With ‘Parasite,’ Bong Joon-ho Weaves Together an Explosively Satirical Meeting of the Haves and Have-Nots

1 Comment

CREDIT: NEON/CJ Entertainment

Starring: Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Jung Ji-so, Jung Hyun-joon, Lee Jung-eun, Park Myung-hoon, Park Seo-joon

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Language, Bruising Brawls, and Surprising, Surreptitious Sex

Release Date: October 11, 2019 (Limited)

When I see movies in the theater, I unfortunately find myself nodding off more often than I’d like to. I suppose it has something to do with the combination of the darkened setting and the sluggishness that comes with (as is often the case) having just eaten a meal. It gets even worse with foreign films, as hearing people talk in another language is a natural lullaby and also because my brain has to do the extra work of reading the subtitles. That’s especially bad news, because I usually need to devote more mental energy to foreign films to keep straight in my head all the actors that I’m unfamiliar with. So as I was nodding off a half hour into Parasite, I was so worried that I would miss essential information. But then, miraculously, my bout with Mr. Sandman ended at the perfect time, right as the major twist was about to re-establish everything. This is the latest from Bong Joon-ho, and on the basis of his earlier films like Snowpiercer and Okja, I was primed for Parasite to eventually reveal more ambitions than its modest beginnings. I never could have guessed just how right I was.

We meet the Kim family of four living in a ridiculously shabby semi-basement apartment where they have to deal with a wealth of indignities that would be depressing if they weren’t so comical (like a hooligan who keeps urinating on the road outside their window). They’re all struggling to get any work better than folding a bunch of pizza boxes as fast as humanly possible, but then a bit of luck allows Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) to get a job tutoring the teenage daughter of the wealthy Park family, though he does have to fudge his credentials a bit. He’s then able to land his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) a gig teaching art to the Park’s young son. Pressing forward, the Kim siblings next scheme to get the Park’s driver and housekeeper fired so that their father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) can take over in those positions. And all this time, the Parks never realize that they’re now employing the entire Kim family.

It seems that the Kims have pulled off their little scam flawlessly, but what was the purpose of it exactly? They do not seem to have any intention of robbing the Parks, but rather, the relative security of a set of service jobs is the end goal. (It makes you wonder, if infamous fraudster Frank Abagnale were a young man today, would Catch Me If You Can have been about him forging his credentials to secure lower-paying jobs like housekeeping and food delivery?) When Chung-sook is tasked with house-sitting as the Parks head out for some overnight camping, the Kims use the opportunity for the fanciest (but also sloppiest) night of drinking they’ve probably ever had, and it’s almost charming how much more they could be taking advantage of their employers. But it turns out that they’ve already pushed things too far, as the old housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) shows up at the front door that night to ask the Kims for a little favor.

At this point, Parasite reveals itself to be the latest of Bong’s teardowns of modern capitalism, as a major secret reveals what, and who, society buries and pushes aside to prop up its pockets of wealth. Bong has been consistently interested in exploring what happens when people are pushed to the brink and stowed away from the levers of power. Parasite presents that arrangement about as literally as possible. When the hidden contents are unleashed, they spill out to create an unclassifiable mix of satire, chaotic action, and poignant melancholy. This is fascinatingly revealing cinema that won’t soon be forgotten by anyone lucky enough to see it.

Parasite is Recommended If You Like: Movies that resemble Russian nesting dolls

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Falsified Credentials

This Is a Movie Review: Okja

1 Comment

This post was originally published on News Cult in June 2018.

Starring: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Giancarlo Esposito, Lily Collins, Shirley Henderson

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: Not Rated, But Watch Out for Factory-Grade and Mano-a-Mano Violence

Release Date: June 28, 2017 (Theatrically in New York and Los Angeles/Streaming on Netflix)

There are some people who are perfectly fine with consuming animal products, and then there are others who are staunchly vegan. If a multinational conglomerate were to engineer adorable giant pigs to cure world hunger, I do not imagine that most people would change their stances. Nor, if his latest film Okja is any indication, does Bong Joon-ho. But we are not here to focus on the masses (save for a decadent prologue that establishes that they are here to lap up whatever innovation/new species is fed to them). This is a story about a girl and her super pig, and all the zany, brainy, insane-y forces of the world that get in her way.

It might be possible to find Okja – who looks like a land-dwelling hippo with big ol’ floppy ears and a stretched-out porcine face – completely adorable and still be okay with eating bacon. I know I certainly do. Or perhaps this film will convince to swear off all pork products forever. No matter where you fall on this spectrum, it cannot be denied that Okja’s young farmgirl companion Mija (newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun) has been done wrong in so many ways. Her grandfather sells Okja to the Miranda Corporation, which will purportedly parade her around as the winner of a Super Pig contest, but of course that is just a distraction away from how the sausage is made. A visit to the factory makes it look practically genocidal. A group of activists known as the Animal Liberation Front teams up with Mija to expose Miranda for what it really is, but their motives may not fully align with each other, as Mija just wants to take Okja back home. And taking it all back to the beginning, Okja and Mija’s friendship was practically engineered by Miranda for its marketability.

Despite how grossly its animal characters are treated, Okja is not about shaming its audience. Its purpose is holding up a cracked funhouse mirror to global capitalism. Or is it just a normal mirror? In which version do we ravenously consume faces and anuses? (They’re American as apple pie!)

Befitting a Bong Joon-ho film and a world in which people feel that they can get away with anything, the production design is a beautiful and lavish rainbow, but also probably extravagantly wasteful. The characterization is similarly outsized, with the heroes, villains, and half-hero/half-villains alike displaying a range of delectable behavior. As the braces-wearing Miranda CEO, Tilda Swinton is an anxious mix of demonstrating her power and proving that she does in fact have power. Her underlings include the preternaturally calm Giancarlo Esposito and the bizarrely squeaky-voiced flibbertigibbet Shirley Henderson. Jake Gyllenhaal is deep in character work as usual as a sweaty, shorts-sporting zoologist TV host. And as the head of the ALF, Paul Dano offers up scary commitment. His brand of ethics is admirable, but not above violent enforcement. Okja asks: do we really want to free the animals if it requires such militancy?

When the film gets into specifics, though, the questions are never that simple. It all rests on the shoulders of little Mija, who has the most clear-cut motivation of anyone. Her focus and resolve allow her to achieve her purpose, but it is not clear that that result makes the world a better place. What do we make of life when every individual story is a MacGuffin?

Okja is Recommended If You Like: Orphan Black, Free Willy, The Hunger Games

Grade: 4 out of 5 Magical Animals