Category Archives: academy awards

Parasite: Class war in modern Korea

Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho, is a rich, often shocking, and genre-bending look at class conflict in modern Korea. Unlike many films that tackle such topics, Parasite is fairly ambivalent about its heroes/villains. More accurately, there are no heroes and the villains slide helplessly into this role rather than due to any evil intentions.

Parasite starts off as a fairly lighthearted comedy, as a familiar genre piece about con artists. Failed entrepreneur Ki-taek Kim (Song Kang-ho) lives in a bug-infested tenement with his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). The children are grown but, like their parents, unemployed and without prospects. The family survives by doing odd jobs such as folding boxes for a takeout pizza place but even fail at this and have their meager wages cut when the boxes aren’t folded properly.

The family’s fortunes take an upward swing when Ki-woo is recruited by a friend headed for university to tutor the daughter of an affluent family. This is meant to be a short-term assignment but the family conspires to turn it into something much bigger. Taking advantage of Ki-jung’s computer skills (and her natural talents as an actress and forger), the family sneaks its way into the household. Ki-taek becomes a drive; Ki-jung an art tutor, and Chung-sook a maid. They do this in a humorously unethical manner, getting the legitimate household servants fired and scamming the socially insecure couple, pompous CEO Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) and his naive wife Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong).

Any further discussion of the plot would amount to spoilers, so I’ll just say that Parasite veers in a very different direction from its farcical opening act. I’ll just list a few key impressions the film left me with.

Much of the film’s impact comes from imagery rather than plot developments. For example, the stark contrast between the homes of the two families. The Parks live in a modern mansion on a hill while the Kims live at the bottom of a hill (a fact that becomes important). Elevation plays a both literal and metaphorical role throughout the film.

The very title of the film is a bit of a puzzle. The title complements an earlier film of Bong’s, called The Host, which was about a sea monster. Any parasitism in the current film originates in human nature. All of the characters can be considered parasites, depending on one’s perspective. While Bong is clearly calling attention to issues such as economic inequality, his approach is far more nuanced than simply pitting the noble working class against their evil overlords. It’s more like everyone is victimized by a faceless system that fosters inequality and, ultimately, tragedy and mayhem.

It’s worth noting, and a bit disconcerting, how globally relevant the fundamental issues in Parasite are today. While the film is set in Korea, it could just as easily be the U.S. UK, France, Canada, or many other places where the gulf between economic classes is expanding.

Parasite was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best International Feature Film. I saw Parasite at Bytowne Cinema, an independent theater in Ottawa, Ontario.

Green Book: Familiar But Engaging Buddy/Road/Race Relations Movie

Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly (along with his brother Robert, best known for low-brow comedies such as Dumb and Dumber and Something About Mary ) starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali is the kind of film that Hollywood absolutely loves to produce and that tends to win Academy Awards: A buddy film that takes place on the road, with a mismatched black and white duo and dealing with serious social issues.

Tony Lip (a moblike nickname) is a bouncer at a nightclub who has at least casual ties to local mob figures. Despite a penchant for gambling, he manages to steer clear of their dubious offers of easy money. When the nightclub closes, he seeks employment and has an interview for an unusual driving job with a musician named Don Shirley (Ali).

The two are about as mismatched as you could imagine. “Doctor” Shirley is a classical musician, a Ph.D. who speaks multiple languages while Tony Lip is a garrulous street character whose diction Shirley immediately starts to correct.

As the two drive to the segregated South of 1962, they encounter predictable instances of racism and hypocrisy. While Shirley is superficially honored as a great musician, he is not allowed to dine with white people or even use their toilets.

The lessons the two impart to one another are predictable. Tony’s worldview expands while Shirley learns to loosen up and even enjoy fried chicken (a recurring joke that’s milked throughout the film).

It would be easy to dismiss Green Book as merely a series of familiar tropes. Despite this, strong performances and some moving, as well as humorous moments, provide genuine pathos as well as entertainment. It does come perilously close to falling into the “white savior” category as Tony (Mortensen) acts as bodyguard and protector to. However, he’s just flawed enough to avoid being too blatantly a savior.

