“Django Unchained” - Quentin Tarantino (2012)

Django Unchained (2012) is perhaps iconoclastic American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s most popular film, and it has received both considerable critical praise [1,2,3,4,5,6,7] and numerous awards [8].  As was Tarantino’s custom, he played here with an existing film genre, but amplified and exaggerated the cinematics to achieve an almost cartoon effect.  In the particular case of Django Unchained, though, there were some novel aspects that were unique, even for Tarantino.

For one thing, the existing film genre that Tarantino exploited in Django Unchained was the “Spaghetti Western”, which was already a parodic exaggeration of an existing film genre, the Western, which involved stories set in the old American West and often featured cowboys.  The Spaghetti Western genre, which played with and exaggerated the Western, got its name because its earliest exponent was the Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, whose trilogy of films – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) (collectively known, variously, as the “Dollars Trilogy” and the “Man With No Name Trilogy”) – were the classic Spaghetti Westerns.  So with Django Unchained, Tarantino was making a parody of a parody.  In my opinion, however, Tarantino, despite his cinematic pyrotechnics here, does not come close to outdoing Leone in this film.
                                                
A second novel feature of Django Unchained is that the principal protagonist cowboy, Django, is a black person (an African American), an unlikely personage to star in an American Western.  Thus the people that Django encounters in the film, set in 1958 in the American South (in Texas, Tennessee, and Mississippi), all seem to regard the idea of a black cowboy as an impossibility.  But in fact there apparently were some black cowboys in the U.S., even before the American Civil War (1861-1865) [9,10,11,12].  So Django’s cowboy appearance to these people should not really have been that much of an oddity.

The story of Django Unchained begins in Texas with a couple of white slave traders marching some chained black slaves through a forest.  Improbably, they encounter an itinerant dentist, Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz), whose real profession is now that of a bounty hunter.  Schultz is looking for a slave who might help him identify some wanted outlaws that he wants to capture “dead or alive” in exchange for a posted bounty.  It turns out that one of the slaves, Django (Jamie Foxx), can identify these outlaws, and Schultz seeks to buy him.  Although Dr. Schultz comes across as a civilized, erudite German, we will soon see he is a ruthless killer.  He soon shoots and kills the slave traders and takes Django away with him.

Now Schultz and Django go to the Tennessee plantation where the sought-after outlaws are overseers.  Django is now outfitted by Schultz to look like a freed black who has become a cowboy.   Together, Schultz and Django kill the three outlaws as well as most of the white people who work at the plantation.  With Django as Dr. Schultz’s apprentice bounty hunter, the two of them go on to rack up some more bounties.  Finally in appreciation for Django’s assistance, Schultz agrees to help find and free Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is also a black slave (since it is later revealed that Broomhilda can speak German, we might assume that her real name is actually “Brunhilde”).  

They eventually discover that Broomhilda is now a domestic slave at a large Mississippi plantation, Candyland, owned by the seemingly charming Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).  But despite Candie’s genteel exterior, we soon learn that he is cruel and sadistic.  One of Candie’s favorite pastimes is staging “Mandingo” fights, a gambling sport (for the spectators) in which two male black slaves are coerced to fight each other to the death, like a cockfight.  The film devotes some time to this gruesome activity, presumably to emphasize just how depraved is Calvin Candie.

So Schultz and Django go to Candyland with the feigned interest of purchasing a top Mandingo fighter from Candie.  But their real intention is to come up with a way of freeing, by means of a separate purchasing transaction, Broomhilda, with whom they pretend not to be acquainted.  Their deception is disrupted, though, when Candie’s suspicious head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), discerns that Broomhilda and Django know each other and informs Candie of the fact.  This leads to a breakdown in the hitherto cordial negotiation between Schultz and Candie, and the two prideful and trigger-happy negotiants start shooting at each other and soon turn the entire plantation into a bloodbath.  Django, too, joins in the killing spree.  Schultz and Candie wind up dead, but Django, after killing many people, finally surrenders when he sees Stephen threatening to kill Broomhilda.  
Django is now a prisoner/slave again and about to be shipped to a slave-owning mining company, but he has more killing ahead of him.  He manages to escape from and kill the people who are taking him to the mining company.  Then he returns to Candyland and rescues Broomhilda from slave custody before blowing up the plantation mansion with dynamite, presumably killing most of the people there.  In the end, Django and Broomhilda ride off together with documents certifying their free statuses (i.e. not slaves).

