By now, most people have heard about the unprecedented success of the South Korean film Parasite at this year’s Academy Awards. In case you missed it, Parasite is the first non-English language film ever to be awarded the Best Picture Oscar. Additionally, it also won Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and if that wasn’t enough, Best International Feature Film, a re-named category which used to be known as Best Foreign Language Film. While there are numerous implications of these awards, let’s talk about the film and why you should be watching.
When director Bong Joon Ho gave his acceptance speech at the ceremony for Best Director (beating out the likes of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Sam Mendes and Todd Phillips), he was very gracious in thanking and acknowledging two of his mentors: Scorsese and Tarantino. Watching Parasite, one can see their influence. Scorsese is a master of mise-en-scène, the art of visual storytelling. I’ve written elsewhere about Scorsese’s greatness, and when watching the Parasite, one is struck by Bong’s visual and spatial aesthetics and particularly his portrayal of the so-called “dirt spoon class,” a poorer class not born with a “golden spoon.” The film contrasts the lives of the Kim family, who live in the semi-basement of a high-rise apartment building, and the Park family, a privileged wealthy family living in an architecturally beautiful and spacious home. We see in these characters not only a study of contrasts but of visual framing. The Kim family is representative of the banjiha, people who have lost out in the economic boom of South Korea and because of soaring rents, are forced to live in subterranean spaces originally created as fallout shelters in the event of a war with the North. The film is conceived as a clever revenge fantasy of the lower classes and begins as an almost humorous story of how the Kim’s infiltrate and gain access to the lives of the wealthy. Soon things go terribly wrong, and the film turns from comedy to dark horror, much in the vein of Bong’s other influence, Tarantino. The message at the end, one might argue, is that social mobility is not possible and attempts at entering the space occupied by the wealthy will end in disaster. A disturbing message, but one not foreign to people around the world.
While the violent ending is reminiscent of several other recent films (parodied wonderfully by Saturday Night Live’s Melissa Villaseñor in a skit that’s now gone viral), the rage it portrays is more of a classic class conflict and an indictment of late-capitalism and the inequalities that mismanaged globalization has wrought. In Seoul, a Korean real estate agent once explained, wealth is measured by how high you live—both physically and figuratively. The banjiha, living at ground-level or just below, live in constant fear that if prices increase any more and if wealth inequality becomes any greater, they will be swallowed into the ground, Bong has stated. The Kim family is quite clever and able to use their wits, their street smarts and good luck to outsmart the more dim-witted Parks. They meet their match, however, in a fellow basement dweller who competes for the graces of the wealthy Parks and refuses to be displaced by the newcomers. It’s a dog-eat-dog world for the poor, who fight for any scraps, while the rich live in blissful ignorance.
As such, the film is on the one hand very Korean, but on the other hand it reflects the struggles and inequalities felt by many around the globe. The film portrays this conflict with humor, drama, suspense and horror and in doing so, clearly convinced the academy that it was the best film not only outside the English-speaking world but the best film of the year. Parasite’s sweep of the top awards at the Oscars raises a number of fascinating questions. If a non-English language film can win the coveted award for Best Picture, why is there any need to maintain a separate category for International Film? Last year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma came close to achieving the same feat of winning Best Picture, but lost, in what some feel was an injustice, to the inferior Green Book. This year, it seemed that language and country of origin were no longer an issue and those walls and borders were torn down. And for those reasons and more, Parasite is certainly worth watching.
By Dr. David Coury
David Coury is a Professor of Humanities (German) and Global Studies and also Co-Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Partnerships. Additionally, he is the director of the Green Bay Film Society, whose International Film Series screens international and independent films twice a month at the Neville Public Museum. Admission is free and all films are open to the public.