Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Three Films By Luis Bunuel

 

The Phantom of Liberty

THREE FILMS BY LUIS BUNUEL (1972-1977, Bunuel)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 5, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

You know how annoying it is when you see a character in a movie suddenly jolt awake and you realize the scene you've been watching was really just a dream? Director Luis Bunuel certainly knew, which at least partly explains why this exasperating trick plays out multiple times in “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie” (1972). The radical who first shocked audiences by slicing an eyeball in “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) still hadn't tired of his assault on complacency nearly half a century later.

I don't mean that Bunuel was just trying to yank the chains of his viewers, no matter how bourgeois his film festival audiences were likely to be, but rather that the septuagenarian artist hadn't let success blind him to the fundamental absurdities and inequities of a society he'd spent his professional life mocking. Dream logic hardly seems more absurd than a social structure which grants respectability to its worst people for the flimsiest of reasons. Call yourself an ambassador and you can smuggle cocaine while still being hailed as a gentleman. Wear a priest's cassock and you can get literally get away with murder. Master the courtly manners that help you negotiate a fancy dinner with grace and everyone scrambles to serve you with a smile, no matter how much contempt you have for them.

In “Discreet Charm,” that fancy dinner never quite happens. Bunuel and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (who collaborated with Bunuel on most of his later films, including all three in this Criterion box set) force the same set of rich snobs to show up for a dinner that is constantly deferred for various reasons. At first, they arrive at their hosts' home on the wrong night which prompts them to dash out for a quick bite at a nearby inn where they find that the owner has just died. In fact, his dead body is on display for mourners in an alcove just off the dining room. And then things start to get weird.

One party is spoiled because the host couple (Stephane Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel) sneaks off for a bit of afternoon delight in the bushes, leaving their unattended guests bored and offended. One dinner transforms into an impromptu stage play with the diners unwitting actors. A duel brings a lavish buffet to a bloody end. The local bishop (Julien Bertheau) drops by because he wants to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a gardener. And, of course, the vengeful spirit of a murderous policeman returns from the grave to enact justice on our very hungry protagonists.

The film only gradually fleshes out the relationships among the upper-crust characters. Francois (Paul Frankeur) and Simone (Delphine Seyrig) are married, but Simone is also shacking up with the ambassador (Fernando Rey). There's little to the players save their venality or outright corruption, and Bunuel enjoys tormenting them by constantly delaying any substantive gratification beyond a few sips of booze.

Which parts are real, and which parts are dreams? All of them, of course. Bunuel doesn't distinguish in such literal terms, and it hardly matters. A society that would reward these vapid cretins with wealth and prestige is too ludicrous to be believed (or respected) anyway.

At a few points in “Discreet Charm,” a minor character suddenly claims center stage. For example, a sad-eyed lieutenant interrupts the ladies' lunch (where they can't even get tea or coffee) to tell his tale of a woeful childhood. Bunuel and Carriere would expand on this discursive storytelling approach in their next collaboration, the absolutely bonkers “The Phantom of Liberty” (1974).

“Phantom” fractures its narrative into multiple vignettes with no main plot or lead actor. Each segment is connected, however tenuously, to the previous one, but the film frequently abandons a story just as it builds to a climax, often following a minor character who then becomes the protagonist of the next story. And so on.

As unconventional as the narrative structure is, “Phantom” is still a quintessential Bunuel film, relying on the twin engines of sacrilege and fetishism to propel the action. Sacrilege: French troops with a bad case of the munchies ransack a church and chow down on holy wafers. Horny monks play poker with religious medals: “I'll open with a virgin.” Fetish: A young man spirits his much older aunt off to a hotel for a weekend tryst. A traveling businessman in the same hotel invites the poker-playing monks to watch his dominatrix secretary whip him into an orgiastic frenzy - as the guests flee in horror, the businessman cries: “At least let the monks stay!”

