Parasite–The bizarre winner of the 2020 Oscars is now streaming on Max

Review by C.J. Bunce

Parasite is an enigma.  It’s difficult to explain or understand how a movie of converging genres got enough attention to be nominated for an Oscar, let alone win for Best Picture.  It’s a South Korean twist on The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover–another acclaimed drama also kooky and bizarre.  Today you can explain it by looking at the success of the streaming series The Squid Game.  Perhaps there is something lost in translation, but both productions lack so much writing and technical merit that their success rides solely on their novelty.  Some critics assailed Parasite as horror.  Others called it a comedy.  Others went to extremes to explain it as a thoughtful socio-political film.  The answer is far simpler–it’s a movie that can’t decide what it wants to be, that was at the right place at the right time.  Parasite is now streaming on Max.

When some people walk out of a movie and ask, “what the heck was that?” they assume the movie was smarter than them and praise it as some kind of brilliant.  Parasite gets off to a good start.  A poor family of con artists living in a derelict apartment in a bad community find their brass ring and reach for it.  The ultimate con for them is working their way into a wealthy family’s life, first as a tutor for a teen daughter, then as a therapist for a young son.  Soon the family’s father cons his way into becoming the rich man’s driver, and the mother schemes her way into getting the housekeeper fired and replacing her.  It all works in the manner of The Grifters or Leverage.  That’s the first half of the movie.

Then the script falls apart and reaches for the absurd.  It turns out the former housekeeper’s husband lives in a secret basement under the estate, supposedly created for the original landowner–a famous architect–as a way to hide in the event creditors or North Korea come calling.  It’s the kind of twist that only makes sense if you’re making a low-brow shock film.  Anything the film has to say about economic disparity is obliterated by the outlandish finish.

How did this movie take four Oscars?

The downfall of the Oscars began when the number of nominees for best picture expanded to ten.  So a movie can win Best Picture with only around 11 percent of the vote.  Politics of the small number of Academy voters can sway the votes over quality.  Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was also nominated, but if you’re a voter who doesn’t like Quentin Tarantino’s over-the-top, indulgent style, are you going to vote for his biggest achievement or something else?  Everything else that was nominated was bland or trite the same old thing.

Make no mistake–writer/director Bong Joon-ho may be South Korea’s answer to Tarantino, including his own operatic bloodbath finale, and four wins in one night is an incredible achievement.  The world he puts on the screen is as strange as the sci-fi future city in Blade Runner–Parasite feels at times like a sci-fi movie.  And the actors do a fine job, with Park So-dam as the daughter con artist (the best of the family) and Cho Yeo-jeong as the inept homeowner, both actors to watch for in future shows.  The best and funniest scenes catch the con artist family’s son, played by Choi Woo-sik, leading scripting sessions for his parents to get through their introductory “interviews.”  Yet as a whole, you’ll probably walk away from this movie feeling empty–no hopeful plot, no satisfying ending.  Best screenplay?  It’s like an American B-horror flick at best.

Crazy Rich Asians, it’s not.  Full of unlikable people and bloody violence, it’s an ugly, fictionalized look at reality full of weird and absurd situations.  Parasite is now streaming on the renamed streaming provider Max.

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