Updated: May 23, 2020
A first frame of a film to me is a bit like a first impression of a person—so fleeting and yet so fixed: there’s either an instant affinity or there’s more of a slight resistance where one consciously senses their emotional boundaries. There is an 'elective affinity’ (to reference Goethe) governing one’s cinematic choices that either attracts or repels. As an audience member witnessing the first frame of Shoplifters I relaxed into my seat secure in the stewardship of a master auteur. However, I was quite disconcerted by Parasite—I felt the alertness one feels being a passenger in a car when one doesn’t quite trust the driver. I was outside of the film, I could not meld into it—it never made a spectator out of me.
It’s possible that Shoplifters ruined Parasite for me, or simply rendered the film irrelevant in my own cinematic universe. Shoplifters, by Hirokazu Kore-eda was released in 2018 to critical acclaim, winning the coveted Palme d’Or prize in Cannes and was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award. But it was Boon Joon-ho’s 2019 film Parasite that was the first foreign film to ever win a Best Picture Academy Award in 2020, and not just that, it was a film that everyone seemed to be talking about, and while they all enthused about it I myself still can not fathom what all the fuss is about.
I saw both films in a good old-fashioned cinema house, and I can imagine that Parasite might play better on a device than Shoplifters. Parasite is blunt and heavy-handed—it doesn’t need the grandiosity of the cinema, while Shoplifter’s delicacy is elevated and enhanced by the wider screen and surround sound. I also saw Shoplifters first, so mentally the thought that banged around my mind while watching Parasite was: ‘this is just a shoddy rip-off of Shoplifters,’ and ‘I’d much prefer re-watching Shoplifters than being subjected to this slick, violent rendition.’
A Critique of Parasite
I’ll go through the four reasons I found the film Parasite to be a cinematically repellant. First of all, I could “smell the paper” meaning I saw the script more than the film. Now, this might be something that only cinephiles or people who actively work in cinema will be able to articulate but even movie-goers will know the feeling when a film doesn’t ring true, and feels too constructed. Yes, all films are a construction, but in the same way we meet a person and are able to detect a high or low level of sincerity in the individual, we can also encounter cinema and determine the level of honesty in the script. (Later in the article, I will come back to this concept as a metaphor positing the existence of organic cinema as that which is sincere and emotionally honest). I was so conscious of the script while watching Parasite that I was essentially unable to watch the film as a spectator.
Despite my first impression, I kept my mind open and gave the film a chance but at the scene where the housekeeper returns banging on the front door in the rain, I really rolled my head back and that was the end of the film for me. I was completely out from that point. Which brings me back to the second problem with the film. It was for me such a glaringly obvious deus ex machina that from that point on in order to entertain myself, I was imagining the director and the scriptwriter working on the script.
Deus ex machina is Latin for “god from the machine” and is a plot device that usually appears at the end of a story to resolve an unsolvable plot problem—it just wraps up all the story lines usually into a happy end where no resolution seemed visible before. Actually, first I imagined them watching “Shoplifters” and being like—let’s use this idea but take it to the limit (but films take a while to plan and create, let’s say on average three years, so given they came out within a year, the ‘family of criminals’ theme is probably just a coincidence, or cultural zeitgeist). Okay, so I’ve already been imagining the director and scriptwriter coming up with the story (instead of actually watching the film) and now, when the woman bangs on the door, I’m imagining they had shifted all the characters into their positions within the house and were stuck in their script so they added this deus ex machina (I won’t explain it so as not to ruin the film for the people reading this who haven’t watched it). The only script revision needed was to go back and refashion the child’s art teacher as an art therapy teacher. The director and writer are so enthusiastic with their own brilliance, they heartily congratulate each other, and their first act script block mightily overcome they enthusiastically plot through the rest of the script gallantly. Parasite refashions the deus ex machina into plot device to create a problem for the film since they had a set-up for a story but not did not have an actual story worth setting up (in my imagination, of course).
The third problem I had with the film has to do with the line of the child. I just don’t find watching children being traumatized to be entertainment. The child was fearful, we find out why, then, instead of removing the cause of his fear in an ethical resolution of the story, we actually totally condemn and traumatize him for perhaps his entire life (if his character were real and to actually live on). Can anyone get over witnessing something like that as a child? Would you ever celebrate your own birthday ever again? These are the questions I was asking myself. I asked myself these questions because, unlike the director of the film, I actually sympathized with the child character, the only one to me who was an actual character worthy of my attention in the entire film. (On a side note, as a filmmaker, I am sensitive to the plight of child actors and the ethics of it. A colleague shared how he was making film about child abuse. The first question that comes to my mind is—what about the child you will cast to play the character being abused? How will you explain that role? What will the child think when they see the film in ten years, in twenty years?).