It's futile to relay the protean plot in greater detail. But a focus on one segment provides a reminder that surrealism is, etymologically, built “on reality.” In one section, the mother of a young girl is called to school because her daughter has gone missing. As the teacher explains what happened, the young girl in question tugs her mother's arm. Mom tells her to keep quiet because everyone is looking for her. Later, the girl is taken to the police station so they can file the missing person report. The officer deems it convenient that the absent girl is right there, the better to prepare a detailed description so they can start the search. This sequence deploys no disorienting stylistic techniques, no canted angles or shocking reveals. It just plods through a mundane series of shots of people directly interacting with a little girl who they also consider to be missing, rendering the whole spectacle profoundly uncanny and unsettling. Downright Bunuelian, you might say.

That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977) was Bunuel's final film (he died in 1983), and is less formally audacious than the other two films in this set. Toying with an almost archaic classical story structure, the film centers on Mathieu (Fernando Rey), an older man of wealth from an unspecified job who boards a train and regales his cabin mates with his tragic love story. Mathieu fell for the teenage Conchita, briefly his maid, later a hat-check girl, and possibly a revolutionary. Conchita allegedly falls for him too but steadfastly refuses to have sex with him, leading to a series of tragicomic frustrations for Mathieu, one involving the sudden appearance of Conchita's impenetrable chastity belt. Mathieu cannot break the spell the seductress has over him, yet also cannot break her spirit and possess her. “I belong to no one but myself”, she insists.

Though the film provides a few surrealist touches (a doting mother turns out to be swaddling her precious baby pig) the story, based on a 1898 novel by Pierre Louys, unfolds in fairly linear fashion, though with Mathieu serving as the unreliable narrator. The idiosyncratic touch this time is that Conchita is portrayed by two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. Supposedly, Bunuel made this decision partly as a lark after he found it difficult to work with actress Maria Schneider, who was originally cast. Bouquet and Molina sometimes switch off in the middle of a scene, and there's no clear reason why either appears at any particular moment. Each takes turns at playing Conchita as diabolical or as innocent. Reportedly, most viewers at the time didn't even realize there were different actresses, likely a disappointment to the filmmakers.

Domestic terrorism plays a role in all the films in this set, but becomes more prominent here with urban ambushes, shootings, and bombings punctuating the anti-romantic love story. In Bunuel's films, civilization is a thin veneer over a violent society, and that's as true of the rituals of love as of the cultured manners of the bourgeoisie. It can all blow up in your face at a moment's notice, no matter how fancy your suit or how dignified your title.



Video:

All three films are presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratios. These “new high-definition digital restorations” all showcase sharp image resolution and a rich color palette. They also feature a fine grainy look. I only have the old “Phantom” DVD as a comparison point, but the new Blu-ray image represents a substantial upgrade.

Audio:

The films are all presented with linear PCM mono audio tracks. The mono audio is crisp with no evident distortions. The sound design isn't particularly robust, and the mono track serves it well. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:

Each of the three films in this set was released as a stand alone DVD by Criterion 15 or more years ago. The Blu-rays in this set maintain their old spine numbers (102 for “Discreet Charm”, 143 for “Obscure Object”, 290 for “Phantom.”) Some of the old releases had substantive extras, others few at all. Criterion has pretty much packed each of these discs for these 2021 Blu-ray upgrades.

Each disc has its own keep case, all three of which are tucked into the outer cardboard slip case titled “Three Films By Luis Bunuel.”

The “Discreet Charm” begins with an import from the old DVD release, the documentary “Speaking of Bunuel” (2000, 99 min.) Directed by Jose Luis Lopez-Linares and Javier Rioyo, this feature-length documentary aims to be a comprehensive biography of the filmmaker, detailing his childhood through his early days as an artist (covering his friendship with Salvador Dali and Federico Lorca) and his wanderings as a filmmaker in several countries over many decades. Covering so much territory, it doesn't dive deeply on too many subjects, but it's an informative piece, spiced up with interviews from collaborators such as Jean-Claude Carriere, actor Michel Piccoli, and many others.

