The Holy Grail of a festival film is that which ticks off all the important boxes (it is by an auteur; it is about a big issue; it’s a work of art) and also manages to be a hell of a ride. Korean director Bong Joon-ho is one of a handful of international filmmakers who manages it every single time. Well, almost, depending on your reaction to Okja, but look at the work Bong has racked up: Memories of Murder, Snowpiercer, The Host, and now, the sensationally effective Parasite, which makes powerful points about the class divide without ever crossing the divide between entertainment and message-mongering. The film is for anyone who’s felt a twinge while casually having a meal (at an upscale restaurant) that probably costs a good chunk of the waiter’s salary. One doesn’t — and should not — have to apologise about the accident of being born into privilege. But what do you do about the unprivileged who are silently… watching?
The protagonists are an impoverished family of four — their social status is signalled by their home in a basement, with a view of people peeing on the streets. The son (Choi Woo-shik) gets a job as the tutor of a very rich man’s daughter. How rich is this family? Let’s just say their view is that of a superbly manicured garden, which blocks every sign of the life that lies beyond. (The house belonged to an architect, and it’s not only gorgeous but also invites endless comparisons to where the protagonists live.) A word about the rich, here. Bong doesn’t see them as villains. They are kind, caring, clueless, naïve. If there is a fault, it’s that they are so cocooned off that even the smells from those who take subway bother them — but they talk about these annoyances in private. Not once do we see them behave with anything but class.
Parasite unfolds like a very funny revolving-door farce about class, until we discover that the unprivileged can screw over not only the rich but those in a more unfortunate position than them
Where’s the problem, then? As a line goes, “If you had money, you would be nice, too.” Sometimes, just having it all is your “fault”. It’s enough to make you the villain in the eyes of someone who has nothing. The marvel of the screenplay is that it has us empathise with the son, who slowly devises ways of getting other members of his family into the rich man’s house, in various jobs. Given their scheming, they are the villains — and yet, we laugh with them, we root for them. Parasite unfolds like a very funny revolving-door farce about class, until we discover that the unprivileged can screw over not only the rich but those in a more unfortunate position than them. I realise I am being vague, but you are really better off not knowing the twists and turns in this fiendish film.
Despite the horrific things they do, though, we never stop rooting for the protagonists. There’s a heartbreaking moment when the father (who’s become the driver) overhears his employer talk to his wife about his smell. The family had the run of the house when the employers were away, and they felt they owned the world. But this humiliating comment brings them crashing back to earth. You can act rich, but that world is really a different world. There’s just one instance of didacticism, when Bong cuts from an enormous walk-in closet to a gym housing people displaced by a flood, due to sudden rains. It’s too obvious a statement. The same point is made more subtly when the employer comments on how these rains have reduced the pollution, made the air cleaner. He has no idea about what the rains have done to the people in that gym. Slowly, the laughs stop, and the carnage begins. It’s war, all right. And there are no winners.
Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy revolves around a calm-mannered police chief named Daoud (Roschdy Zem), whose precinct is a working-class neighbourhood in Paris. It’s a busy time. There’s a man who claims he’s been attacked by Arabs. There’s a teenager who’s gone missing. A subway rapist is continuing his crimes. An elderly woman is found strangled, and her neighbours — Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier) — are suspects. And their interrogation forms the bulk of the narrative. The film is well-made, wonderfully acted, and despite the talky-procedural nature of the drama, the superb editing thrusts us into the giddy rush of a cop’s life. What the film isn’t is necessary. You feel you’ve seen a thousand TV series do the same things. Oh Mercy is certainly more real than, say, a CSI episode, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling like a rerun.
We’ve heard of films based on books. Afghan director Shahrbanoo Sadat prefers to dip into the diaries of her friend, Anwar Hashimi. At the premiere of The Orphanage, she revealed that she has a few more films planned from this material, which is a record of life in Afghanistan during a turbulent time. The pages of the diary in this film are from 1989. A pro-Russian government sits in Kabul. And 15-year-old Qodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri) sells black-market tickets for Hindi films. No, scratch that. The Afghans don’t seem to be a fan of Hindi cinema so much as Amitabh Bachchan’s cinema. No other actor is seen in the cutouts outside the theatre. Qodrat is a fan, too, and he slips into reveries based on these films. For instance, when he sees a pretty girl, he dreams of them lip-syncing to Jaane kaise kab kahaan, from Shakti, and the song sequence replicates key visuals, like the campfire.
Meanwhile, life intervenes. Qodrat is thrown into an orphanage and we get vignettes from a wartime existence. A teacher instructs them on the Russian alphabet. A military tank crashes and the boys steal stuff from it, like bullets and gas masks. They also steal apples from an orchard. They make a list of teachers they are in love with. They go to a youth camp in Russia. They play chess. They hear that the Mujahideen may take over Kabul. I expected Qodrat’s Hindi-film dreams to be the connective tissue binding these disparate events, but these dreams appear at random — the film doesn’t cohere into a bigger vision. (To see how this sort of thing is done right, recall Fellini’s Amarcord.) It’s fun to see reenactments of Yeh dosti and a fight sequence from Shahenshah, but The Orphanage doesn’t internalise these tonally disparate elements, and they stand out as kitsch. Still, watching Parveen Babi writhing in a gold costume in Jawaani jaaneman, you can see how such an image can make life just a bit better. The elite tend to dismiss the power of “hardcore” Hindi cinema, and The Orphanage, if nothing else, reinforces the fact that people whose reality is unbearable just need to lose themselves in dreams for a while.