‘Parasite’ May Be the Cinematic Masterpiece of 2019

Parasite movie poster

Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” is a movie I would definitely screen as a double feature with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifting.” Both of them deal with characters on the low end of the economic totem pole who resort to deceitful ways in order to survive in an especially harsh and unforgiving world. But while they start as one type of movie, they eventually take a very sharp left turn to give audiences something unexpected and deeply disturbing. Also, they each won Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in different years, and this should give you a clear idea of just how incredibly brilliant these movies are.

The story opens up in a shabby semi-basement apartment where the Kim family resides and struggles to survive. Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) are unemployed, and along with their children, son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), they work low-paying jobs which include putting together pizza boxes for a local company. The area around them is squalid to say the least, and they can never rid themselves of the stench of urine and vomit coming through their window even as they struggle to take advantage of their neighbor’s Wi-Fi. When an exterminator arrives to fumigate the area, Ki-taek encourages his wife to leave the window open so they can get the apartment fumigated for free as it threatens to be overtaken by unwanted insects.

But then one day, the family is visited by Ki-woo’s friend, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), who is currently a university student. While there, he encourages Ki-woo to take over his job as an English tutor for Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), daughter of the wealthy Park family. Ki-woo is initially hesitant as he does not have a degree, but Min encourages him to fake it. With the help of Ki-jung, he is given forged documents which look quite real, and he is off to the Park household for his interview.

“Parasite” is insidiously clever in showing how different the Parks’ living arrangements are from the Kims’. Upon arriving at their glamorous household, he is made to go through a door which opens with a very ominous sound as it sounds like the rest of the world has been shut out to keep anyone from squatting on such valuable territory. It is a modern building and the kind you pass by on the road where sarcastically tell yourself, “yeah, I can afford that.”

From there, the movie turns into a wickedly black comedy as Ki-woo wins over Mrs. Park who watches him tutor her daughter ever so confidently as he encourages her to keep a check on her pulse during exams. When he learns the Parks have an artistically inclined son who is in need of an art teacher, Ki-woo tells her he knows just the person. That person is, of course, his sister Ki-jung, but the siblings have their act together to where they will not reveal their true identities, and it is hilarious to watch how infinitely prepared they are before they ring the doorbell.

It is also sublime to see how Ki-woo and Ki-jung win the trust of this wealthy family as they come up with clever ways of getting their parents hired as a driver and a housekeeper. Of course, this involves getting some longtime employees fired, and the ways they accomplish this are brilliant. Suffice to say, there is now more than one use for a packet of hot sauce.

When the Parks go away on a weekend camping trip, the Kim family spends this time in the lavish home, and they revel in drinking their expensive alcohol as they comment on how gullible rich people can be. I have to admit I found much joy to be taken in this family infiltrating the land of the rich as there is a perverse pleasure of seeing people acquire this lifestyle by fooling others. Boon Joon-ho invites us to share in this giddy deceit, and then he pulls out the rug from under you.

During their inebriated celebration, the Kim family suddenly hears the doorbell ring, and they are greeted by the housekeeper they got fired, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), who begs to be let inside as she has to retrieve something from down in the basement. I cannot give anything away from here, but everything goes to hell in a handbasket as secrets are revealed, and the characters will do anything to keep them from being discovered. By that, I mean anything.

I am not overly familiar with Bong Joon-ho’s work which includes “Okja,” “The Host” and “Mother.” I have, however, seen his English-language debut “Snowpiercer” which involves its characters going from the lower-class cars of a train to the ones where the elite reside in comfort, and like that one, “Parasite” observes the vast divide between the haves and have-nots which continues to grow in this day and age. Even after the Kim family has successfully deceived the Parks, they wonder if they can ever truly belong in the realm of the wealthy. Ki-woo even asks Park Da-hye if he could really exist in this society, and she simply shrugs.

