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DEFT MANEUVERS: A pair of auteurs take big risks with varying success

Ki-jung Kim (So-dam Park) and Ki-woo Park (Woo-sik Choi) in Parasite. Courtesy of NEON + CJ Entertainment

There’s something special about filmmaker Bong Joon Ho. Like many of his Korean peers, the “Snowpiercer” director is able to deftly maneuver between drama, comedy and tragedy in a way that feels unique to his culture. It’s rare to find a storyteller who can run you through a gamut of emotions and make everything feel perfectly balanced. Bong achieves this again with his new masterpiece, “Parasite.” Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” meanwhile, takes a wilder and slightly less stable route in telling a story that balances comedy and tragedy.

“Parasite” is, hands down, the best movie I’ve seen in 2019. It’s a perfectly crafted film with a story that starts out amusingly and quickly transforms into one of the saddest, most poignant tragedies ever put to film. 

Kevin (Lee Sun Kyun) is part of a poor Korean family, and is trying to find work in a city with rampant unemployment and few opportunities. Eager to help, a friend passes along a job tip: become an English tutor for the daughter of an affluent family, the Parks. After forging a few documents, Kevin sets himself up as the girl’s tutor and develops a good relationship with her parents.

 

 

Soon, Kevin and his family are finding ways to attach themselves to the Parks and to secure jobs for everyone else. For some, it’s as easy as telling a few lies and speaking confidently. For others, like a hapless driver and a seemingly harmless housekeeper, more complex games of sabotage are required. Eventually, all four members of Kevin’s clan are suckling the teat of the oblivious Park family.

One night, while their employers are out for the weekend, Kevin and his family take up residence in the Parks’ home, celebrating their newfound success. Everything seems great until the doorbell rings and a confrontation threatens to destroy them.

That’s all you’re going to get out of me. The rest of the film is a deep and rapidly escalating tour of anger, frustration, fear and tragedy that has to be experienced firsthand.

What’s great about “Parasite” is how much the storytelling avoids cliché and needless foreshadowing. Viewers will not see the second half of the film coming, because writer-director Bong has little interest in appeasing an audience. He refuses to let any of the characters be patently unlikable. There are no heroes or villains in his story—only flawed people and their infinite struggle for meaning in a harsh world.

The circumstances are similar for the characters in “Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi’s satire about a member of the Hitler Youth trying to reconcile responsibilities to self and service. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) wants to be a great Nazi and please his imaginary friend Hitler (Waititi). After a camping expedition gone horribly wrong, he finds himself scarred and forced to serve as an errand boy for the local office of the German military. Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson) has neither love nor loyalty for the Nazis and struggles watching her son trying to be a good little soldier. Jojo is presented with his own crisis when he discovers a young Jewish girl his mother has been hiding. 

There’s a lot to like about “Jojo Rabbit,” most notably a cast of eclectic characters who bring a lot of energy to the film. Sam Rockwell is particularly wonderful as a German officer dragged into military service. He’s a poor soul who does his civic duty while completely aware of the insanity of his cause. Waititi is consistently entertaining as a cartoonish, afterschool version of Hitler—dancing gleefully on Jojo’s shoulder as he screams out Nazi propaganda and battles to corrupt the boy’s soul.

I liked the movie, but at times it felt so blatantly cartoonish, some of the more tragic elements didn’t have much of an emotional impact. It’s like a more on-the-nose version of “Life is Beautiful”—which  brilliantly balances comedy and tragedy.

Waititi is a filmmaker who consistently succeeds at conveying his vision. Still, there are moments in this vision that felt a little too whimsical. Its final moments had me cringing. It’s strange to watch a movie and like so much of it, but still hate several scenes. That’s usually a sign the filmmaker is making strong choices. Unfortunately, strong choices don’t always add up to a strong movie.

“Parasite,” on the other hand, is brilliant from start to finish. Every moment has purpose. Bong begins his film with a series of cinematic threads, and he weaves them together into a rope that drags viewers through an emotional thorn field. It all culminates in a masterful finale that manages to feel beautiful and belligerent at the same time.

DETAILS:
Parasite
Rated R, 2 hrs 12 mins
Directed by Bong Joon Ho
Starring Song Kang Ho, Lee Sun Kyun, Cho Yeo Jeong
Jojo Rabbit
Rated PG-13, 1 hr 48 mins
Directed by Taika Waititi
Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson

 

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