Altogether, we could say there are four successive narrative segments of very unequal length that make up this lengthy 2-hour-and-45-minute film – (1) Django encounters Schultz, (2) Django and Schultz together as bounty hunters, (3) Django and Schultz with Candie, (4) Django’s escape.  So how do they collectively stack up when compared with Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, such as For a Few Dollars More?  Well, when it comes to realism, both Tarantino and Leone make significant compromises, although Tarantino seems to go further in this respect.  For both of them, the protagonists fire their guns with never-miss lethality, while their respective opponents always miss their targets.  But Tarantino’s gunshot absurdities seem to be even more comic-book flavored than Leone’s.  And also, I was surprised to see the slave Django able to read.  But the real problems with Django Unchained lie elsewhere.

For one thing, the characters of Django and Broomhilda are essentially dramatic ciphers.  Broomhilda is little seen, and Django is so laconic that we never get a feeling for him or what he is about.  He just shoots and kills people who stand in his way.  The only potentially interesting character is the convivial and crafty Dr. King Schultz, but his extended encounter and confrontation with Calvin Candie doesn’t come to any narrative resolution.  They both just get abruptly wiped out.  And anyway, Schultz is not a character with whom the viewer is likely to want to empathize.  And, as I said above, the clearly-identified protagonist across the four narrative segments of the film, Django, is too opaque to sustain a full narrative.

Instead of a compelling narrative, Tarantino has presented to the viewer an extended and emphatically gritty bloodbath, comprising an endless succession of killings, mostly on the part of the film’s protagonists and many involving the deaths of likely innocent people.  We need more narrative motivation for this slaughter.  Does Tarantino believe that all U.S. Southern whites are responsible for the horrible institution of slavery and therefore deserve to die?  Even if he were to hold such an absurd belief, no such justificatory point is made in the film.  No, Django Unchained just seems to be a carnival of violence supposedly in support of a black narrative figurehead, but probably primarily just designed to appeal to people who like to watch endless violence.  I will concede that there are some interesting scenes involving Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, but  I would say that Leone’s films offer altogether more captivating cinematic narratives.
½

Notes:
  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, “Django Unchained (2012): American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino's lampoon on human trafficking”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (January 2013). 
  2. Roger Ebert, “Faster, Quentin! Thrill! Thrill!”, Roger Ebert’s Journal, RogerEbert.com, (7 January 2013).  
  3. Omer M. Mozaffar, “Django America”, Roger Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents, RogerEbert. com, (29 December 2012).    
  4. A. O. Scott, “The Black, the White and the Angry”, The New York Times, (24 December 2012).    
  5. Anthony Lane, “Love Hurts ‘Les Misérables’, ‘Django Unchained,’ and ‘Amour’”, The New Yorker, (30 December 2012).    
  6. Peter Travers, “Django Unchained”, Rolling Stone, (13 December 2012).     
  7. Erin Aubry Kaplan, “‘Django’ an unsettling experience for many blacks", Los Angeles Times, (28 December 2012).
  8. “List of accolades received by ‘Django Unchained’”, Wikipedia, (2020). 
  9. “Black cowboys”, Wikipedia, (3 March 2021).    
  10. Katie Nodjimbadem, “The Lesser-Known History of African-American Cowboys”, Smithsonian Magazine, (13 February 2017).  
  11. Jennifer Oast, "Black Cowboys In The American West: On The Range, On The Stage, Behind The Badge", Civil War Book Review, (Article 16, Spring 2017).    
  12. David Goldstein-Shirley, “Black Cowboys in the American West: An Historiographical Review”, Ethnic Studies Review, Volume 20, (1997), pp. 79-89.    