Another import from the old release is “The Castaway of Providence Street” (1971, 24 min.), an eccentric feature filmed at the Mexico City home of Bunuel and his wife, Jeanne. It shows Bunuel mixing drinks, while we also hear interviews from friends and collaborators raving about Don Luis.

New for this Blu-ray is a 2011 episode of the French show “Once Upon A Time” (52 min.) which consists mostly of interviews (Carriere again, actresses Bulle Ogier and Stephane Audran, and others) discussing the production of “Discreet Charm.”

In addition to a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.), the final feature on this disc is a short “Making Of” piece (14 min) that mixes interviews with some on-set footage.

The old “Phantom of Liberty” disc only came with a short interview with Carriere. That interview (4 min.) is included here. The other features on the disc are new.

Film scholar Peter William Evans analyzes (20 min.) “Phantom,” touching on as many of the vignettes as possible while trying not to over-interpret.

A 1985 documentary (30 min.) turns the spotlight on producer Serge Silberman, who worked with Bunuel on most of his later films.

The disc also includes an interview with actor Jean-Claude Brialy (6 min.) and a separate interview with both Brialy and Michel Piccoli (5 min.)

The “Obscure Object” disc arrives with another Carriere interview (19 min.) in which he talks about his close working relationship with Bunuel, and how they'd live together for long stretches while bouncing ideas off each other daily.

“The Woman and the Puppet,” the Pierre Louys novel Bunuel worked from, had already been adapted to film several times before. Criterion has included three scenes from the 1929 silent version by Jacques de Baroncelli. Running 11 minutes total, these scenes suggest that Bunuel borrowed considerably from the film, one which he acknowledge as a favorite.

“Portrait of An Impatient Filmmaker” is a 2012 documentary short (16 min.) in which cinematographer Edmond Richard and assistant director Pierre Lary discuss Bunuel's work habits on set, with a focus on his reasons for replacing Maria Schneider with two different actresses in the role of Conchita. A separate extra titled “Lady Doubles” (2017, 37 min.) invites the two actresses, Bouquet and Molina, to discuss their participation in this unusual experiment.

“Remembering Bunuel” (1977, 31 min.) is an episode of the French TV show “Allons au cinema” in which a round table of collaborators (Carriere, Piccoli, Fernando Rey, etc.) talk about Bunuel.

Finally, Criterion has included an excerpt (15 min.) from a 1977 episode of “Le monde du cinema” in which Carriere, Rey, and Silberman discuss their work with Bunuel.

The thick insert booklet includes essays on all three films, with author Gary Indiana writing about “The Phantom of Liberty” and film critic Adrian Martin writing about the other two films. The booklet also includes some extensive excerpts of interviews with Bunuel that were originally published in “Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Bunuel” by critics Jose de la Colina and Tomas Perez Turrent.

Final Thoughts:

It's not that unusual to see a filmmaker still at their creative peak into their seventies and beyond. Agnes Varda, Robert Bresson, Frederick Wiseman, Manoel de Oliveira, and Jean-Luc Godard spring to mind instantly. But it's remarkable that the veteran Luis Bunuel of the 1970s was every bit as radical and provocative as the young punk Luis Bunuel of “Un Chien Andalou.” I guess he kept paying attention to the world and stayed angry about it.  


Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Mouchette

 


MOUCHETTE (Bresson, 1967)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 8, 2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) is a teenage French peasant girl saddled with a dying mother and an abusive, alcoholic father. With her raggedy hand-me-down clothes and clogs two sizes too big, she finds no friends in school either, nor does she invite them, preferring to lob mudballs at her classmates during recess. Whether her aggression speaks of desperation or sheer spite, the saddest part is that the other girls don’t even care enough to retaliate. Mouchette simply means nothing to them. She doesn't matter to anyone at all.

