Parasite: a non-review

Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho answering questions with the assistance of Sharon Choi
Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho answering questions with the assistance of Sharon Choi at the Q+A at the Curzon Mayfair on 3 February 2020

What can one say about a movie that has won Best Picture at Cannes and the Oscars, that has won best screenplay at the Oscars and BAFTAs, best edited drama feature at the Eddies, and best ensemble performance at the Screen Actors Guild? A movie that has been seen more widely in this country, and had more coverage, reviews and spin-off articles, in the mainstream and online press, than any other Korean movie before except perhaps Oldboy. Any additional review from this site would seem to be redundant.

But I suppose one has to at least say something. Suffice it to say, then, that there’s some great storytelling (the plot hums along at an electric pace) and great acting, along with Bong’s trademark genre-bending, and that it’s among the best of the recent output from the Korean film industry. Everyone’s agreed that it’s a superb piece of film-making, though personally I didn’t feel the same rush of admiration that hit me at the end of his Memories of Murder all those years ago. In particular I found the last 20 minutes or so (from the birthday party incident onwards) a little disappointing – almost as if Bong had lost the plot. I don’t mind an ending that isn’t feelgood (Bong explains the 확인사살 ending here); and I certainly don’t mind a narrative that veers off in an unexpected direction – that’s half the fun of a Bong Joon-ho movie. I just wonder whether there was a less extreme way to pave the way for the new parasite to take the place of the old.

So, rather than attempting a conventional review, I’ll simply highlight a couple of things that hit me when watching the movie for the first couple of times, and then summarise some of the other themes of note arising from the film and its coverage elsewhere.

Visuals

The first thing that struck me other than the fast-moving storyline were the visuals: visuals that had the feel of a graphic novel. This is perhaps not a surprise given Bong’s penchant for drawing comics – a hobby acquired at the age of five years old, according to his BAFTA talk.

The framing of so many of the shots – particularly inside the Parks’ house – have the feel of being laid out carefully on the page. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that the house was custom-built to look good for the camera. According to the production designer, “we created the window wall in accordance with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and I wanted the large living room and garden to feel like a nice photograph on screen.”

But artful design of the building is complemented by clever camerawork. I was particularly struck with the scene where the Kims have to hide under the coffee table: as the camera drifts slowly downwards, from the Parks lying horizontally on the sofa to the Kims hiding under the strong horizontal of the low table, you can imagine seeing that on the page, landscape format across a double-page spread.

Later, as the Kim family runs helter-skelter down a never-ending sequence of stairs from the heaven of the Park’s house to the hell of their sewage-flooded semi-basement, you again can visualise tiny figures on a monochrome portrait-format single page – or even imagine scrolling down a webtoon on your mobile phone screen.

Jahamun Staircase
The stairs near the Jahamun Tunnel which feature in the movie – now promoted by Seoul as a tourist destination (photo: Seoul Tourism Organization)

Despite the rich, Oldboy-hued dark greens in places where there is no natural light, and the more colourful street scenes and red pizza-boxes in the Kim’s hovel, much of the movie feels like it would lose nothing by being in black and white – particularly in those two scenes mentioned above. In fact, I’m looking forward to seeing the monochrome version when it is released.

Song Kang-ho

Just as Jeon Do-yeon managed seemingly to win best actress at Cannes with one look of devastation when visiting her child’s murderer in prison in Secret Sunshine, Song Kang-ho manages to portray an incredible range of emotion with the tiniest movements in a facial muscle – particularly the sense of hurt he feels when the Parks make reference to his smell, or when he’s told not to “cross the line”.

At the Q+A following one of the preview screenings earlier this month Bong played tribute to the many skills of the actor who has featured prominently in his films. In particular Bong related how, when filming the scene where Song’s character has to rescue what he can from his flooded basement, Bong teared up when he witnessed the sense of desperation and hopelessness Song conveys in his face. Song Kang-ho is certainly the star among the impressive cast.

The make-up artists deserve a shout-out here: the close-ups of Song Kang-ho’s face make him look like a real person who has seen a bit of life – a guy who cannot afford a swanky Gangnam dermatologist.

Song Kang-ho's character

And now for the round-up of links to themes of interest:

Parasite as a window into…

Other Parasite-related trending topics

Jessica Jingle
Park So-dam as Jessica, performing her Jingle
  • Director Bong didn’t want to talk about the Jessica Jingle at the London Q+A on 3 February this year. Instead, he told us to google it. We did. According to the Donga Ilbo, the catchy mnemonic is based on the song Dokdo is Our Land.
  • Chapaguri – the cheap noodle dish embellished in the Park’s household with hanwoo steak – is not officially a Thing, with noodle manufacturers Nongshim specifying the recipe of how to combine Chapagetti black bean noodles and Neoguri spicy noodles into the fusion dish
  • A NY Times piece on rage in Asian Cinema drew some hostile fire from Jeff Yang and Inkoo Kang.
  • The wonderful range of Parasite poster art (worth a google in its own right).

Other links:

Bong Joon-ho (봉준호): Parasite (기생충, 2019) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

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