On Set with Jeff Counts: ‘Parasite’ Transcends Genre and Language

It doesn’t happen every year, but sometimes a foreign film dominates Oscars season buzz. Such films demand consideration beyond the Foreign Language Film category. Last year Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma managed such a feat. This year it’s…

by | Feb 3, 2020 | Culture, Film & TV

It doesn’t happen every year, but sometimes a foreign film dominates Oscars season buzz. Such films demand consideration beyond the Foreign Language Film category. Last year Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma managed such a feat.

This year it’s Parasite, the first Korean film to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Picture category.

Director Bong Joon-Ho has delighted English speaking audiences before. In 2006, he was behind The Host. More than a decade later, he came out with Okja. Add in the highly underrated Snowpiercer from 2013, and the runaway success of Parasite starts to make sense.

He’s always been good. We just didn’t know he was this good.

Meanwhile, the American cinematic appetite continues to be broad, varied and occasionally troubled. We love stories about distant places but haven’t always let inhabitants of those places tell them. Indeed, the impulse to shoehorn an established star into a scenario or ethnicity they don’t reasonably represent has long plagued Hollywood decision-making.

But that’s changing. Audiences are increasingly aware of the world’s diversity, and we don’t accept the idea that there are still blank spots on the movie map. We just can’t be fooled any longer. Crazy Rich Asians proves it. Parasite does too.

This is one of those scripts about which a single unguarded word of description could ruin the entire experience. It’s basically the story of the down-on-their luck Kim family and the way they ingratiate themselves into the lives of the affluent Park clan. That’s really all I can say.

What happens to all of them over the course of the movie is too delicately constructed and shocking to even hint at.

Joon-Ho has said in interviews that the idea for this film was always in his brain, like a parasite, just waiting for the right moment to come out. He also freely admits that if his friend and longtime acting collaborator Song Kang-Ho had rejected the script, the movie might still be just an idea lurking in his head. That sense of deep personal investment is evident throughout. And it feels necessary.

 

Joon-Ho has said in interviews that the idea for this film was always in his brain, like a parasite, just waiting for the right moment to come out.

 

With something as socially and psychologically bracing as Parasite, nothing short of complete loyalty from all constituents would suffice. This is a movie made by people who love movies for people who love movies.

Parasite is also exceptional for the conversation it ignites. Foreign films have only been included in the Oscars Best Picture nomination class 10 times since 1938. (I don’t like to include essentially American projects like Letters from Iwo Jima or Babel in this discussion.) Think Life is Beautiful; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Amour and, of course, Roma. To be sure, over the last eight decades, there have certainly been more than 10 films worthy of this crossover honor. There are usually at least three such per season.

So, maybe it’s time for the Academy to remove its language criteria. The same might be said for animation. There have only been three of those nominated for Best Picture.

No matter which awards it qualifies for, Parasite is definitely among the best movies of the year, in any language. That said, there is no easy genre box for this film. Is it a dark comedy? Is it a thriller? An intricate caper flick? Is it Upstairs, Downstairs for the 21st century? Is it all of those things? None of them?

Few of my suppositions about the nature of parasitic people or the hosts they inhabit held up to the incisive scrutiny of Joon-Ho’s glare. His characters are simultaneously unknowable and painfully transparent. His sense of pacing and perspective create an urgency that is constantly drawing your attention towards something you know must come but can’t remotely predict.

One thing is certain. Parasite is a masterpiece.

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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