The film was “inspired by a true story,” which means that somewhere, sometime, something at least remotely similar may have occurred. Green Book gets its title from The Negro Motorist Green Book, an actual book which provided information on which hotels and other businesses permitted blacks to enter.

The fact that Green Book has been nominated for Best Picture can be attributed mainly to Hollywood’s long-time attachment to familiar themes and uplifting tales involving race. Driving Miss Daisy, a film that invites comparisons to Green Book for obvious reasons won Best Picture in 1990, a year when a far more cutting-edge drama dealing with racial issues, Do The Right Thing, wasn’t even nominated.

Both Mortensen and Ali were also nominated for, respectively, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. Whatever little relevance the Oscars have these days, the actors are deserving of acclaim for making the very most of what they have to work with. Mortensen, in particular, is given the all-too familiar role of a brash Italian American gangster type with a gargantuan appetite (in an early scene, he wins a hotdog-eating contest). Despite this, he manages to rise above the stereotype and imbue Tony with likable qualities.

While not exactly original or groundbreaking, Green Book isn’t as banal or objectionable as it could have been. It’s the kind of film that is hard to dislike even if you recognize that it’s shamelessly tugging at familiar heartstrings.

I saw Green Book at Tyneside Cinema, an atmospheric, well-preserved traditional theater in Newcastle, UK where they do an admirable job of recreating the old-fashioned cinema experience. I did grumble at the decidedly modern practice of making you sit through some 20 minutes of commercials before the film but I suppose it’s a challenge for movie theaters to pay the bills these days.

Oscars vs. BBC Critics

Many serious, and even not-so-serious fans of cinema have long taken the Oscars with a grain of salt. Personally, I haven’t watched them for decades. Academy Award winners tend to be sentimental and pop culture-friendly choices. Just a couple of examples point this out; in 1989 the old-fashioned feel-good Driving Miss Daisy, about a black chauffeur who is loyal to his rich white employer, won Best Picture while Spike Lee’s hard-hitting but disturbing portrayal of race relations, Do The Right Thing was not even nominated.

Spike Lee Still Mad at 1989 Oscar Snub

Similarly, in 1995, the clever but basically insipid Forrest Gump swept all the major awards, beating out the far more groundbreaking Pulp Fiction. Another great contemporary films that were never even nominated for Best Picture was Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), while another, far more simplistic and heavy-handed L.A. ensemble piece, Crash, did grab the award, in 2006.

Now, a BBC list of the 100 Greatest American Films challenges the relevance of the Oscars.

Oscar Shamed as BBC List of 100 Greatest American Films Largely Ignores Academy Awards Best Picture Winners

Personally, I like the BBC list more than most Academy Awards selections, but only up to a point. To me, for example, there is something rote and unthinking about putting Citizen Kane at the top of the list (as the BBC list does). It’s a great film, to be sure, but the almost universal assumption that it’s The. Best. Film. Ever. seems more like a shared myth than an objective fact. It’s similar in this way to the Great Books canon, where we repeat the list of the greatest authors and books so often that we no longer have to give it much thought. Obviously, every cultured person knows that the works of Homer, Shakespeare, Melville, Austen, Fitzgerald, etc. are superior to anything written in the last 50 or so years. Although this point of view is now controversial and politically incorrect, the mystique around the Great Books remains mostly intact. It’s similar with certain movies from the black and white era.

Of course, no one is going to agree with all choices made by any awards ceremony or any critics lists. In our decentralized age, such “Best of…” lists are quickly becoming obsolete. Ironically, the very ubiquity of such lists on the internet is evidence of their silliness and subjectivity; who’s to say your clickbait 10 best list of the year’s greatest films is any less valid than the Oscars or the film critics of the BBC, New York Times or Variety?

The Oscars is one of those dinosaur institutions whose relevance fades with each passing year (or, maybe more to the point, with each passing tweet). The age of renowned critics, whether the late Roger Ebert or the BBC reviewers whose opinions comprise the aforementioned list, has also passed, as today any movie fan can spout opinions on his or her fledgling blog (e.g. the one you’re reading now), on Netflix, Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes and hundreds of other places. Still, it can be interesting to use the experts’ opinions as the starting point for discussions about movies.