If you're expecting this grim setup to turn into a triumphant redemption, you're obviously unfamiliar with writer/director Robert Bresson or with author Georges Bernanos whose 1937 novel “Mouchette” (1967) is adapted from. Bresson had previously tapped Bernanos as the source for “Diary of Country Priest” (1951), the first film in which the director transformed fully into the nonpareil Bresson celebrated by devotees today. “Mouchette” is somehow far bleaker than the first Bresson-Bernanos joint. Indeed, it's one of the most desolate films ever made, on a par with Kenji Mizoguchi's “Sansho the Bailiff”(1954), Kon Ichikawa's “Fires on the Plain” (1959), or perhaps Bresson's career-capping “L'argent” (1982).

Mouchette slouches through listless days at school and equally listless nights at home, where she is expected to handle all the household chores and care for the baby, while her no-account father and brother smuggle alcohol, mostly for their own consumption. At least these quotidian rituals provide some minor respite from a meaningless life, but Mouchette aches for an escape from the tedium.

She finds some relief in her daily walks through the forest, taking the long way home (for understandable reasons) but this “green place” offers her only the modest gift of solitude, not redemption. On one such walk, Mouchette is waylaid by a sudden rainstorm (she calls it a cyclone, but nobody believes her) which brings her face to face with Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert), a local poacher. Arsène believes he has just killed a man in a drunken argument (the disease of alcoholism stalks the countryside like the Black Death of half a millennium ago.) Arsène enlists Mouchette’s aid in providing him an alibi. She readily agrees, but their conversation turns ugly, and Arsène rapes her. In the morning, Mouchette slinks back home just in time to see her mother die.

Total abjection provides a form of liberation for Mouchette. She has been pushed beyond caring about any social niceties, about anyone’s rules. When the falsely pious townsfolk extend sympathy for her mother’s death, she figuratively spits in her faces, and literally treads mud all over their nice, pretty rugs. But poor Mouchette’s awakening still finds her with the same limited options she had before. She’s a rebel with nothing to rebel against, simply because nobody cares and all the rules are stacked against her. She cannot win, she can only leave the world on her own terms. And so she does.

In Bresson's prior films, his characters achieved a state of grace in their suffering, but it’s hard to say the same of Mouchette. Her suicide is simply tragic, painful, desperate, with no redeeming aspect. If she intends a big “fuck you” to the town, it will go almost entirely unnoticed and be quickly forgotten. Even dear old dad will use her death as just another excuse to get piss-drunk. At best, it can be seen as Mouchette’s defiant act of autonomy, taking control of her body and her life in a way the rotted-besotted town patriarchy would never allow. Ice cold comfort.

As in most Bresson, off-screen noises play a prominent role in structuring the film. Trucks constantly rumble by, unseen except when their headlights play across the wall of Mouchette’s hovel. The modern world is encroaching on this insular rural town that's wobbling on its last drunken legs. Bresson also uses music sparingly, with Monteverdi’s “Magnificat” serving as the only non-diegetic music in the film.

As usual, Bresson employs a cast of mostly non-professional actors whom he considered more as “models” than performers. Nortier is a typical Bressonian model, coached to act with as little inflection as possible. She moves slowly, walks slump-shouldered, and her face rarely registers much emotion, with the notable exception of the bumper-car ride when Mouchette briefly smiles and laughs like a “normal” girl. Some viewers have difficulty adapting to Bresson’s idiosyncratic approach to film acting, but for fans of the director he sometimes seems to be the only one who ever got it right. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but Bresson’s singular, obstinate body of work can really be compared to no other.

By holding back so much that we typically expect to see in a film (emotive acting, for example), Bresson ultimately unleashes a powerful force that is difficult to describe. Call it transcendental, call it sublime, call it ineffable. Whatever label you choose, it has an impact like nothing else cinema has ever produced. 

