In one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history, writer-director Bong Joon-Ho’s film Parasite became the first foreign language film ever to win Best Picture. In reflecting on Parasite’s victory, and viewing it as a victory for foreign language film notoriety in the United States, the most surprising aspect of Parasite’s success is how revolutionary the film feels. Parasite isn’t a broad, crowd pleaser like Green Book or even a personal autofiction story like a previous foreign language best picture contender, Roma.
Instead Parasite is a thrilling analysis of capitalism and its participants, asking questions of what an individual wants and the price paid to attain it. Despite carrying that burden of its own intelligence, Parasite also manages to be one of the most exciting films of 2020, moving with such ease, drawing an audience into the film’s world and captivating them with every twist of fate.
Parasite follows the exploits of the jobless, penniless Kim family as they become increasingly involved in the lives of the much wealthier Park family. As a story with boundless momentum and relentless sense of tension and excitement, saying anything more about Parasite’s may run the risk of ruining a truly remarkable viewing experience. In short, Joon-Ho created a tense masterpiece, with equal parts intelligence and entertainment, dissecting the consequences of South Korea’s economic institutions while simultaneously enrapturing an audience.
Despite Parasite’s Oscar dominance, the film surprisingly received zero acting nominations. Given Parasite’s ensemble nature it may have been difficult for the academy to single out any particular performance, but Parasite’s clear driving force is the Kim family patriarch, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho). A frequent collaborator with Joon-ho, Kang-ho is masterful in his part, showing an ideal mix of control and general aloofness. Joon-ho makes no attempt to depict the poverty stricken Kim’s as noble heroes fighting against capitalism, instead trying to create a sense of familiarity, relatability and charm for the Kim family unit. With that in mind, Kang-ho’s performance is a perfect representation of aimlessness while still holding a sense of familial love and compassion.
Often opposite Ki-taek is his son, Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik). As the frustrated heir to the Kim family fortune, Ki-woo serves as the story’s catalyst, constantly wanting more for himself and his family. Woo-sik conveys this sense of aspiration admirably, always giving off the sense he is searching for something he’ll never find. In the Park home, a viewer can feel Ki-woo’s calculation and desperation underlying every decision, creating a full character that feels instantly relatable.
For the Park family, the clear breakout performer is Jo Yeo-jong as the mother, Park Yeon-kyo. Playing a ditzy, out of touch homemaker, Yeon-kyo’s character runs the risk of bordering on caricature, but Yeo-jong manages to capture something humane within the performance, using the character’s eccentricities as comic relief rather than villainy. Part of Joon-ho’s mastery is his ability to avoid any kind of cliché, making a socio-political piece of art with such precision and detail that his hyper-specific parable can transcend country and language.
Joon-ho’s talents as a director have been on display for over twenty years, making his current status with American audiences well deserved. Prior to Parasite, Joon-ho’s career appeared to be moving in a more American direction, with his last two films, Snowpiercer and Okja, with both being in the English language and starring famous American actors. Instead, Joon-ho decided to head back to Seoul and craft his masterpiece, eschewing the genre conventions he usually relies on to tell a modern story with practical implications.
Over the past few months, Joon-ho’s career has been given its own kind of lore, garnering comparisons to Steven Speilberg for his ability to make accessible sophisticated horror or Alfred Hitchcock for his mastery of tension and complete control of every frame. Parasite feels like the kind of film that only a master filmmaker could conjure, with every detail working in service of the story and every moment receiving the kind of thought and scrutiny it deserves.
Whether it be the jaw dropping set design and attention to architecture paid to the Park family home or slight turns of phrase that drive the narrative forward, everything about Parasite feels purposeful and inventive, letting the viewer know they are in good hands. Joon-ho has long been credited for his obsession with story boarding and framing, and to that end, his use of visual metaphor and building design give Parasite an extra dimension that few films are able to maintain.
But behind all of this precision and idiosyncrasy, Parasite still emanates a sense of fun. Joon-ho’s script is so versatile, at times he can maneuver a viewer through heartbreak and hilarity and a single moment, while never losing sight of the biting satire at hand. Regardless of character morals or notions of nobility, Parasite understands that being a member of the Kim family comes with its own kind of joy and excitement embedded in the ensemble.
Perhaps the best description of Parasite’s appeal was given by Bong Joon-ho himself when receiving his Oscar for Best Director. Joon-ho recited a quote from fellow nominee Martin Scorsese saying, “The most personal is the most creative.” Through all of Parasite’s drama, tragedy, comedy and thrills, Joon-ho’s capacity for personal connection and care for his characters becomes Parasite’s defining attribute. Parasite has a lot to say and knows exactly how to say it, but despite metaphor or subtext, Parasite never stops being about the characters on screen. By creating something so personal, Joon-ho made the most creative film of 2019.