Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Thirteen

#13 — Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)

Looking back, it’s remarkable that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite was the first foreign language film to claim the Academy Award for Best Picture. There’s first the oddity that no film reliant on subtitles to reach English-speaking audiences had previously prevailed across more than ninety years of trophy distribution, especially when there were earlier options that tended towards gentle poignancy or maudlin manipulation, the sort of material that Oscar voters often found irresistible. Instead, the seal was broken by a dark, devious satire of grotesque class divisions in modern society, further outfitted with the steel girders salvaged from the long-abandoned skyscraper of Hitchcockian thrillers. On the basis previous winners, including the by-the-numbers social commentary that took top honors just one year earlier, Parasite didn’t stand a chance.

Acknowledging that a zillion factors weigh on the Academy members’ collective voting process, I wonder if the most important quality that distinguished Parasite from all others — in its year and against the roster of amazing foreign-language films that competed before it — is its sheer irresistibility. Bong unfolds his story with bright, brisk mastery of cinematic narrative, deftly sketching in the personalities of the major players and establishing the high stakes that only go higher as the film progresses. At times, Parasite resembles a heist movie. At other times, it recalls the low-simmer horror movies of the nineteen-nineties, with some interloper insinuating themselves into a social unit and proceeding to demolish it. The film careens strategically between different modes, all of them kindred to one another but distinctive and prickly enough that it takes a steady hand to steer the joyride.

It takes a certain sort of cunning and insight to make a stylized film feel earthbound and alive, reverberating with the possibility of real existence. Bong gets excellent performances from all of his actors — of special note are regular collaborator Song Kang-ho, as the downtrodden family’s patriarch, and Park So-dam, who memorably delivers a tuneful reminder of her masquerade as Jessica, an only child from Illinois, Chicago — and those providers provide helpful ballast. There’s no corralling a film such as Parasite, though, without a clear, complete vision from the filmmaker at the helm. Bong has spent his whole career skillfully shaping sly but pointed commentary into whiz-band entertainment. Parasite doesn’t come across as thematic culmination, nor a pinnacle that will never quite be reached again. It’s a declaration that a director who long edged towards mastery arrived at that destination, presumably with plans to stay for a good long time.

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