 


Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. According to Criterion, this new 1080p transfer is sourced from “a full 4K restoration.”“Mouchette” was Bresson’s last black-and-white film, and this high-def upgrade improves upon the original 2007 DVD release from Criterion, doing justice to Ghislain Cloquet’s starkly beautiful photography. Black-and-whit contrast is sharp, with most scenes looking rather dark, as intended.

Audio:

The linear PCM mono track is sharp with no signs of distortion. Bresson's sound design is spare with limited music and only select sound effects. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:

All extras are imported from Criterion's 2007 DVD release with no new extras included.

“Mouchette” doesn't arrive with as many extras as some other Criterion releases of Bresson's work. However, the 2007 commentary track by Tony Rayns is superb, as we would expect from Mr. Rayns.

The main extra feature is “Au hasard Bresson” (1967, 30 min.), a documentary directed by German film critic Theodor Kotulla. Kotulla visited the set of “Mouchette” to speak with Bresson, and wound up with this little gem that delves much deeper than the usual “behind-the-scenes” documentary.

“Traveling” is an excerpt (7 min.) from a French television show which features interviews with some of the cast members of “Mouchette.” Nothing special here.

Perhaps the most intriguing extra for die-hard cinephiles is an original theatrical trailer for “Mouchette” cut by Jean-Luc Godard. Godard denied making this trailer, but it’s hard to believe anyone could mistake it for anything but a Godard work.

The slim fold-out booklet reprints the 2007 essay by critic and poet Robert Polito.

Final Thought:

“Mouchette” is grim, demanding viewing which requires patience even at its brisk 81 minute running length. If you have never seen a Bresson film before, don’t start here. “Mouchette” is hermetic, and utterly despairing, even by Bresson’s standards. Try “A Man Escaped” (1956), “Pickpocket” (1959), or “Au hasard Balthazar” (1966) first before you tackle this one. I don’t wish to convey the notion that Bresson is somehow esoteric or inaccessible; I don’t believe that at all. His films are concise and concrete, but their surface simplicity hides the degree to which each image and sound is so densely packed, and only proper context (training, if you will) can help viewers unpack them.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Ghost Dog

 


GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI (Jarmusch, 1999)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 17, 2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

Critics who thought they had Jim Jarmusch safely categorized as a wry humorist and a minimalist observer of outsiders and “dead-end kids” (as Pauline Kael described the protagonists of “Stranger Than Paradise”) were forced to scramble when the revisionist Western “Dead Man” (1995) introduced shocking new elements to the writer/director's arsenal. Periodically erupting in graphic violent outbursts, “Dead Man” pointed an accusing middle finger at the “stupid fucking white men” who engineered a mass genocide against Native Americans, a slaughter so cruel and so vast it permanently scarred the landscape itself.

Jarmusch stayed in his new bloody lane with his next feature, “Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai” (1999). Now the stupid fucking white men are wheezing dollar-store mafiosos, old men who can barely climb a set of stairs or scrape together enough money to pay the landlord at their little clubhouse where they mostly watch cartoons. But the single defining truism about American life as portrayed in both “Dead Man” and “Ghost Dog” is that any stupid fuck can pull a trigger.

Like the mobsters, the film's title character adheres to an old code of behavior, but unlike them, he's put a great deal of thought into his guiding philosophy. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) reads daily from the “Hagakure”, a book of samurai aphorisms he uses to shape his idiosyncratic approach to being a modern-day hitman. Ghost Dog samples freely from diverse sources of wisdom as well, including Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein”, Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short-story collection “Rashomon”, and modern hip-hop - RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan provides the film's propulsive, hypnotic score, and it seems like Ghost Dog can hear every non-diegetic note. And talk about keeping it old school, Ghost Dog even sends messages exclusively by homing pigeon.

