Parasite ★★★★

I first watched Parasite a month after it had won the Palme d’Or. At that stage I’d been looking forward to it as I do most of the winners of that award, and the reviews coming in were generally very positive, which augured well. And at the time I wasn’t disappointed, I enjoyed it a lot, but then it didn’t stick around long in my mind. Another month went by and I saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which had also been competing at Cannes, and I thought wow, there’s the film that should have won. But I didn’t begrudge Parasite, because it was a brilliant film in its own right, and just because I have a personal preference for more classical film making doesn't mean I'm right (goddammit). But since then, of course, there’s been an almighty groundswell of hype and love that’s grown around Parasite, which is kind of wonderful, but also confounding because I don’t get it. Anyway, the hype, no doubt helped in part by the Academy Award nominations, has brought the film back into the cinemas, so I went along to a packed house screening for a chance to reappraise. 

I’m always at risk of being a contrarian when it comes to hype, but I had good memories of the film and I expected to like it. And I still did. But it didn’t improve on my first viewing despite the positive atmosphere in the cinema, and if anything it suffered for its lack of surprise, this time around. I'd half-expected the more political aspects dealing with class conflict and inequality to come through more strongly on a second watch, but they didn’t and I actually found them pretty ambiguous and light. I appreciated the score a little more, but in most other respects the film was just as I'd remembered it: a thoroughly entertaining, expertly designed and directed genre mash-up. 

In that sense, the film compares well with Pulp Fiction, another brilliantly directed Palme d’Or winner, that’s thoroughly entertaining and pretty inconsequential. I recall when that came out in 1994 and the incredible buzz that grew around it. People flocked to it like it was the greatest film ever made. And it was pretty great, but it was a film that took established genres as its base, shuffled them together in novel and clever ways, let us go on a joy ride with some engaging low-lifes, surprised us with its shocks, and wrapped it all up with some great writing. Parasite doesn’t have Pulp Fiction’s great writing, but it is a clever and shocking fusion of genres and the effect on audiences has been quite similar. And the fact that it has done that with subtitles and without Hollywood stars is something truly impressive and worth celebrating. 

I guess Parasite's success is just one of those rare things. A film that has struck a collective nerve, and given audiences a visceral thrill at a time when cinema-going is in decline. It has brought audiences together, given them high entertainment value with its shocking twists, and enjoyably despicable characters. Its vague social commentary has felt right for our times, with its simplistic messages, emboldened narcissism and fuck the rich sentiment. And it is really well made so that it feels fresh and alive and brand new, even though it thrives like its namesake on established genre expectations. But at its core it is a comedy of manners, mashed with action and horror, and on my rewatch I didn’t laugh once, and the horror was less effective without its element of surprise, and the great flood scene felt stranded as a too brief high point. So, while it won't matter to its devotees what I think, I just don't believe it fully deserves the hype. I am, however, pleased it has made people get off their phones, flock to the cinema and see a foreign language film. Overall, you could say I’m kind of happily disappointed. I’ll settle for that.

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