The fourth problem I had with the film was the reaction of the critics and audiences. Everybody raved about the film but rare the person who could actually articulate what they liked about it. Oh, but it’s about class! It’s a critique of inequality! Thusly will a critic or viewer defend their vapid adoration of an empty piece of commercial art. Is it really a critique of class? I would like to know what Karl Marx would think if the film. The “lower” class are slovenly, totally without ethics, and even smell bad. They are criminals in the worst sense of the word—they lie, they cheat, they steal, and worse. They’re not stealing to pay for a blind mother’s operation. They don’t want enough to live—they want to lay like gluttons in a mansion that only the elite can afford. They even seem to be not as attractive as the wealthy people, as if genetics itself is a magic wand of beauty granted only to the rich. The “upper” class are calm, elegant, well-mannered, trusting—we don’t know how they obtained their wealth but it must have been through honorable means, surely. Someone please tell me where the class critique is? A far cry from Eisenstein’s “associative montage” of a bourgeoise and a pig—here the pigs are the masses.
Finally, some artists avoid clichés; I tend to prefer the line that it’s okay to start with a cliche, just don’t end with one. Whatever you believe there are so many cliches in this film and they have no second or third level of meaning. Hiding under a table while the owners walk through—how many times have you seen that in a film? Take a TV episode of Alfred Hitchcock, known as the master of suspense. Now, what did all Hitchcock films have—terrible and frightening as they were—except a wicked deployment of humor. Another layer. An episode of Alfred Hitchcock presents shows a woman who kills her husband with a frozen roast. She then cooks it up and serves it to the police who investigate her—that’s adding another layer of nuance, in this case, a bit of dark humor. Parasite is what it is—it’s what you see. I don’t get much out of Parasite, and I wonder what it is that people do get other than the film moves along, innocent people get killed, and a child gets traumatized. Fun way to spend a Saturday!
Shoplifters as Organic Cinema
As an alternative offering, I recommend watching the film Shoplifters. Earlier, I posed the idea of being able to detect sincerity or insincerity in an individual. We all have different levels of intuition and a different relationship as to whether we rely on it or not. So, I will use a different metaphor to explain this concept—that of the “organic” as it relates to food. Ever notice how long the WW2 generation lived? Despite the horrors, they seemed to live well into their 90’s and even 100’s. The Baby Boomers aren’t faring as well, it seems. There could be a number of reasons for this, but we can all probably agree that there were more chemicals in food and the lived environment for the Baby Boomers and us than for the Greatest Generation.
Organic food (supposedly) has less chemicals and genetic modification than commercially produced food. If you’ve ever made the decision to eat more organic food you might notice it tastes better. The strawberry tastes a bit more like a strawberry that just look like a perfect strawberry. If you make a change to your diet to reduce sugar, for example, you find that you are more sensitive to sugar. What was mildly sweet to you before now is too sweet—the things you ate previously may stop tasting good to you, in fact, it might even stop being food to you. When I walk through a commercial grocery store now, I almost don’t feel that the boxes and plastic wrapped items stacked everywhere are really food at all. And I’ve gotten so adjusted that I can taste the chemicals in the ice cream I eat if it’s not organic—it tastes “off” to me, not completely bad but not good. You’ll only attain that level of sensitivity by eliminating the processed foods from your diet and those with added “natural flavors."
What if the same principle held true for what you consume visually? What if you took a commercial detox, a commercial cinematic detox, and you might end up having the same level of reaction to a film like Parasite as I do? It might just not “taste good” to you anymore. The majority of us are bustling around so much everyday doing things we don’t want to do and wearing ourselves out that when we return home, we need something quite over the top to register or keep our attention because we are so desensitized in our daily lives. But what if you used this slowed down pace during quarantine to detox your mind? What if you found instead of numbing out you could be more selective about what you let in, and perhaps start to adjust your tastes? Perhaps a little less sugar would make you realize that what you were eating wasn’t really food. You might find out that it actually wasn’t nourishing you, in this case, not your body, but your spirit.
I offer the film Shoplifters as an “organic” film, a nourishing film, a genuine film, a sensitive film, an emotionally honest film. After watching this film you may explore how you define love and caring in a family, you might rethink what a family is really, and ask who are the real criminals? You will empathize with people doing wrong things, but you will understand why in a society sometimes people deform or compromise themselves in some way to say true. At the end of this film, you will expand your awareness about types of characters you don’t know, whose real life counterparts you may never encounter. And you will be a better person for it.
(View my video intro here).