Plot rarely matters much in a Jarmusch film, but to provide a brief capsule: Ghost Dog serves as a loyal retainer to low-level mobster Louie (John Tormey). While conducting a hit for Louie, something goes awry, and the other mobsters decide the assassin must be eliminated. To serve honor, or some such nonsense. This confrontation augurs poorly for the aging made men, of course – hell, Ghost Dog even knows how to shoot his mark from the other end of a kitchen sink drain – but Jarmusch lavishes as much attention on Ghost Dog's down time as on his killing exploits.

Ghost Dog likes to hang out with his friend Raymond (Isaach de Bankole), an affable Haitian ice-cream truck vendor who only speaks French. Ghost Dog only speaks English (or at least no French) but this doesn't interfere with their ability to understand each other. The spoken word is only one limited form of communication, a theme Jarmusch had already touched on in “Mystery Train” (1989) and other films. The efficient killer also bonds with Pearline (Camille Winbush), a nine-year-old bookworm who instinctively seems to “get” Ghost Dog.

The film piles up both bodies and humorous vignettes. In a hilarious display of a lack of self-awareness, a couple of the mobsters (including a stoic Henry Silva whose face is fixed in a rictus) mock both black hip-hop artists and Native Americans for adopting “funny” names like Flavor Flav or Red Cloud before calling out for their compatriots Joey Rags and Sammy the Snake. In the film's signature execution, Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman) dances alone in his bathroom while singing along to Public Enemy before Ghost Dog takes him out with one laser-pointer shot to the head.

The great cinematographer Robby Muller captures the moody night-time city streets (possibly meant to be New York, though mostly filmed in Jersey City) with an impressionist eye, employing multiple dissolves to show Ghost Dog gliding through the streets in his unique fashion, largely undetected by the locals, perhaps moving to the pervasive beat of RZA's driving score. The film's visual centerpiece, however, is Forest Whitaker's face, his drooping left eyelid (a congenital condition) drawing even more attention to the magnetic power of his gaze. Ghost Dog sees all from a serene vantage point, simultaneously positioned right at street level but also observing dispassionately from a spiritual plane at least once-removed.

Though the film pokes fun at its clueless, impotent mobsters, it still ends with a lament for the mutual obsolescence of both the way of the mafioso and the “way of the samurai.” As Ghost Dog puts it when he confronts Louie at the end, they both come from “different ancient tribes” now staring down the barrel of a new millennium that has no use for either of them. 

 

 

Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35 mm original A/B camera negative” and was supervised by Jarmusch. The only other North American release I'm aware of is the 2003 SD release by Artisan. The colors on that one look a bit garish while this 1080p transfer showcases more muted, naturalistic colors. The image resolution is sharp and looks great in motion.

Audio:

The DTS- HD 5.1 Master Audio mix treats sound effects well while also presenting RZA's score with depth. The disc also provides an audio option to listen just to the isolated score in a 2.0 mix. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

Extras:

This Criterion Blu-ray release includes both new and older supplementary features.

As with a few past Jarmusch releases from Criterion, we get a lengthy Q&A session (84 minutes) with the director. He fields a random array of questions sent in by fans, touching on topics from the production of the film to what music he's been listening to during the pandemic and so on. This was recorded in June 2020.

Another new feature is a video conference interview (20 min.) with actors Forest Whitaker and Isaach de Bankole, conducted by film scholar Michael B. Gillespie. Again they cover an array of topics, though mostly centering on their memories of making “Ghost Dog” a little more than twenty years ago.

Criterion has also included an audio feature (15 min.) in which casting director Ellen Lewis discusses her process for auditioning various actors for roles. This turned out to be quite fascinating, especially because Lewis is clearly passionate about the casting even of minor roles in the film. It feels like she talks about virtually everybody who appears in the movie.

We also get two older interviews, which, though separate, are taken from the same taping session with Jarmusch, Whitaker, and composer RZA. The first is a 15-minute interview. The second is a 21-minute promotional piece titled “The Odyssey: A Journey Into the Life of a Samurai” which was included on the old DVD release from Artisan Pictures.

