Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.Bong Joon Ho, at the Golden Globes, 2020
What to Watch
Taking up director Bong’s challenge, let us watch his own much acclaimed movie Parasite (2019). We begin by inhabiting a cluttered, bug infested semi-basement apartment with the Kim family. The family is struggling to find a Wi-Fi signal from which they can freeload. They industriously fold pizza boxes but are very much stuck at the wrong end of the gig economy. The apartment symbolises their prospects – providing a limited view of an untidy back alley. The son, Ki-woo is offered a chance to escape, which he takes with alacrity. Posing as a university student, he assumes the position of English tutor for the daughter of the super wealthy Park family. He soon insinuates himself into their household and manages to wrangle jobs for the rest of his family, without revealing their relationship. The Park’s sophisticated architect designed house juxtaposes with the Kim’s apartment. The Kims and the Parks occupy polar ends of a socio-economic divide, but the question the movie poses is which of the two families represent the parasites?
Parasite defies genre expectations, mixing the darkly comic with human drama and even a little horror. The film constantly shifts tones and atmospheres. This penchant for genre shifting can be found in all of director Bong’s films. Turning a monster movie into social commentary in The Host (2006) or effects-driven spectacle to questions of social cohesion in Snowpiercer (2013).
During the filming of Snowpiercer, the actor John Hurt noted director Bong’s Hitchcockian approach. Hitchcock would meticulous pre-plan his movies through the use of storyboards, a process that Bong follows. Hence any visual or narrative twists we find in their movies are fully intended. There are Hitchcockian devices used in the production design of Parasite. The long snooping staircase in the Park residence, is used to instigate dramatic intrigue, recalling Cary Grant spying on James Mason in North by Northwest (1959).
Bong grew up in South Korea during 1970s and 80s, a period marked by authoritarian military rule. Bong’s grandfather Park Taewon, a distinguished novelist defected to North Korea during the Korean War. An event that added to the disadvantages his family endured. This childhood informs Bong’s film-making which often question social equality and political authority.
Parasite is director Bong’s most successful film to date, smashing the 1-inch-tall barrier by becoming the first non-english language film to win a best picture Oscar. My favourite movie critic, Mark Kermode considers Parasite the most perfect piece of cinema he’s seen in the last ten years. With Parasite’s faultless casting and cinematography, it is easy to see why. Also look out for a black and white version of Parasite, that Bong has released to further contrast the two families. Not content with simple digital bleaching, this version has been properly reconstructed by the meticulous Bong Joon Ho.
As a companion piece for Parasite, I considered Jordan Peele’s superb Us (2019). ‘Us’ share’s with Parasite, common themes about class and home invasion but with a stronger horror inflection. However, in keeping with the 1-inch-tall barrier theme, lets skip across the Donghae from South Korea to Japan and watch Hirokazu Koreeda’s equally excellent Shoplifters (2018).
Shoplifters starts as the name suggests, with a little crime. We find a man and a young boy working their way through a store, cleverly lifting items without detection. There is a level of coordination that suggests that they have done this before and will probably do so again. The items they steal are not indulgent trinkets but necessities – they are doing this to survive. On the way home, they encounter a young girl that is clearly the subject of neglect and abuse. They decide to take her with them and introduce her to the rest of the Shibata family that includes grandma, mum and mum’s sister. They all live in a rundown old house that they call home. A family of five that will soon become six, when they decide to ‘adopt’ the young girl. What follows is a close examination of what the concept of ‘family’ means.
Shoplifters and Parasite share themes around social inequality with two families pushed to the margins of society. Koreeda has a more humanist approach to his movie, unlike the Kims, the Shibatas are more content with their morally ambiguous life style. It is only in the final third of the movie, when circumstance change dramatically that we begin to question their motives.
Koreeda has explored the definition of family in previous films like Nobody Knows (2004) and Like Father, Like Son (2013). Shoplifters forms a culmination of all those efforts and he is aided by a brilliant cast. The movie marked the passing of Koreeda’s long time collaborator Kirin Kiki who plays the grandmother. Koreeda has a proven ability with child actors and elicits wonderfully naturalistic performances for the Shibata children. The standout performance here is from Sakura Ando who plays Nobuyo the mother. Working with Koreeda for the first time, she provides the movie a heart wrenching coda.
Shoplifters and Parasite both won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for their makers. These are two very highly regarded movies to be enjoyed by jumping that little 1-inch-tall barrier. It may require you to walk and chew gum and the same time, something that seems beyond a certain world ‘leader’ but you will be well rewarded! And if this gets you in the mood then also look out for Chan-wook Park’s mesmerising The Handmaiden (2016) and Sang-ho Yeon’s thrilling Train to Busan (2016).