It was a groundbreaking moment. Korean film ‘Parasite’ was the belle of the ball at this year’s Oscars, taking home the award for Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Screenplay and the ultimate award for Best Picture.
When director Bong Joon-Ho walked across the stage, he wasn't just representing himself, the cast and production but more. Korea’s film community finally got the worldwide attention it deserves and an entire nation is celebrating.
While it feels like many film critics in the western world have just discovered Korean movies, Filipinos know better. We fell in love with Korean films, TV shows, food and pop culture eons ago – hook, line and sinker.
Asian-American film critic Walter Chaw explained it best when he said in The New York Times: “This is merely Hollywood recognising, very belatedly, South Korea’s amazing film industry — which has been making superlative films for decades.”
That’s why when I watched the movie, which had a long runtime of 2 hours and 12 minutes but didn't feel like it, I wasn’t surprised that it was a masterclass at film making. Director (and co-scriptwriter) Joon-Ho nailed every aspect of what makes a great film – an ensemble cast, stunning cinematography, sophisticated sound direction and – the one that turns it into a cult classic – a superb script with more layers than you can poke a stick at.
While I’m the first to say that the quality of indie and commercial Filipino films is a mixed bag, there were elements and moments in ‘Parasite’ that made me think of Filipino films when they’re at their best. You can say these similarities also apply to Asian films in general. Here they are:
- The focus is on the family dynamic. While there’s always a clear protagonist in a Filipino movie, they are almost always surrounded by an equally strong cast made up of their siblings, parents and close relatives. If telenovelas are anything to go by, Filipinos will never tire of narrative centred on the family and the concept of family sacrifice and sticking together.
In many Western movies, family members rarely take centre stage. It’s either one family member (the mom or a sibling) but never the entire family. By contrast, ‘Parasite’ brought every member of the family along, including …
- The housekeeper. Before he died, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Fil-Am journalist and author Alex Tizon wrote an essay titled ‘My Family’s Slave’ in The Atlantic. Written in English and translated to Tagalog, it’s by far the definitive article in recent history about the complicated relationship between the housekeeper and the family.
In Australia, the idea of a stay-at-home helper is a foreign one but anyone who grew up in the Philippines knows it’s part of our society. When does a housemaid become part of the family? When do they cross the line and what is that line? These are the kinds of questions all Filipino households deal with on a daily basis, and explored in ‘Parasite’.
- The object. It’s a common enough writing trick. In Harry Potter novels, it was the broomstick. In the 2014 horror film ‘Feng Shui’ with Kris Aquino, it was the bagua. In ‘Parasite’, watch out for the three visual representations of the class conflict, separating the rich and the poor. While this is not just a Filipino thing, one of the objects used is very much connected to the Asian culture of gifting.
- More than one genre. The rule-of-thumb when writing a novel or a script is that you stick with one genre. If it’s comedy, it’s comedy. If it’s action, it’s only action. Of course there are rom-coms, horror-coms, action-dramas, but they're designed for entertainment, rarely for Oscar nominations.
By contrast, gender-bending scripts is not unusual for Asian filmgoers. That's why ghosts appearing in sci-fi or romcom movies is not out of the ordinary. 'Parasite' is comedy, horror, suspense, thriller and drama all rolled into one and, well, for an Asian film, that's not unexpected.
- A satisfying ending. Hollywood has a way of spoiling an otherwise good movie by giving it a stupendously unrealistic happy ending. Asian filmgoers (excluding those that are trying to imitate Hollywood, of course) are used to seeing main characters killed off at the end – or the leading lady not getting what she wants. Tragedy is reality.
In ‘Parasite’, the ending is exactly how it should be, open-ended enough to give you closure no matter which side of the morality fence you're on.
I am stoked to see a cast of Asian actors take to the stage on the night of all nights for the film industry. But I echo Chaw’s sentiment that this is not a win for diversity. We’ve always known that Korean films are world-class. Hollywood’s just coming to the party.