Quentin Tarantino

Films of Quentin Tarantino:

“Accident” - Joseph Losey (1967)

I consider Joseph Losey to be one of the great British film directors, even though Losey was born and raised in the United States and began his film career in Hollywood in the late 1940a. But Losey’s socialist sympathies soon came into conflict with the emerging anti-communist hysteria associated with McCarthyism in the 1950s [1], and he opted for self-exile in London in 1953, where he resumed his film career.  Losey’s subsequent films in England were what in  my view established him as a great director, particularly his collaborations with famed playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter – The Servant (1963), Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971).  All of those films are emotive and fascinating psychological dramas, but of these, I think Accident is perhaps relatively misunderstood and underappreciated.  Nevertheless, Accident did receive some accolades, including the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix (the second-most prestigious festival prize after the Palme d'Or).

The story of Accident is based on Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Nicholas Mosley’s 1965 novel of the same name, and it concerns the relationships of an Oxford don and his students.  The Oxford setting of the story is important, but its presence seems to dominate the perspectives of some critics, particularly American.  Thus many of these critics see Accident as mostly concerned with either (a) the British upper-class and associated class prejudices or (b) the peculiarities of the British intelligentsia [2,3,4,5,6].  However, while I believe those thematic elements may be present in this work, the true profundity of the film lies elsewhere.  Of the reviews of the film that I did come across, though, I thought the most insightful one was that of Jugu Abraham [2].

Getting back to the story, itself, the film begins with a static, frontal shot of a stately home removed from the city, after a few seconds of which, the sounds are heard of a horrific auto accident offscreen.  The home’s resident, Stephen (played by Dirk Bogarde), rushes out to the scene of the accident, which involved a single car that ran off the road into a tree.  Stephen apparently knows the two battered young occupants of the car – the driver Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), who is dazed and barely conscious, and the passenger William (Michael York), who is dead.  We will later learn that both of these people were Oxford students whom Stephen was tutoring.

Stephen manages to usher the still-dazed Anna back to his home and lie her down.  When he then reports the accident to the police, he conceals from them that Anna was in the car.  Much of the rest of the film consists of various flashbacks covering things that occurred before the accident.  And we will later learn that the opening crash sequence is also a flashback.
 
These flashbacks do not appear in a linear narrative fashion and have the character of out-of-order, impressionistic psychological recollections, presumably those of Stephen.  As the flashbacks unfold, we learn that Stephen is a fortyish Oxford don who is married with two kids.  His wife Rosalind (Vivien Merchant, the real-life wife of Harold Pinter) is pregnant with their expected  third child.  

As part of the admirable Oxford tutoring system, which enables students to have regularly-scheduled tutorial sessions with the distinguished Oxford faculty members, Stephen has two tutorial philosophy students, William and Anna.  William is an exuberant member of the upper-class and a graduate of Eton who seems to have a very close friendship with Stephen.  The more taciturn Anna is a beautiful young Austrian woman who comes from a titled family.  From Stephen’s perspective, the contrast between Anna and his wife Rosalind couldn’t be more marked.  While Rosalind is a plain, down-to-earth mother and homemaker, Anna is exotically gorgeous and given to quietly giving him alluring glances.

Stephen also has an Oxonian faculty colleague and presumed friend, the similarly-aged family man Charley (Stanley Baker), with whom Stephen feels he is sometimes unfavorably compared.  While Stephen is professionally soft-spoken and modest, Charley is an outgoing, self-advertising egotist who has published some novels and who hosts his own TV talk-show.  Their contrasting natures are fully on display when they are around women.  Stephen is invariably reserved and gentlemanly, even when he is around Anna, to whom he is secretly attracted.  On the other hand, Charley openly flirts with many women, even with Stephen’s wife, Rosalind.  In fact, as I similarly remarked about two characters in Satyajit Ray’s Kaparush (1965), if we were to be more scientific and compare Stephen and Charley psychologically in accordance with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) [7], Stephen would be characterized as INFP (i.e. Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, and Perceiving), and Charley would be characterized as the opposite, ESTJ (Extraverted, Sensing, Thinking, and Judgmental).  

As the story unfolds, William, in one of his private sessions with Stephen, reveals that he is strongly attracted to Anna and wishes to pursue her.  So Stephen suppresses his own emotions for Anna and encourages them to get together.  