The disc also includes a short interview (5 min.) with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, martial arts teacher and founder of the USA Shaolin Temple. He's friends with both Jarmusch and RZA.

We also get a 15-minute piece about the music of “Ghost Dog” along with several short Deleted Scenes/Outtakes (5 min. total) and a Theatrical Trailer (1 min.)

Criterion has included two insert booklets this time. The 40-page booklet includes essays by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, as well as excerpts from a 2000 interview with Jarmusch, conducted by Ted Lippy. We also get a tiny replica of the “Hagakure”, featured so prominently in the film, though this just includes a few short excerpts from the book.

Film Value:

“Ghost Dog” has been in need of a quality high-def release for some time now, and Criterion delivers the goods with a sharp 1080p transfer and a strong collection of extra features.

 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Parasite

 


PARASITE (Bong, 2019)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 27, 2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

The Oscars had a chance to make history in 2020. Odds makers slightly favored Sam Mendes' “1917,” a two-hour video game cut scene featuring wooden acting and a histrionic plot that makes “Raiders of the Lost Ark” look like a Wiseman documentary. Following on the heels of “The Shape of Water” and “Green Book,” a Best Picture nod to Mendes' mendacious misfire would have secured the Academy three years of historic shame worth bragging about for life. Instead, voters eschewed a legacy by handing the statuette to Korean director Bong Joon-ho's “Parasite” (2019), an actual good movie, and the first foreign-language film to win the big award. Which is history too.

Set in Seoul, the film opens in the cramped semi-basement apartment of the Kim family. A long, thin window peeks out at an alley where drunks stop to piss and extermination trucks belch out thick billows of chemicals, unaware or unconcerned that anyone might be living nearby. Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), the family patriarch, welcomes the death cloud that envelops the entire family in their living room. After all, the apartment is infested with bugs, and the family can't afford pesticides on the salary they earn from folding pizza boxes. A job at which, to be honest, they're not even that good.

The son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), soon seizes a better job opportunity, serving as an English tutor to the teenage daughter (Jung Ziso) of the wealthy Park family. Their gated house (built by a famous architect you've surely heard of) provides a stark contrast to the Kim estate. As Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) introduces Ki-woo to his new workplace, the camera follows as they pass through glistening white rooms and walk down immense corridors that sprawl to both ends of the widescreen frame. The mansion's many windows offer a slightly more scenic view than a piss-soaked back street, mostly acres upon acres of sculpted green space, just sitting empty until the family decides to host its next party.

Ki-woo might have forged his credentials to get his tutoring gig, but initially he seems like an ambitious go-getter just trying to climb the ladder and haul his family out of poverty. By his own bootstraps, of course, just like all successful people. But the Kims (and, presumably, Bong Joon-ho, who also co-wrote the script) are too savvy to believe in the myth of easy social mobility, at least by legally sanctioned means. They realize that this situation calls for a full-blown caper, a con job, an outright heist. Ferreting out the needs and vulnerabilities of the upper-crust family, Ki-woo finds reasons to introduce his entire family, under various aliases, into the employ of the Parks, including his father, his sister (Park So-dam) and mother (Chang Hyae-jin).

The distinct contrast in living spaces potentially sets up a didactic clash of Kims vs. Parks as one of good vs. evil, privileged vs. exploited, but the film offers a much more nuanced social critique. To achieve their goals in a hardscrabble world where every winner requires a loser, the Kims engage in intra-class warfare, sabotaging the Parks' long-time servants, including a housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) with both plans and working-class problems of her own. And the Kims' goal isn't so much to supplant the Parks, as primarily to install themselves as servants to the rich. Even the enterprising Kims at their most audacious can only dream so grandly; they know their place in modern society.