I love how Joon-ho gets us to delight in the Kim family’s deception as we too deep down would love to worm our way into a level of society which tantalizes us with the possibility of joining even though we never can. But therein lies the trap as he makes us see there are consequences for such conniving actions, and you can be sure that blood will be spilt. Whether or not the Park family belongs to the 1% remains to be seen, but perhaps you should treat this movie as though they do.

From start to finish, I was deeply enthralled with “Parasite” to where I never once took my eyes off the screen. While the jarring twists and turns the movie takes may throw some audience members off, they all make perfect sense and enhance the feelings of tremendous guilt we are forced to endure as these characters suffer great consequences, some of which are worse than death.

The acting all around is superb, and there is not a weak performance to be found here. Song Kang-ho is especially effective as a man who is afflicted by a certain smell he cannot shake, and it is the kind the rich associate with poor people. We see this wear away at his soul as the Park family comments on it without realizing where exactly this smell comes from, it is almost no surprise to see him snap when he does.

My hat is also off to Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam as they make their characters seem so infinitely clever to where you have to be in awe of their talents. Seeing them worm their way into the lives of the Parks ever so easily and calmly is an utter delight as we can only wish to be as clever as they are in this instance, and they keep this act up to almost to the last minute.

Seriously, “Parasite” may very well be the cinematic masterpiece of 2019 as there are only a few other movies from this past year which come close to reaching this level of brilliance. For those of you with an irrational fear of subtitles, I advise you to put those fears to the side as the most adventurous of filmgoers would do themselves a disservice to miss out on seeing this one on the big screen.

One other thing, Min-hyuk gives the family a large rock which is supposed to bring them wealth, and Ki-woo has several scenes in which he describes the rock as being “metaphorical.” This rock, however, proves to be nowhere as metaphorical as the Indian/Native American hats a couple of characters wear towards the movie’s end. Watch the movie and you will see what I mean.

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘I Saw the Devil’ Serves Up Revenge at its Coldest and Most Brutal

I Saw the Devil movie poster

Many people will be quick to criticize “I Saw the Devil” as being excessively and unnecessarily violent. Indeed, it is an unrelentingly grim cinematic experience as we watch a serial killer chop up beautiful young women into little pieces and the boyfriend of one of them getting his revenge on the evil bastard. I’m guessing there will be a number of critics as well who will say Americans would never come up with such graphic depictions, but we know otherwise (“Saw” or “Hostel” anyone?).

But unlike other horror movies, “I Saw the Devil” does not exist to simply gross us out or make us uncomfortable as humanly possible. There’s a real story here amidst all the carnage about the hollowness of wanting revenge and of what it does to those who seek and get it. But Jee-woon Kim, the same man who directed “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” has created a motion picture which finds brutally fresh new twists that keep us pinned to our seats for the entire two and a half hour running time. Yes, it is truly unrelenting.

The movie starts off with the beautiful Joo-yeon (Oh San-Ha) talking with her fiancé Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-hun) on the phone while she is waiting in her car on a snowy road out in the middle of nowhere. Before you know it, a man by the name of Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) viciously attacks and knocks her out. Back at his grungy workshop, Joo-yeon begs for her life and tells Kyung-chul she is pregnant, but it does no good. Kyung-chul’s face is an enigma as you are not sure what he is feeling at the moment. You want to think he has some form of empathy in his rotten soul, but to him this is a luxury he cannot afford. Either way, it doesn’t stop him from chopping away at Joo-yeon with a rusty hatchet.

Upon finding her severed head in a nearby lake, Soo-Hyun, a special agent, vows to make her attacker feel the same exact pain he made his victims feel. From there, the movie turns into a cat and mouse game, and we begin to wonder which of them is the more vicious and violent. Unlike most American revenge thrillers where we can tell the hero apart from the bad guy, the line between them is hard at times to make out.

