Cannes has always offered a home to both audacious genre filmmaking and politically engaged, social issue cinema but it’s usually been an either/or proposition.
Festival juries, meanwhile, have tended to celebrate one at the expense of the other. While Quentin Tarantino’s 2004 jury paid honor to both offerings — awarding Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” the Grand Prize and Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” the Palme d’Or – most have signaled a marked preference for politically liberal, if formally conservative works like Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” in lieu of more outré offerings.
So it will be particularly interesting to see what this year’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu-led bunch makes of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” a genre-bending dark comedy with searing class consciousness that premiered in Cannes on Tuesday.
Coming back to full-on Korean language filmmaking after his less-than-wholly satisfying Hollywood dalliances “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” Bong delivers a stunning return to form with this newest venture, which takes bold leaps between tenors and tone, but holds together beautifully thanks to the director’s unparalleled visual/spatial sophistication, and his unsparing social indictment.
In a note handed out to the press, Bong asked that we not reveal too much of the film’s twisting plot, so let’s just say it follows two families on opposite sides of the social/financial totem pole and tracks their growing interdependence with devious curiosity.
Bong’s actor of choice, Song Kang-ho (“The Host,” “Memories of Murder”), once again takes leading man duties, playing Ki-taek, paterfamilias to a downwardly mobile family of four. When his son lands a plum gig as an academic tutor for a wealthy family, Ki-taek spots a nugget of opportunity for his entire clan, setting into motion a series of series of events that will cycle through scenes of dark comedy, shocking violence and baroquely orchestrated suspense.
As the film’s pitch oscillates between registers, its setting remains fixed, with almost all of the action limited to the wealthy family’s sprawling estate. The house’s wood paneling and open spaces offer the filmmaker an architecturally modernist playground that he exploits to great effect, most notably by creating spatial contrasts with the poorer family’s cramped slum quarters.
Indeed, in tracing the ocean of disparity between the two clans, “Parasite” feels very much in concert with last year’s Palme d’Or winner, “Shoplifters,” and this year’s contender, “Sorry We Missed You.” Though the film operates along certain thriller codes and actively seeks to entertain, it has no less fiery political charge than either of those aforementioned films — and that’s what makes it such a fascinating challenge with the entrenched sensibilities that have marked Cannes for so long.
There is this sense that a filmmaker can only explore pernicious social issues with stylistic sobriety, and Bong is having none of that. His is a style drunk on the joys of cinema, full of fluid camera work, polished images and belly laughs. He’s unafraid to take big swings in every which direction, and because he’s such a skilled director, those swings almost always connect.
An ambitious and delightfully accomplished work, “Parasite” makes good on the Cannes Film Festival’s promise to present the finest of world cinema. Whether this year’s jury agrees, on the other, remains to be seen.