Few national cinematic outputs in the modern era rival that of South Korea. The home of celebrated filmmakers like Park Chan-Wook, Lee Chang-dong, Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sangsoo is also now the home of a Palme D'or winner in Bong Joon-ho, who stole the hearts of the Cannes Film Festival Jury with his brilliant, beguiling morality tale Parasite. I'll be honest, against his contemporaries in that list, Bong Joon-ho's output has never been my favourite; the creator of heady concept-pieces like Snowpiercer and Okja has always bitten off a little more than he could chew to my mind, swinging between genres and tones wildly and often unsuccessfully. That said, Parasite clearly marks the maturation of a filmmaker, the arrival at a place of execution so assured that it can be comfortably referred to as masterful. Bearing glancing similarities to last year's Palme winner Shoplifters, Parasite tells the story of a family living in poverty who luck into an opportunity for lucrative employment when Ki-woo, the son, takes up a job as tutor to the daughter of an extremely wealthy family. From there, things start to get a little… strange in ways that to "spoil" would be to rob viewers of the fiendishly tense, thrilling roller coaster ride of betrayals, reveals and sudden acts of violence.
Parasite benefits from crisp, rich cinematography, a deep back-bench of brilliant performers (both families, rich and poor, make lasting, impactful impressions, see-sawing between figures of sympathy and figures of utter contempt at any given moment), and a script of clockwork-like precision. Where once Bong Joon-ho's tonal shifts felt jarring and at times unearned, here the filmmaker weaves between genres so smoothly as to make the seams nearly invisible – one moment we're watching a kitchen-sink poverty drama, the next a con-artist caper, then a dread-soaked chamber horror. Bong Joon-ho's work has not been known for its subtlety and here is no different, undoubtedly – and yet, Parasite's clear real-world parallels feel unforced and invigorating. A clear-minded and entirely profound attack on the rotting, pervasive spectre of capitalism on South Korean society (pitched in a way that feels incredibly universal at this time), here Bong Joon-ho's broadness, and his anger, feels totally earned. One of, if not the best film of the year so far, Parasite is a shocking must-see, a thrilling shot across the bow to a cinemascape filled with so much more-of-the-same. Miss it at your own peril.
Rating: Five stars.
It's been a really tough year for Hollywood blockbusters – give or take an Avengers: Endgame or Alita: Battle Angel, almost every film out of cinema's starriest of stables this year has ranged from the desperately middling (X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Detective Pikachu) to the shockingly inept (Godzilla II, Pet Sematary). Arriving entirely unnecessarily and landing somewhere between the two of these extremes is Men In Black: International (dir. F. Gary Gray, rated M), a film so bland and seemingly built from corporate mandate that it's almost an impressive achievement were the mission to create something entirely and utterly devoid of meaning or memorability. Desperately lacking the chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee, Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth (two otherwise extremely charismatic performers, making their blankness here all the more puzzling) star as Agents M and H, as Thompson tackles her first case alongside Hemsworth's veteran in a world of hidden alien creatures. The film makes what are ostensibly stabs at the original series' laugh-out-loud comedy, thrilling set-pieces and kooky alien life-forms but in ways so absent of vibrancy or creativity they feel like nothing more than pale facsimiles. F. Gary Gray, an assured directorial talent in efforts like Straight Outta Compton and Friday, appears to be in total autopilot here. Lamentably for all involved, there are no signs of life in this series reboot.
Rating: One and a half stars.
Remixes of Shakespeare have always been a fairly hit or miss concept; without the playwright's language and storytelling brilliance too often something is lost in the translation. It is a pleasant surprise, then, to report that simmering palace melodrama Ophelia (dir. Claire McCarthy, Rated M) is far better than it had any need to be. Clearly relishing the chance to bite into something non-Star Wars related, Daisy Ridley stars as the titular Ophelia, doomed lover of Hamlet, in a retelling of Shakespeare's most celebrated play from the put-upon lady-in-waiting's perspective. It's a fresh approach to the storytelling, one that twists famous elements of the original text to serve new purposes in ways that are mostly satisfying, always with an eye to establishing the agency of Ophelia and valuing her spiritual and emotional journey as the film's driving force. The lack of Shakespearean dialogue is notable, but the dialogue here is nevertheless sharp, witty and with a dash of the Bard's colour, elevating it above similar courts-and-corsets romances of late. While it doesn't necessarily reinvent the wheel, Ophelia is well-made, satisfying, and does justice to one of literature's most fascinating supporting figures.
Rating: Three and a half stars.