The first thing I want to say about “I Saw the Devil” is just how beautiful the cinematography by Lee Mo-gae is. It’s kind of a cross between the vivid colors of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” and the immensely cold and snowy landscape of “Let the Right One In.” I’m guessing Kim Jee-woon and Lee Mo-gae were inspired by the filmmakers of both movies, and even he succeeds in finding a beauty amidst all the hideous carnage which goes on. The image of the snow proves to be a metaphor for how cold the soul of the two main characters are or have since become, and things grow colder for them all the way towards the movie’s messy climax.

In terms of acting, Choi Min-sik’s performance stands above everyone else’s here. Choi is best known for his amazing and unforgettable performance in Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy.” Throughout the movie’s running time, he never tries to hide the fact his character of Kyung-chul is a pure psychopath and a manipulator of emotions he is unable to fully experience on his own. It’s a brave performance which doesn’t hold back anything, and it makes you wonder what depths the actor went to in playing such a twisted human being.

Lee Byung-hun also deserves points for bravery as the now fiancé-less Soo-Hyun. This is the character we most easily identify with here, but he soon becomes “I Saw the Devil’s” most tragic one as well. We can’t really blame him for wanting revenge and to torture this killer without a conscience, but as the movie goes on, we see how his quest for vengeance it is destroying whatever is left of his damaged soul. Lee makes us care about this man even as he becomes almost as depraved as Kyung-Chul. Even when he slices off a key part of Kyung’s body, we still follow him even if we are increasingly repelled by his actions. His conscience comes out in the form of Soo-Hyun’s family, but their sane take on the situation is not enough to pull him back from the abyss of hatred he is forever trapped in.

Make no mistake, “I Saw the Devil” is a seriously violent motion picture. It feels like forever since I’ve seen so much blood spurting out of the human body on the silver screen. I also can’t remember the last time a guillotine was used so predominantly in a movie either. All the same, like any great Argento movie, it’s rendered in the most beautiful cinematic fashion. This is not your average “Friday the 13th” sequel where things are thrown together in the cheapest way possible. The colors are vividly realized, making everything we see here all the more cinematically gruesome.

Once you get past the seemingly unending carnage, you will see how these two men pretty much deserve one another. “I Saw the Devil” is a strong character piece featuring people who, in any other movie, would be at opposite ends of the law-abiding spectrum, but who have more in common with one another than they initially realized. While a part of us wants to see this sick bastard suffer horribly, there’s another part slowly reminding us how we can suffer just as much in wanting an eye for an eye. It’s also full of twists and turns you cannot see coming, and none of them seems convoluted in the slightest. The movie is full of surprises, many of them incredibly grim. If you thought “Harry Brown” was dark, this will redefine the term for you.

Now look, I am not saying it is bad to like revenge/retribution movies. Lord knows we need them every once in a while in order to exercise the parts of our psyche which are hopefully ruled over by common sense. But sometimes we need a cinematic reminder of how wrong it can be to get what you wish for. Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” was one of the harshest examples of this, and “I Saw the Devil” is not far behind.

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Jessika Van about ‘Seoul Searching’

Seoul Searching poster

Jessika Van returns to the silver screen in “Seoul Searching,” a comedy by Benson Lee which follows a group of Korean teens from all over the world who are sent to a cultural heritage school in Seoul during the summer of 1986. Van plays Grace Park, a pastor’s daughter from Cherry Hill, New Jersey who worships Madonna the way her father worships God. Grace doesn’t even need to point that Madonna is her favorite singer as she dresses exactly like the Material Girl and even performs an acapella version of “Like a Virgin.” She also excels at teasing all the young boys who lust after her constantly, but she soon meets her match when an especially rebellious teenager catches her eye.

Van started her career in music where she was a classically-trained pianist and singer, and she won various awards and even performed for the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson. She made her breakthrough as an actress playing Becca, Queen of the Asian Mafia, on MTV’s critically acclaimed comedy “Awkward,” and she trained in weapons and martial arts for her role in the first-person shooter game “Battlefield 4.” Videos of her work can be found on her YouTube page.

