Parasite: The Context of Cinema in 2020 America

Reviewer: Benjamin Champagne

Venue: Court Street Theater


Saginaw should be just fine with a little art house movie, as a treat. 

(Before we dive into this way too long essay for our internet addled brains, let it be known that this film is hilarious and exciting, yet dark, philosophical and entirely worthy of all of your attention)

The Riverside Saginaw Film Festival is bringing Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite to Saginaw on Sunday January 19th. This is a welcome relief to what the Saginaw 10 makes available to the public. Currently all 10 screens are occupied by Avengers Movies. A few times a year they relinquish one screen for an over-hyped movie; like Bohemian Rhapsody with bad editing, bad writing and even worse acting. I believe they are changing the name of the theater to The Marvel 10 this year. 

Parasite represents a crescendo in cinema in this moment in 2020. Bong Joon-ho’s film is a metaphor, so so bluntly, for class warfare. This is a film set in South Korea, his home country, that has universal implications. It is a crescendo in a symphony of social awareness films that started with Jordan Peele’s Get Out. This film gets its thrills and horror, not from knives or gore, but from something we all know is far more sinister. To quote the film, “Don’t move, or I’ll press send!”

Parasite is more of a thriller… or is it a comedy, or is it a thinking persons movie? It’s interstitial that’s for sure. The same with Get Out. The same with Midsommar and this years, The Lighthouse. Horror is in a resurgence right now. It is a frontier that some of the best directors are playing with. They have recently returned to being beautiful movies like Daria Argento’s Suspiria (which enjoyed a remake in this hey day we are in right now). 

Now mind you, I am no big fan of horror. My favorite movie is The Jerk. I like dumb, terribly dumb comedies. But I also love Breathless. And 70’s auteur films. The fringier movies of today are utilizing all of these worlds. The Lighthouse leans on Ingmar Bergman. The lighting and shadows in the film resemble Seventh Seal and there are definite allusions to Persona. Get Out utilized classic social thrillers such as The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby. And films like Midsommar are taking movies even further into avant-garde territory. Parasite is climactic in this group because it is nearly seamless. It doesn’t rest in anything one could call, that dirty dirty word, genre. Is it a thriller or an art house movie? Hard to say. 

Parasite is as beautiful a film as any Wes Anderson film. The attention to detail is all there. The family, low in their beginnings, are literally living under street level. As the plot develops, the subterranean metaphor makes itself clearer. The clean lines and set design of the mansion in which the film takes place, tell the story of naivety and simplicity that is the fuel for the plot. In this story of class it telegraphs most of its moves, yet is wholly unpredictable. 

The film is about what it takes to get by in today’s world. Well, an exaggeration of what it takes. Modern living has created more and more. We are at the height of production, yet Johnny Everyman seems to have less and less. At the very least, his lot isn’t improving. Every second of the film, the audience leans in further and says “no way”. Yet, every frame is wholly believable. Parasite achieves the magical realism of a Hal Asby film in the husk of an early 90s Harrison Ford thriller. After everything that happens throughout the film, we begin to expect it to rain frogs like a plague and not think anything of it. 

Bong Joon-ho’s other films have focused on class, notably Snowpiercer. This was a highly stylized, dystopian film with strange costumes and a stranger plot. If we think about Parasite in this context, we can see the similarities. Both films take place primarily in one location. Both films exaggerate the differences between class  to produce didactic messages about contemporary life. Chris Evans (Captain America himself) played the protagonist in Snowpiercer which is clearly a deliberate choice, meta in it’s meaning. The savior of our strange little dystopian class warfare film, is the enemy in our actual cinema experience. What do I mean?

Let’s think about what Martin Scorsese said about film this last year. All of these populists movies nowadays are hardly cinema. Disney, Marvel, DC owning every story. *They know before they even make a film, that it’s going to sell. People are so invested in a plot, so long as it is called Star Wars, that they don’t even care if it’s just the same plot over and over again. “Make it a woman this time!” (Throw a gratuitous gay kiss in there for zero reason!) People just want to see the zeitgeist actor of the moment play Batman. And they will next year too.*  

Bong Joon-ho makes a radical B movie (if all these high grossing films are considered A movies) and places our A list celeb in the place of fighting for any scrap of dignity left. The real Captain America is his role in the back of the train in that film. The Marvel Universe that he came from, represents the front of the train. The scraps are all that is left after Jaws and Star Wars squashed the auteur movement in the late 70s. In Parasite, we see it demonstrated as the basement and the mansion. But it’s all there.

The studio system learned that people would feed into film series and cycles. That there only had to be a very apparent enemy, like a shark eating everything and they could make a buck. Flash forward to 2020 and if you live in a rural town like Saginaw, you get whole theaters entirely dedicated to the Marvel Universe. To Disney World. 

Parasite, being a thriller more than an art house film, being equally exciting and tantalizing as it is didactic and performative speaks to this epidemic in modern movies. It eschews Hollywood entirely. It may be a foreign film, for (Captain) America, but it isn’t foreign in the least bit. In fact, South Korea in this film could be just about any major American city. The story of a poor, scrappy family doing what they need to do to get by has been told a million times as well, but not like this. 

I’m not certain if we are rooting for the con-artists, but it sure is fun to watch. The film has the feeling of another highly fun, yet rather grotesque movie this decade, The Florida Project. This movie is The Little Rascals meets the methadone clinic. Which lands us at what is really interesting in film now: if a plot is to be recycled again and again, it must be twisted and delivered in a new tone to be worthy of our time and energy. The dark comedy, thriller, parable that is Parasite, hasn’t been seen yet and likely will never again. It is a perfect film for America in an election year. It is a great response in the conversation that is film history. It is the best next step in genre-less-genre films right now. And above all things, it is exciting, funny, well written, well acted, beautifully shot and delivering a mystery that society requires in order to push forward. Only the highest art graces these achievements. Much great art doesn’t do all this. 

This is a perfect film for a place like Saginaw, full of poverty and dark comedy, to ignore while they sit through Avengers 19: Captain America fights the Hamburglar at the Disney 8 Megaplex. 

Here’s a link to a con artist training seminar:


Share this Review