What Two Nominations for Best Picture Say About Film

Madeleine Kearns

Two successful and completely different films competed for Best Picture in this year’s Academy Awards. Sam Mendes’s 1917, about two British soldiers undertaking a perilous mission during World War I, was a brilliant technical achievement, while the winner, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, about a poverty-stricken family manipulating a high-class family in South Korea, was more a feat of artistic storytelling.

In some respects, 1917 is more controversial. The story begins with Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), two British soldiers stationed in France, being tasked with a perilous mission to cross no man’s land, giving another battalion forewarning that they are about to advance into a German trap. Blake’s brother is among the men they are trying to save, which gives the plot is emotional urgency and gets the action rolling.

The rest of the film — in terms of its characterization, and indeed the storyline — follows a well-trodden thematic formula. Courage in the face of adversity, check! Conflict (literally), check! Internal conflict (the sort that comes from sacrificing one’s own interests for the sake of the group), check! There’s also a fittingly bleak portrayal of suffering, though, with glimpses of redemption — in one scene, the men escape suffocation by literally discovering a light at the end of the tunnel . . .

But while told a million times before, this story has never been told quite like this. With an almost seamless continuity, as if taken in one shot, 1917 is a visual masterpiece. With the camera as our eyes, we stumble with our heroes over mud-encrusted corpses and witness the inferno of the war-stricken French countryside, alight with flame and flair. We grimace at the dog-sized rat (bigger even than in New York City) and understand — immediately and precisely — the mundanity, brutality, and futility of “the war to end all wars.”

However, that there isn’t much point to the movie beyond that has upset some critics. For instance, writing in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis, complains:

Mendes, who wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, has included a note of dedication to his grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes, who served in World War I. It’s the most personal moment in a movie that, beyond its technical virtues, is intriguing only because of Britain’s current moment. Certainly, the country’s acrimonious withdrawal from the European Union makes a notable contrast with the onscreen camaraderie.

Oh, does it?

. . . And while the budget probably explains why most of the superior officers who pop in briefly are played by name actors — Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch — their casting also adds distinctly royal filigree to the ostensibly democratic mix. [Emphasis added]

I trust that my reader sees the silliness for herself. If accusing a director of “grandstanding,” a critic would be advised to first remove all logs — and obsessively political non sequiturs — from his own eye first. A more persuasive criticism of 1917, however, is that, were it not for its technical execution, the film would be boring. Both the acting and the script were unremarkable. Even Thomas Newton’s plinky-plonky score had little to commend it. Indeed, it was its superiority in this regard — the overall endeavor of storytelling — that most justified Parasite’s victory for the award of Best Picture.

Bong’s Parasite is satire and psychological drama that portrays with devastating plausibility, and with all our wretched idiosyncrasies, the absolute worst of human nature. It does so in the context of South Korean class struggle and with a mischievous, if intriguing, plot. One by one, the Kim family, who struggle to get by living in a grimy basement, find inventive and deceitful ways to secure employment in the household of a wealthy family, the Parks.

When the father of the Kim family, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), notes that the Parks are “rich, but still nice,” his wife, Chung-Sook (Jang Hye-jin), responds, “They’re nice because they’re rich. If I were rich, I’d be nice too.” Parasite is a movie in which malice escalates toward fulfillment like a musical motif in a symphony. For the class contempt expressed by Chung-Sook is evidently reciprocated. Mr. Park finds the smell of Ki-taek, like “boiled rags,” disgusting. And what begins as a dark comedy is transformed, ultimately, into an unconscionable bloodbath.

Because the plot is unguessable, I’m being vague about it. The screenplay, too, co-authored by Bong and Han Jin-Won, has much originality to commend it. After their subterranean apartment has been flooded with sewage water, along with those of all their neighbors, Ki-taek tells his son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik):

You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned. Look around you. Did you think these people made a plan to sleep in the sports hall with you? But here we are now, sleeping together on the floor. So, there’s no need for a plan. You can’t go wrong with no plans. We don’t need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next. Even if the country gets destroyed or sold out, nobody cares. Got it?

This may be a damning critique of inequality. But in the context of Ki-taek’s character development as an individual and as a father, it is also moral failure, an abdication of responsibility in the moment he’s most needed. Throughout Parasite, members of both classes share the blame for what happens, which is one of the reasons it makes for such compelling — if uncomfortable — viewing.

That Parasite is in Korean — it’s the first non-English-language Best Picture — makes its success last night all the more remarkable. So, while cinema is a medium dependent on technique, the adjudicators are right to think that artistry depends more on storytelling than on sheer skill.

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