One of world’s greatest filmmakers puts class conflict front and center

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Jeff Simon

There’s always one. Thank God there is. Lockstep unanimity ought to make us all nervous.

There is exactly one critic of note – that’s it, just one – at the moment who isn’t happy to tell the world Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite” is one of the great films of 2019. That’s the indefatigably contrarian Armond White in the National Review who – as is usually true – is more instructive getting things completely wrong than many people are getting things thoughtlessly right.

Antifa comedy for the Cancel-Culture Era,” White calls “Parasite,” the Palme D’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival. The film’s astonishing 50-year old director, Bong Joon-Ho, is, writes White, “an unfunny extremist … (who) annihilates the concept of the nuclear family by setting a brood of lower-class con artists against an upper-class family unit.”

That’s the plot of “Parasite” all right, but his interpretation is a tragically errant example of how people in our tirelessly political era will make ideological pretzels out of the straightest nourishment. It was hard to get “Parasite” that wrong, but he managed to.

“Parasite” is a great film all right. It is not, I think, to be missed by anyone who seriously cares about movies. (Pay attention, by the way, to every letter of the title. It points toward the film’s final secret in a way you won’t guess until the end. When you leave the theater, vigorous discussion is guaranteed.)

What I would say about “Parasite” amid all the unanimity is that it is by no means the greatest film of its extraordinary Korean director. That would be Bong’s “Snowpiercer” from 2014. I still can’t get that one out of my head and don’t expect to for a long time.

“Parasite” may have been the big winner at Cannes but, to my mind, “Snowpiercer” is one of the truly great movies of the past 20 years. I cannot recommend enough trying to find a way to see it.

Here’s how I described the dystopian plot of “Snowpiercer” in 2014’s review:

“To combat global warming in our time, scientists invented something called CW-7, a substance to sprinkle in the upper layers of the atmosphere to reintroduce cold to the earth’s climate. It’s characteristic of humankind that its solution to global warming is so effective that it freezes the entire world to a temperature where no living creature, including humans, can survive.” Except, that is, “for the inhabitants of a giant bullet train running on a perpetual motion engine and rigidly stuffed into social groups front to back.”

The most abject poor inhabitants of the train are the farthest back, where they live in filth and squalor and exploitation they can’t even imagine. In the front of the train – closed off by force – is where the wealthy and privileged ride enjoying advantages equally unimaginable by their opposites.

Its astonishing creator has given us a double apocalypse. I suppose there are those who’d deny Bong’s jaw-dropping creativity by pointing out the story began life in France as a graphic novel by Jacques Lob. But then, I suppose you could knock the invention of Francis Ford Coppola in his first two “Godfather” movies by pointing out they began life in Mario Puzo’s smash bestseller (after the first film came out, Puzo was witty and clear-headed enough to explain to the world that his role had become turning into “a junior partner in ‘The Godfather Business.’ “)

“Snowpiercer” was a South Korean-Czech film based on a French graphic novel directed by a Korean and starring a terrific cast distinguished by terrific English-speaking actors – Octavia Spencer, John Hurt (one of his last films), Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, and, in a performance, of typically lunatic genius, Tilda Swinton as the second in command on the train and the one in charge of enforcing its socioeconomic rigidity. This is truly international film genius.

For a change in “Parasite,” there are no major English-speaking actors, a surefire box office setback for the film, but far from a fatal one. It’s all Korean, where, of course, it set box office records.

It is indeed a film about a family of four – father, mother, two kids – living in grinding poverty in a sub-basement. They’re located in a slum where too much rain will all but guarantee a home full of raw sewage.

By accident, the elder brother of the struggling family maneuvers himself into a gig as a tutor to the wealthy family’s oldest daughter. Then, the boy’s sister turns into an art tutor to the rich family’s son. In no time at all, the father of the sub-basement has become the privileged family’s chauffeur and his wife has become their live-in housekeeper. All, of course, never admit their family relationship, but secretly relish their triumph over the wealthy and the gullible family.

The home they’re all sharing was built by a now-dead but much-revered Korean architect.

That is what is astonishing about Bong Joon-Ho. Economic class friction is one of the oldest themes in the world, but until Occupy Wall Street made it imperative again, it slowly became ever-less prominent and important in American movies. Bong is, to a degree rare in our current world, constantly concocting horror fables about the terrible places haves and have-nots meet.

In “Snowpiercer,” the theme becomes a great movie about a two-track apocalypse. In “Parasite,” it’s a pitch-dark comedy of social manners in which the slightest slips of those manners bring forth the direst resentments of a completely unimagined sort.

What everyone finds so irresistible about Bong’s “Parasite” is that, despite the nastiness of the poor family’s cunning depredations of the wealthy, we can’t help rooting for them and sharing their jokes, ugly as they are. They, after all, are the ones we share the knowledge with; we, like they, know what’s going on.

The film’s greatest strength is that, at the same time, we see the wealthy family intend, as much as possible, to be courteous and endearing. Their fatal ethical flaw is that so much privilege has made them blind and deaf to their capacity for mistreating have-nots. They don’t really understand how their own privileges can easily slip into exploitation.

But then as capitalism allows everyone to exploit everyone else, all hell breaks loose. The poor con artists miscalculated the world’s capacity for chaos, too.

Contemporaries of Oscar Wilde would have explored all this with wit and quips (think of James M. Carrie’s “The Admirable Crichton”).

Bong, though, is a post-modern director who is truly great at imagining monsters and apocalypses. Things get a bit more chaotic at his little garden party. We know they will, but we sure don’t know how.

Remember the film’s title. That’s where “Parasite’s” pitch black secret resides.

It’s harrowing in its own pseudo-sentimental way but, so help me, if there’s any way for you to see the authentically visionary “Snowpiercer,” it, too, is not to be missed.

Look it up and you’ll see it available in formats galore.

Bong is one of the great living filmmakers of our time.

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