In order to be a good guy (and also see more of Anna), Stephen invites both William and Anna to his stately home for an afternoon party.  However, on the day, Charley shows up uninvited and crudely imposes himself on the others present.  Anyway, Stephen does manage to take Anna on a private walk to a nearby orchard, but his timidity prevents him from drawing himself close to her.  Stephen subsequently then invites everyone to stay for dinner, and all the men get very drunk, so they all have to stay over at Stephen's home for the night.  This get-together sequence is particularly interesting, because it shows all the key characters (Stephen, Anna, William, Charley, Rosalind) together and variously interacting.

Later, with Rosalind away in connection with maternity preparations for the birth of their third child, Stephen makes a brief trip to London to see if he can arrange for his own TV appearance.  Nothing comes of that, but while  in London, Stephen looks up an old flame, Francesca (Delphine Seyrig), the Oxford Provost’s daughter.  Stephen hasn’t seen Francesca in ten years, but they still share feelings for each other, and they proceed to go to bed together.  This cameo appearance of Delphine Seyrig can be seen as something of an homage to one of Losey’s favourite directors, Alain Resnais, in two of whose famous films, Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Muriel (1963), Seyrig had starred.
 
When Stephen returns to his country home, he discovers that Charley has broken in while Stephen was away so that he could have a sexual tryst with Anna.  Stephen is speechless at what has happened. This is because Anna, for Stephen, is an alluring, elegant princess who represents his romantic ideal.  How could she succumb to such a crude, loathsome creature as Charley?  

Numb with disappointment, Stephen goes off to the kitchen to make himself an omelette, followed by the embarrassed Charley and Anna.  They apologetically try to talk to Stephen, but he remains silent.  This highly charged scene of frustration and non-interaction is my favourite sequence in the film.  Stephen is later further silently horrified to learn that Charley has been sleeping with Anna for some time.

There are other flashback sequences, such as one showing Stephen visiting Charley’s estranged wife Laura (Ann Firbank), another one showing Stephen visiting William’s upper-class house for a party, where the male guests play an indoor version of the Etonian rugby-like wall game, and another sequence showing Stephen watching William and Charley playing in a cricket match.  In all these sequences Stephen seems to be a polite outsider and unable to engage with the social games that are going on.  Although these sequences are probably what inspire some critics to claim that Accident is a film about class, I would say that they are more concerned with the general theme of psychological alienation.  

Finally, Anna rather coldly tells Stephen that, despite her clandestine sexual affair with Charley, she nevertheless intends to marry William.  This is a further disturbing thing for Stephen to learn about Anna’s previously idealized nature.

Then we come around to a flashback of the immediate events surrounding the opening crash scene.  William, excited about his engagement with Anna, tells Stephen he would like to come over to Stephen’s home for a talk after first attending a party he has to go to.  We know from earlier scenes that William tends to drink too much, and on this occasion after the party, he was too drunk to drive.  So Anna had to take the wheel, and it was she who crashed the car in the opening scene.

We now return to that crash scene, at which Stephen found William dead and Anna in a daze.  We now know that Rosalind is away tending to her newborn baby.  After attending to the still-shocked Anna in the bed, Stephen, in an apparent moment of Charley-imitation, tries to force his affections on the woman.  But Anna is unresponsive, and this is not what Stephen sought.  

In the end, Anna returns to Austria, much to the frustrated consternation of Charley.  There seems to be little sorrow expressed over William’s death.  Stephen can only watch.

As I mentioned at the outset of this review, I don’t think Accident is primarily concerned with the British classes or intelligentsia, although those factors do provide a colourful social context to the tale.  What the film does portray are the often-hidden (and never-to-be-forgotten) feelings of romantic longing and guilt.  Anna was the ideal romantic dream for Stephen.  The imagery of Charley sullying this dream was deeply disturbing to Stephen, and the nuanced acting and camerawork effectively conveys this.  In fact throughout the film, Losey’s subtle and affective mise-en-scene immerses the viewer in Stephen’s emotional roller-coaster ride.  And this is what makes Accident a great film.

