidden love that grandly highlights how much has been lost under the crush of hetero patriarchy.
The film concerns a young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who travels to a lonely manor on the windswept coast of France to do a portrait of a woman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The trouble is, Héloïse refuses to sit for the picture, as it will be sent to a man in Milan so he can decide if he wants to marry her. So Marianne is brought to the chateau under false pretenses. Héloïse’s mother says this new guest is just there to keep solitary Héloïse company; Marianne observes her subject during the day and furtively paints her at night, a curious bond forming between the women as they circle one another with inspection and interest.
Would it shock you to learn that they fall in love? They do, of course, but Sciamma does no romantic pandering here. She doesn’t give us the hot-and-bothered, dare-not-speak-its-name stuff Portrait’s logliRead More – Source