Diary of an SFF Fiend, Part IV: Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
By Fred Pryce
South Korean cinema can get pretty damn wild. While Hollywood tends to divide movies into pretty strict genre boxes - e.g. thriller, horror, comedy, action - Korean filmmakers seem unperturbed by such artificial boundaries, and mash them together at will, veering from one to the next or letting all these tones mix at once in exciting combinations. Director Bong Joon-ho has thrived in this environment to the point of creating a genre of his own (his fans being members of the #bonghive), through films like the serial killer-mystery-thriller-slapstick comedy Memories of Murder, to the scifi-action-social parable Snowpiercer. He’s also somewhat of an SFF celebrity, attending the festival once again after Okja in 2017, and appearing to wild applause onstage before the screening of his latest film Parasite.
After receiving the prestigious Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival (considered the greatest achievement for arthouse films), it just won the SFF Official Competition too, so, needless to say, the hype is pretty huge. And boy howdy, does this movie live up to the hype. I give so much context here not only do I not want to spoil the rollercoasting twists and turns, but to give you an idea of how impossible it is to spoil the film in the first place. The overarching plot is simple enough: a poor family, struggling to find work, lucks out when one of them is hired as a private tutor to an exceedingly wealthy (and extremely gullible) household. If it sounds like the setup to a farce, that’s because it is - the first hour plays like the best-directed comedy you’ll see this year, from the family desperately trying to connect to a cafe’s free wifi from their dingy basement apartment, to their insidious attempts to remove the rich household’s staff from their desirable positions. And when things get wilder (which they do), Bong always sees the comedy lying underneath, even in moments of chaos or sudden, upsetting violence. This movie goes to some horrifying, hilarious places within the confines of an eerily modern mansion, from one breath-taking set piece to the next, always in a totally unpredictable yet smooth way. The audience around me was roaring with laughter and gasping in shock, and the experience is truly exhilarating, as well as Bong’s most polished movie to date. And throughout, he always has big, contemporary issues in mind. It’s no coincidence that one family lives seemingly below sea level and under the ground, while the other’s home seems to loftily float over the city. The script dexterously interrogates the absurd class divide growing ever larger, the cut-throat desperation that capitalism creates, and how the ecological disasters of climate change affect the poor so much more than the rich. And all that in a thrilling, totally satisfying crowd-pleaser. It’s jaw-dropping, one of the best films of the year, and it’s currently coming to local arthouse theatres. See it! (or watch Okja on Netflix if you haven’t).
Also direct from Cannes was a fellow award-winner, the moody romantic drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Directed by Céline Sciamma (Girlhood), it’s a romance in that old-fashioned, Brontë-esque fashion, set in a period where women lived on lonely clifftops looking over a stormy sea, struggling to escape from their strict social boundaries, hoping for someone to rescue them. Our 18th-century woman on the clifftop here is Héloïse, who is to be married to an unknown man in far-off Vienna against her wishes, so refuses to pose for a portrait that would be sent to confirm the arrangement. And refreshingly, it’s not a traditional tall-dark-and-handsome bachelor that comes to visit, but another woman, Marianne. She is to paint Héloïse in secret, under the guise of being her ‘walking companion’, and as we see the intense study Marianne gives to every inch of her subject’s face, it is too easy to see how her observation could turn into desire. Héloïse is played by Sciamma’s romantic partner and regular collaborator Adèle Haenel, and the emotions in the film feel drawn from this real-life relationship, as we witness and feel two women slowly drawn together, testing the unforgiving boundaries of their society. It’s an unapologetically queer, female-centric spin on a classic type of story that’s almost uniformly hetero, and is aware of the tropes it subverts or coyly plays with. The characters at one point discuss the Orpheus myth and the various interpretations of why he would doom his wife to the afterlife, and this factors into their own story in quite literal ways. This is indicative of Sciamma’s heavily symbolic and metatextual filmmaking, as she uses the focused intimacy of the isolated setting to explore who our stories are focused on, and who these stories could be told by. Marianne is escorted to the house by a crew of silent, unfriendly men, and for most of the film there is not only no dialogue spoken by men, but no male characters at all. It’s a welcome opportunity to focus purely on the types of connections between women, and create a deliberate, peaceful fantasy where they are in control - and where the first male intrusion is only a bad sign. Most importantly, it’s a satisfying and earnestly felt story that feels perfectly in line with the filmmaker’s impressive skills, immersing us in this rich atmosphere and imbuing the film with a variety of expressive moods, from sadness to sensuality. If at times the story feels like it’s been done before, that seems to be the point - it’s just that there hasn’t been this particular version told yet.