The Parks themselves are not malicious, but mostly oblivious, though that may be even a greater sin in a nation defined by economic inequity. While the Kims (and the housekeeper and the chauffeur and virtually everyone else) struggle for everything, the Parks remain blind to the fact that anyone has to struggle at all. This makes them perfect marks for the Kims' improvised schemes, and also leaves the Parks, along with audiences, completely shocked by the eruption of violence in the third act. Why would anyone be mad at us?

The film shifts deftly from wry humor and the general warmth of the Kim family with each other to the ruthless competition for the scraps left behind by the rich and a Grand Guignol climax. The cast is uniformly convincing, with longtime Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho shining as a defeated but not despondent man with a cheerfully bleak view of a society which offers little hope for those born without connections. In his view, it's best not to have a plan at all, because then nothing can go wrong and “nothing fucking matters.”

It's easy to understand why the Academy voters were as excited as the Cannes jury members who awarded “Parasite” the Palme d'Or in 2019. Still, just imagine: “The Shape of Water,” “Green Book” and “1917” all in a row. The Academy could have ended the decade in utter disgrace, the same as America. It would have been glorious. 

 


Video:

The film is presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. This 1080p transfer looks nothing short of immaculate, so much so that I can think of nothing to say save that it surely looks as good as it did in theaters.

Audio:

Criterion has provided a Dolby Atmos sound mix (7.1), and I won't claim that I know enough about audio formats to determine how different this sounds from the more typical Criterion stereo mix in DTS-HD Master Audio. I also don't own a system strong enough to showcase a more robust mix like this. I'll trust other reviewers who are wowed by the depth of this surround design. Optional English subtitles support the Korean audio.

Extras:

Criterion has stacked the extras on this two-disc Blu-ray release.

The most notable feature is a black-and-white cut of “Parasite,” included on the second disc. This cut is identical in every way to the theatrical release of the film, except that it is rendered in black-and-white. When asked why he wanted to offer a B&W version even though the film was always intended to be shot in color, Bong states simply that it was “an itch I had to scratch,” and a nod to many of the classic films that fueled his cinephilia. It looks just as sharp in high-def as the color version on Disc One does.

Other supplemental features are spread out across both discs.

On Disc One, the film is accompanied by a new commentary track by Bong and film critic Tony Rayns.

The rest of the features on Disc One consist of interviews with crew members: Bong Joon-ho (36 min.) in conversation with critic/translator Darcy Paquet, cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (21 min.), production designer Lee Ha-jun (22 min.), and editor Yang Jin-mo (15 min.) The interviews touch on a range of technical subjects, but the picture that emerges of Bong is of a director who plans everything ahead of time and usually shoots very closely to his storyboards. The disc also includes two Theatrical Trailers (4 min. total).

In addition to the B&W cut of the film, Disc Two includes a conversation between Bong and director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”, etc.) They talk about the emergence of New Korean Cinema, the film movement they played a major role in. They discuss the gradual thawing of South Korean censorship beginning around the early-1990s, which made many more films available to eager young movie lovers like themselves. VHS and DVD also allowed these budding filmmakers to watch scenes over and over to study them for their own work.

We also get a press conference (28 min.) from the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where “Parasite” won the Palme d'Or. This is a panel discussion with Bong and his cast members.

Criterion has also included a “Lumiere Master Class” (82 min.) in which Bong is on stage in an event hosted by French director Bertrand Tavernier, who is a very, very big fan of Bong. For any audience members who have been shamed for asking silly questions at post-screening events, please note that the legendary Tavernier begins by, basically, asking Bong where he gets his ideas from.

Disc Two closes out with a Trailer (1 min.) and a “Storyboard Comparison” (6 min.) which, as you can probably guess, provides split-screen comparisons of the original storyboards to the final scenes from the movie.

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Inkoo Kang.

Final Thoughts:

Did “Parasite” really win the Oscar this year? This decade-long year? That's not possible.

With a black-and-white version of the film plus a ton of extras, “Parasite” fans can't ask for much more than Criterion has provided with this two-disc set.