The final shot of the film again shows a frontal shot of Stephen’s country home.  Things appear to have returned to normal.  But the soundtrack reminds the viewer that the fatal accident will always be a part of Stephen’s memory.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. “McCarthyism”, Wikipedia, (16 February 2021).  
  2. Jugu Abraham, “165. Self-exiled US director Joseph Losey’s British masterpiece “Accident” (1967): Atrophy and unhappiness of the educated upper crust”, Movies that make you think, (18 July 2014).   
  3. Peter Keough, “In ‘Accident,’ a mystery and a movie masterpiece”, “The Boston Globe”, (2 October 2014).   
  4. Richard T. Jameson, “Accident – ‘one of the great modern films’”, Parallax View, (28 March 2011).  
  5. Tim Robey, “Eerie film about the skull beneath the skin of genteel English life”, The Telegraph, (5 June 2009).   
  6. Penelope Houston, “Losey's Hand in Pinter's Glove”, The Spectator, (17 February 1967).   
  7. “Myers Briggs Type Indicator”, Wikipedia, (27 January 2017).   

“The Long Goodbye” - Robert Altman (1973)

The Long Goodbye (1973) is a provocative film noir (it’s sometimes dubbed as an example of “neo noir”) that was directed by Robert Altman and based on Raymond Chandler’s 1953 detective novel of the same name.  The lead character in the novel and the film is Philip Marlowe, who appeared in a number of Chandler’s works, including The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), and The Lady in the Lake (1943).  Marlow was always the detective-story tough guy, and in earlier filmed versions of Chandler’s work featuring him, his role was assumed by leading screen idols of the day, such as Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, and Robert Montgomery.  Here in Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the Marlowe character is played by Elliott Gould, and the emphatic stamp he puts on the role is a key, though controversial, feature of the film.

The critical issue with some of the film’s critics, notably Andrew Sarris [1,2], concerned the considerable degree to which Altman’s film (and Gould’s characterization of Marlowe), deviated from Chandler’s original story.  This was perhaps surprising, because the screenplay for The Long Goodbye was written by Leigh Brackett, who had co-scripted Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946), a film that had drawn no such criticism.  But in this instance, given the uncharacteristic (for him) complexity of Chandler’s own plot in his The Long Goodbye novel, Bracket chose to make significant changes to the story for Altman’s film.  And these plot alterations were readily endorsed by Altman.  

The result was a technically-resplendent masterpiece featuring the dynamic cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond and the moody musical music of John Williams.  Interestingly, the title-song  of the film, which was co-written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, cleverly appears on numerous occasions and in various formats within the diegetic realm of the story.  

Altman was at this time at the height of his career, a period during which he made, besides The Long Goodbye (1973), his most famous films – M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Thieves Like Us (1974), and Nashville (1975).  Most of them take a satyrical look at American life, but also have a melancholy flavour to them.  He was famous at this time for his unique cinematic style, which besides his restlessly roving camera, featured two of his self-styled modes of cinematic expression.  I have discussed these specific innovative stylistic modes (which are partly attributable to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond) in my review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and I will only briefly mention them here:
  • Smoky effect using fog filters
    This had the effect of smudging the colors and giving the film an antique feeling.
     
  • Overlapping sound dialogues
    This was another signature aspect of Altman’s work –
“Using 8-track sound recording, [Altman] emphatically overlapped multiple conversations going on in a scene so that it was hard for the viewer to discern what was being said by the personages of presumed narrative focalization.  Indeed this made it sometimes difficult for the viewer to determine what actually was the intended narrative focalization for a scene, at least at its outset.  And this is what Altman wanted – he felt it was more true to life.” [3]
But these technical innovations are not what, for me, make Altman a great film director.  His real virtue lay in the way he could evoke in his films some melancholy themes underlying the nature of human experience.  In this film, the two major themes of this nature are, appropriately enough for a film noir, dishonesty and disloyalty.  

The plot of The Long Goodbye is, even after the streamlining performed by Leigh Brackett, quite complicated, and I won’t go over it in much detail.  Instead I will concentrate on the colorful principal characters and how they relate to the themes that I mentioned.  
  • Philip Marlowe (played by Elliott Gould) is an alienated, chain-smoking gumshoe working in Los Angeles and just trying to attend to the jobs that his clients give him.  He is the protagonist and center of focalization in this film.  In this film, Marlowe is largely a truth-teller, although he does lie to his pet cat.
     
