Both critics and viewers alike have been lamenting the state of Hollywood for years now. From criticisms leveled against the industry for being too white, to the vast uncovering of sexual harassment, to prominent filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Pedro Almodovar and Martin Scorsese lambasting Marvel movies for not being cinema but rather something akin to “theme parks,” it’s no wonder that crowds are choosing to stay at home and binge Netflix rather than shell out the money and go to the movie theater.
However, it isn’t all hopeless. In the barren landscape of today’s big screen, Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean comedy-thriller Parasite bursts through like a spring. The narrative centers around the Kim family, mother Chung-sook, father Ki-taek, brother Ki-woo and sister Ki-jeong, who are struggling to make ends meet. However, their fortunes change when Ki-woo’s friend, about to go abroad, suggests he take over his job as a tutor for the daughter of a rich family, the Parks. After his sister helps him forge college documents, Ki-woo gets the job, and the rest of the family soon follows, taking up other jobs within the house and pretending they are all of no relation to one another. Though the situation seems a perfect arrangement for both parties, things manage to get dark very quickly.
What really struck me about the film, though, was not its darkness or the serious topics it tackles but how fun and entertaining it actually turned out to be. Despite its moralizing and nearly didactic, Marxian message about class struggle, it never feels preachy or inaccessible. In one scene, the Kim family gathers “to celebrate the reconnection of [their] phones and this bounteous Wi-Fi.” These moments of black comedy are what make the film feel fresh. Playing off of Bong’s deftness at switching between genres and atmospheres, such undercurrents of levity and anxiety add balance and cohesion, while a commitment to realism in regards to characters’ motivations and emotions grounds the film. Likewise, the fact that most of the action takes place at the Park mansion gives the story an an additional layer of unity, though it’s fascinating to see how Bong uses this setting in various, often unexpected ways throughout.
Since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Parasite has been lauded by critics and audiences alike, scooping up South Korea’s first Palme d’Or and becoming a possible contender for the first Korean Best International Feature Film at the Oscars. In an interview, Bong describes his surprise at the worldwide popularity of the movie. His conclusion is this: “Essentially, we all live in the same country … called capitalism.” This is no less true of the world depicted within the film as the world of cinema that surrounds it.
It’s hard to imagine that a film of such depth, that looks at the nuances of wealth inequality straight in the eye and does so with humor and humanity could be made nowadays in America, where — apart from the success of the likes of A24 — only a handful of distribution companies dominate.
In art, risk is not just valuable, it’s crucial. We need artists who can stretch the boundaries of their mediums and let their imaginations go wild. But we also need industries and audiences who are willing to take risks with them. The success of movies like Parasite show that there are those willing to take risks, that people really do want movies that aren’t dumbed-down or, as Scorsese says, merely “audiovisual entertainment.”
Writer Donna Tartt asserts that “the first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying.” However, Bong shows us that a work can be both entertaining and artistic at once, without having to compromise on either. Indeed, the entertainment value of a work is often why we come to it in the first place, while its complexities, nuances and investigations of deeper issues are what make us stay. Do movies today still have the power to do this? Yes, says Parasite. But only if we’re open to it.
Ramya Yandava is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Thursdays this semester.