I spoke with Van while she was in Los Angeles to promote “Seoul Searching.” She talked about the research she did into the 1980’s and Madonna to prepare for her role, what she learned about Korea while filming there, and of how she managed to peel back Grace’s emotional armor to reveal the person hiding underneath. She also spoke of how “Seoul Searching” is much more than just an Asian American film as it touches on issues that are universal to everybody and anybody.

Check out the interview below and be sure to visit the movie’s website (www.seoulsearchingthemovie.com) for more information.

Exclusive Interview with Justin Chon about ‘Seoul Searching’

Seoul Searching poster

In Benson Lee’s “Seoul Searching,” Justin Chon plays Sid Park, a rebellious teenager and a punk rocker whose truancy and defiance of adult authority knows no bounds. Sid is one of many teenagers forced to spend the summer of 1986 in Seoul at a camp for “gyopo” or foreign born teenagers where they can learn more about their homeland, Korea. It’s no surprise that he doesn’t want to be there and he tries numerous ways to get kicked out, but eventually his tough guy persona is broken through by a teacher who sees that Sid yearns for the acceptance of his father. What results is the most important summer Sid will ever have in his young life.

Chon is one of the most prolific Asian-American actors working in movies today, and he is best known for playing Eric Yorkie in the “Twilight” series. His career started in 2005 when he appeared in such television shows as “Jack & Bobby” and “Taki & Luci,” and he became known to audiences worldwide when he played Peter Wu in the Disney Channel film “Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior.” Chon also starred as Sonny, an immigrant who becomes a notorious gangster, in “Revenge of the Green Dragons” which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese. In addition, he has also directed several digital shorts that are featured on his YouTube page.

I spoke with Chon recently while he was in Los Angeles to promote “Seoul Searching.” While he was a student at USC, he spent time abroad in South Korea and explained how he was able to draw on that experience for his role. He also talked about the 80’s song he wished the movie’s director, Benson Lee, had included on its soundtrack, and he makes it clear why “Seoul Searching” deserves to be seen as more than just an Asian-American movie.

Check out the interview below, and please visit “Seoul Searching’s” website to find out where the movie is playing near you.

Exclusive Interview with Benson Lee about his film ‘Seoul Searching’

Seoul Searching poster

It took him 16 years, but writer and director Benson Lee finally succeeded in bringing his most personal film, “Seoul Searching,” to the silver screen. The film is largely autobiographical as it is based on his own experience of being part of a summer school camp in Seoul, South Korea which proved to be one of the best summers of his life. What he attended was a special summer camp for “gyopo” or foreign born teenagers where they could spend their summer in Seoul to learn about their motherland. The intentions of this program were more than honorable but the activities of the teens were not, and we watch as controversies and revelations unfold for the teens and the adults.

Lee is an award-winning Korean-American filmmaker who has worked in drama, documentary and commercial production for many years. His first feature film, “Miss Monday,” made him the first Korean-American filmmaker to be accepted to the Dramatic Competition of the Sundance Film Festival where he earned a Special Grand Jury Prize. His first documentary, “Planet B-Boy,” proved to be one of the top-grossing theatrical documentaries of 2008 in the United States. With “Seoul Searching,” Lee gives audiences something close to his heart as he shares his own experiences from when he was a teenager, and the film resonates with many universal themes.

I was fortunate enough to speak with Lee while he was in Los Angeles to promote “Seoul Searching,” and he could not have been nicer to talk with. Lee described how this project came about, the challenges of getting many 1980’s songs into it, and of whether he had to stay true to the events he experienced or instead to see where those events took him in a dramatic fashion. Furthermore, he made me realize how Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” affected him on a subconscious level before he even realized it.

Check out the interview below, and be sure to check out the website for “Seoul Searching” (www.seoulsearchingthemovie.com) for more information.