  • Terry Lennox (played by famous baseball player Jim Bouton) is a gambler and playboy who also happens to be a close friend of Marlowe’s.  Lennox’s problems (he owes money to gangsters and he is accused of killing his wife) are what drive the events of this story.  And Lennox is a liar.
     
  • Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) is an alcoholic novelist suffering from depression because he is experiencing writer’s block and cn’t write.  Roger is also a liar.
     
  • Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) is Roger’s beautiful and elegant wife.  The Wades live in the same sumptuous private housing complex in Malibu where Terry Lennox and his wife live.  Eileen initially hires Marlowe to track down her husband, Roger, who has disappeared in connection with one of his fits of depression.  And we will discover that Eileen is a liar, too.
     
  • Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) is a gangster, whose outward conviviality masks his psychotic cruelty.  At one point in the story, he is in a conversation with Marlowe, and just to make a point of the seriousness of the threat he is making to Marlowe, he smashes and maims the face of his innocent mistress.  Later Marty calmly instructs his gang members (one of whom is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) to castrate Marlowe, whom they have taken prisoner.  Despite this atrocious behavior and as a gangster law-breaker, Augustine presumably lies routinely, in this film he is shown demanding adherence to honesty and contractual obligations.
     
  • Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson) is a quack doctor who runs a private rehabilitation center for the mentally ill and who treats, for a high fee, Roger Wade at that center.  Like Marty Augustine, Verringer’s business is ultimately fraudulent, but in this film he is shown fervently demanding fulfillment of contractual obligations (i.e insisting that people honestly live up to promises).
     
  • Mexican police.  In the course of this story, Marlowe makes a couple of trips to Tijuana, Mexico, where Terry Lennox had sought refuge from the L.A. police and from Marty Augustine’s gang.  There Marlowe discovers that the Mexican police can be bribed to lie about reporting the death of an individual – and even bribed later to confess that the earlier death report was a lie.
So the tenor of this film is one of a lone private-eye caught in a web of deceptions.  This is pure film noir territory.  The most reprehensible chracters in the story, Marty Augustine and Dr. Verringer, don’t lie in what is shown, and they demand  honesty.  In contrast, the biggest liars are the people that the normally-suspicious Marlowe trusts the most – Terry Lennox and the Wades.  These are people that the loner Marlowe has come to like, and he is fooled by them.

Despite these noirish elements, though, I don’t feel The Long Goodbye is a spot-on example of film noir.  The atmospheric film noir web of suspicion is not there at the outset, and it takes some time to develop.  That characteristic atmosphere of alienation in typical films noir is normally enhanced by high-contrast lighting, which implicitly evokes an emotive setting.  But here in The Long Goodbye, Altman’s smoky fog filters only just blur the image.  They don’t color the emotional landscape.  Those smoky images may be more realistic, but visual realism is not what is called for in film noir.

Nevertheless, I still liked The Long Goodbye, and that was mostly due to another aspect of Altman’s mise-en-scene – his emotional characterizations of the stressed principal characters, all playing their existential tunes before the gaze of the bemused and detached Marlowe.  There are murders, a suicide, and a shocking ending, but, on the whole, it all does work for me, as it did for some other critics, too [4,5,6].
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Andrew Sarris, “Films in Focus”, The Village Voice, (1 November 1973). 
  2. Andrew Sarris, “Films in Focus”, The Village Voice, (29 November 1973).   
  3. The Film Sufi, “'McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ - Robert Altman (1971)”, The Film Sufi, (21 June 2018).   
  4. Vincent Canby, “Altman and Gould Make a Brilliant ‘Long Goodbye’”, The New York Times, (29 October 1973).    
  5. Roger Ebert, “A man out of time”, RogerEbert.com, (23 April 2006).   
  6. Judith Crist, “Current Shock”, New York Magazine, (29 October 1973).   

“Parasite” - Bong Joon-Ho (2019)

One of the most lauded films of the past few years has been the South Korean thriller Parasite (Gisaengchung, 2019) by the popular writer-director Bong Joon-Ho.  The film portrays a bizarre set of interactions between two families of vastly contrasting wealth statuses and social standings.  One family (the Park family) is wealthy and refined, while the other family (the Kim family) lies, from just about any perspective, at the bottom of the social heap.  Over the course of these interactions, we would expect the lower-standing family to be hopelessly disadvantaged.  But they have an arrow in their quiver that can always be used to counter the often-prejudicial social norms of those in power – duplicity.  And this is what seems to fascinate so many viewers of this film.   

