Parasites abound in best foreign language film of 2019

Parasite (Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yao-jeong, So-dam Park) – Last year, it was Roma, the Mexican film that garnered 10 Oscar nominations, three wins, and a Best Picture nomination.  This year, all the Oscar buzz surrounds Parasite, the Korean entry that won Best Foreign Language film at the Golden Globes (someone has to explain to me what a foreign language film is to the Foreign Press Association – wouldn’t English films be foreign language to foreigners?).

With sterling critical reviews and audience ratings, Parasite defies easy definition.  At its heart, it is the story of two families, one dirt poor, one unabashedly rich. Critics looking for deep meaning in the film will drone on about “class struggle” as the central message here.  I don’t think so.  To me, this is a typical “things go bad” movie.

It starts innocently enough as we meet a poor family living in squalor.  The parents are out of work while the daughter and son seem unmotivated.  With the help of a teenage friend, the son gets a job tutoring the daughter of a rich family, the Parks.  Before it’s all over, each member of the poor family gets a job working for the Parks in what essentially turns out to be a confidence scheme.  (Note: if the poor family were so good at manipulation and masterminding this scheme, how did they get so poor?)

The tone of the movie is upbeat, even amusing to this point.  After all, what’s the problem?  Both families are happy, the money is flowing and, despite the false pretenses, life is good.  This lasts right up to the time that the Parks’ previous housekeeper shows up at the front door of the Parks’ home in the middle of a deluge while the Parks are out of town.  What follows is more horror film than deep drama.  In some ways, this reminds me a bit of 2017’s Get Out, a surprise hit that combined family drama, comedy and horror.

Rather than spoil the rest, let’s just say that the plot thickens, the poor family is about to be exposed, the rain finally stops, the rich family goes blissfully forward, and “there will be blood.”  And then ponder, “Who (or what) is the parasite?”

It is true that there is no protagonist in the film.  The poor family is deceitful if generally likable.  The rich family is entitled but well meaning.  Even the old housekeeper evokes pity as well as scorn.  As the story evolves into absurdity, the audience is drawn in.  As Johnny Carson used to say: “You buy the premise; you but the bit.”

I can’t say that this is a great film.  It certainly never felt boring; it kept me guessing; and it kept me engaged for all two-plus hours. Would this have been one of the best films of the year if it had been an American film?  I doubt it.  So, I expect, like Roma, it will win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and be nominated for Best Picture and perhaps Best Director (Bong Joon Ho).

Should you go out of your way to see it?  Absolutely if you don’t mind subtitles and enjoy journeys into the absurd.  Otherwise, you can wait for it to show up on Netflix.

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