Sunday, August 11, 2019

Bad Metaphor

Parasite (2019) - Bong
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It's a pity that Bong Joonho's Parasite comes out after Lee Changdong's masterful Burning since both films deal with economic disparity, because the comparison would be inevitable. It is also ironic that after Cannes awarded good natured people living in the economical margins in another Asian movie, Shoplifters, just a year before (and Burning competed the same year), they did a one hundred eighty degree turn and award something called Parasite, a deeply cynical film which the title is meant for the very people living in the economical margins.

People of lesser means have been Bong's bread and butter. He's been sketching these poor funny people trying to eke out a living and constantly going in and out of moral muck with sympathetic eyes. In his view, in this world, no one comes out clean. That everyone is guilty one way or another. Also in Bong's world, the rich and powerful have always been rich and powerful and the poor have always been poor. There's never been cause and effect shown. Granted that in a rigid society like Korea, the upward mobility is almost impossible. Except for his big monied, international productions - Snow Piercer and Okja and his native Korean creature feature hit, The Host, where villians are cartoonish and literal monsters, his other films, villians are usually themselves, the everyman.

Now Bong tackles head on the economic disparities with Parasite. It tells a story of a swindler family who lives in a tiny basement apartment. There is a bumbling unemployed dad (Song Kangho), a former track and field athlete mom- also unemployed (Jang Hyejin), a forever jaesusang (a High School graduate who's failed college entrance exams multiple times) son (Choi Woosik) and an artistically inclined daughter (Park Sodam) who is also a jaesusang. The opportunity comes for the son, Kiwoo, to take over the tutoring duties from a childhood friend who is now a college student. He is to tutor a High School Sophomore girl whose family is uber-rich while his friend is studying abroad. With a fake resume (provided by his sister Kijung), Kiwoo gets a foothold in Mr. Park's household and earns the trust of naive Mrs. Park. One by one, with some devious, ingenious planning, the poor family gets hired in various positions - tutors for children (Son and daughter), a driver (Dad) & a live-in maid (mom) without revealing that they are family.

Things get nutty when they discover the hidden basement and find a person who's been secretly living there for years. Upper class/under class metaphor physically manifests.

Here is the thing. Bong is masterful at technical filmmaking and has an amazing eye for mise-en-scene and great imagination to boot. Also love human comedy he brings with his everyman characters. But he fails when things get serious. The major problem in Parasite is that there are no real villains. Uber-rich Park's family is neither monster nor cartoonish. They are just nice people who might be a little clueless. There is no context to the upper/under class struggle here other than material things to compare each other with.

I shouldn't compare Bong's dramedy to serious drama like Haneke's Caché or Code Unknown or anything. But in Burning, without making Steven Yeun's uber-rich character too over the top, Lee created a subtley menacing villian who really got under your skin. However fantastical Emir Kusturica's Underground (another Palme d'Or winner), at least there was a heavy context for history and war of the former Yugoslavia to force people living underground. What I'm saying is Bong's populist shtick alone doesn't quite work when there is no clear enemy and no context. Calling his everyman Parasite doesn't help the matters too much either. With Kiwoo's epilogue, Bong, who didn't have to give us the definite ending in Memories of Murder, is forced to give answer here, just because he handles economic disparity head on. And he seems to say unconvincingly (even to himself) that the enemy is not the wealth but instead, lack of money. And without providing context, that's a terrible answer.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Amour fou

The Souvenir (2019) - Hogg
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Joanna Hogg's new film, The Souvenir, drawing from her own experience from her 20s, tells a delicate story of amour fou. On the onset it looks like another one of those involving a charismatic older man taking advantage of a younger, more fragile woman story, or some fluff about a rich white girl being manipulated, but Hogg is such a strong director/writer who has an ability to deeply empathize with her characters, you can't help but be moved by it in the end.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a film school student from an affluent family. She is still figuring things out. She wants to make a film about working class people in Sunderland: a story of a boy and his strong attachment to his mother. Her advisors try to steer her toward making something that she knows and perhaps comfortable with. But just like anyone around that age, she is quietly rebellious and want to go through it in her own way. She is afraid that she won't grow as a person if she doesn't get out of her comfort zones.

Julie meets Anthony (Tom Burke). With his slurring words, arrogant but confident attitude and bitter outlooks on life, he is extremely magnetic to her. He is apparently working for the Foreign Affairs agency or something mysterious like that (we never get to see him working really). It's the Thatcher's England in the 80s. There are bombs going off on the street and news of kidnappings on the radio.

The romantic notion of being in a relationship with a mysterious, intelligent, charismatic person, Julie neglects to see his imperfections - he is always broke and constantly asking for money and has needle marks on his arms. She is so green that it takes her a while to realize that Anthony is a heroin addict. It is infuriating for the viewer as she forgives him and lets him get away with taking full advantages of her financially time and time again as he lies and even steals from her to satiate his habit. Against good judgment, she keeps asking for money from her parents, especially from her stern but caring mother (Tilda Swinton, Honor Swinton byrne's real life mother).

Their intense relationship is eating Julie up and she falls behind in her studies and gets isolated from her circle of friends. But the film makes unexpected turns: after catching him red handed with a needle, she finally kicks him out. She puts her life back on track - studies, new lovers etc. Anthony appears in her life again. He is still broke, charming but broken. He cries and suffers greatly while kicking the habit.

Even the power dynamic has changed, Julie can't help but loving him.

Every writer or film director encounters the criticism at some point or another when they try to create something not related to your life or your background. The Souvenir examines this aspect in the film. But every film Hogg has done so far, there are elements from her life in it. And she is not apologetic about it. Calling The Souvenir an autobiographical filmmaking would be selling the film short. It's a delicate film that doesn't seem to have a special agenda other than humanizing the aspect of the people she encountered earlier in her life. With her baby face and pale complexion and her gaping mouth, Swinton Byrne is terrific in the role of Julie. But it's Tom Burke who steals the show here. His charming yet slightly dangerous demeanor - a cross between Oliver Reed and Hugh Grant is magnetic.

We meet people in our lives who changes and shapes you when you are on the verge of adulthood for better or worse. The Souvenir succeeds in eulogizing that period of your life lovingly and poignantly. One of the year's best.