Indeed Parasite has been almost universally praised by critics [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8] and has amazingly won just about all the top awards.  In particular, it won the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival; and at the 92nd U.S. Academy Awards that year, it won Oscars for Best Picture (the first non-English Language film to do so), Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film – making only the third time that a film won both the Palme d'Or and the Academy Award for Best Picture.  

Nevertheless and despite all these accolades, I feel Parasite is somewhat overrated.  True, the film has lots of plot twists (based on Bong Joon-Ho’s original story and the script by Bong and Han Jin-Won), dynamic cinematography (by Hong Kyung-Pyo), and good acting.  But it takes  more than that to make a great movie – in particular it takes a compelling and meaningful narrative.  In this connection, it’s noteworthy that many viewers find close similarities between Parasite and Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2018 Palme d’Or winner, Shoplifters, although I think there are distinct differences in the tones of these two narratives and the way the characters in these two films are portrayed.
 
Parasite’s narrative has two major segments.

1.  The Kim and Park families
At first we are introduced to the impoverished Kim family living in an urban basement hovel.  They are father Kim Ki-Taek (played by Song Kang-Ho), mother Chung-Sook (Jang Hye-Jin), and their two early-twenty-something offspring – son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-Shik) and daughter Ki-Jung (Park So-Dam).  They work in temporary, menial jobs folding pizza boxes for a food delivery company, but they still don’t have enough to make ends meet.  

Then, however, Ki-Woo’s college-educated friend Min-Hyuk pays him a visit before leaving to study overseas and offers to recommend that Ki-Woo take over his job as the English tutor for a wealthy family’s teenage daughter.  Min-Hyuk has romantic interests in the girl and doesn’t want anyone else to move in on her.  So even though he knows that Ki-Woo will have to lie about his educational qualification, Min-Hyuk trusts his friend.  But as we will soon see, trusting anyone in the Kim family is a dubious proposition.  

Soon Ki-Woo gets the job and  is tutoring the daughter of the affluent Park family, Da-Hye (Jung Ji-So), and arousing romantic fascination from both Da-Hye and her innocent mother, Choi Yeon-Gyo (Cho Yeo-Jeong).  Continuing his activities in deception, Ki-Woo manages to get the unsuspecting Park family to hire his sister Ki-Jung, who uses an assumed name and poses as an art teacher, to tutor Da-Hye’s kid brother, Da-Song (Jung Hyeon-Jun).  Before long, Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung have finagled the Park family into firing both their chauffeur and their live-in housekeeper, Gook Moon-Gwang (Lee Jung-Eun) and replacing them with their father (Ki-Taek) and mother (Chung-Sook), again using assumed names and pretending to be unrelated to the other members of their family.

So now, by means of their relentless deceptions, the Kim family has embedded itself with posh positions working for the Park family.  When the Park family goes off on a camping trip, all the Kims come over to the Park mansion to feast themselves.

2.  Another Parasite
But while the Parks are still away, the former housekeeper Moon-Gwang shows up at the door  of the mansion, saying she left something in the basement.  When she is given permission to look downstairs, it is revealed that there is an underground bunker below the house that was built by the original owner and architect of the mansion, unbeknownst to the Parks when they moved in.  Living secretly in this bunker for the past four year has been Moon-Gwang’s husband, Oh Geun-Sae (Park Myung-Hoon), who is hiding out from creditors.

This sets up a conflict.  The Kims want Moon-Gwang and her husband out of the mansion, but Moon-Gwang discovers that the Kims are frauds and that their lies were responsible for her getting fired.  She says she will inform the Parks about this if they force her out.

So now we have three levels of humanity in conflict.  At the top level is the clueless Park family, and below them is the deceitful Kim family, who are feeding off them.  At the bottom are Moon-Gwang and Geun-Sae, who want to feed off the upper two levels.

But now the narrative shifts from one dominated by deception to one overwhelmed by lethal violence.  What ensues is a series of incredibly brutal interactions between the various contestants, with a number of killings, the bloody violence of which seem to lack motivation.  In the end, many of the characters I have mentioned above are dead.  This shocking violence may appeal to some viewers, but I found it gratuitous.  I will leave it to you to watch the film and see how it all comes out.

In the end, with no truly satisfied characters at the conclusion of this story, we might inquire into any underlying themes in this film.  I would say that one could point to the following themes:
  • Deception
    The Kim family lives entirely by deception.  Everything that they do or claim to be is fraudulent.  One might wonder if Bong is suggesting that perhaps all the attributes people claim to have in society are not much more authentic and worthy of belief than those of the Kims.
     
  • Economic Exploitation.
    The Kims, Moon-Gwang, and her husband are all victims of an economic system based on winner-take-all exploitation.  This leads to severe inequality and desperation on the part of those who are at the bottom.  Our lower-class characters in this film innovatively came up with their own schemes, but they were exploitative, too.  What we really need is a social system built around teamwork and community – one that goes beyond the zero-sum-game mechanics of what largely prevails in today’s increasingly gig-economy.
     
  • No Planning
    Kim Ki-Taek believed in a life devoid of planning, and he explicitly advocated that policy to his son, KI-Woo.  Now it is true that being opportunistic and ready for change has its advantages, but Ki-Taek took this commitment to avoid planning way too far and into the realm of absurdity. And ini the coda at the close of the film, Ki-Woo expresses his determination to move in the opposite direction and commit himself to a hopeless plan that has no chance of succeeding.  What was Bong saying here?  I don’t know.
Altogether, Parasite’s most entertaining moments occurred, for me, in the early stages of the film when the Kim family members took advantage of off-the-cuff gambits of deception in order to worm their way into paid activities in the Park family mansion.  These scenes are probably what prompt some people to call this film a comedy.  But as I mentioned at the outset, there are some weaknesses that keep this film from reaching a top level:
  • Missing motivations for the murders
    There are a number of anger-filled murders that take place in the latter part of the film, but these are not well-motivated.  Even in cheap revenge films, there is more time and effort spent in developing an understanding of what fires the vengeful actions depicted than is done here in this film.
     
  • Aimless camera tracking
    Although Bong and his cinematographer Hong Kyung-Pyo are skilled in concocting elaborate moving-camera shots, this card is overplayed in Parasite.  In many cases these camera-tracking shots seem to have no purpose and are merely distracting.
     
  • Deflating Coda.
    The last few minutes of the film present a somewhat deflating coda depicting Ki-Woo’s hopeless long-term plan to buy the mansion.  But this closing segment seems only to detract from the dramatic intensity that has come earlier [7,8].         
     
  • No sympathetic protagonists
    A compelling narrative has to have at least one character that attracts the viewer’s (or reader’s) empathetic interest.  However, Parasite is devoid of such characters.  Almost all of the characters here are opaque and deceitful.  So the overall story has a random nature to it.
Thus, although Parasite has some individual scenes that are skillfully executed, for me, they don’t all come together to make an outstanding film.
½
 
Notes:
  1. Brian Tallerico, “Parasite”, RogerEbert.com, (7 September 2019).   
  2. Manohla Dargis, “‘Parasite’ Review: The Lower Depths Rise With a Vengeance”, The New York Times, (10 February 2020).  
  3. Richard Whittaker, “Parasite”, Austin Chronicle, (25 October 2019).  
  4. Justin Chang, “Review: Thrilling and devastating, ‘Parasite’ is one of the year’s very best movies”, Los Angeles Times, (9 October 2019).   
  5. Micah Bucey, “Parasite (Gisaengchung)”, Spirituality & Practice, (n.d.).   
  6. Peter Howell, “‘Parasite’ is a savage, surprising class satire that pricks the conscience”, Toronto Star, (17 October 2019).   
  7. Stephen Dalton, “'Parasite' ('Gisaengchung'): Film Review | Cannes 2019", The Hollywood Reporter, (21 May 2019).  
  8. James Berardinelli, “Parasite (South Korea, 2019)”, ReelViews, (1 November 2019).