'Parasite' and 'Shoplifters': Two years, two Palmes and two families

Aidil Rusli
Aidil Rusli

AUGUST 17 ― When it comes to the Cannes Film Festival, I usually don't pay too much attention to the eventual Palme d'Or winners every year, because like the Oscars, consensus decisions usually mean some compromise has been made when it comes to choosing the winner of the big prize, which usually means that the safe choice, more often than not, will turn out the winner.

As a matter of personal taste, I've always made it a point to keep an eye on the films and winners from the smaller sidebars like the Directors' Fortnight, the International Critics' Week, the increasingly more relevant ACID or the smaller prizes for the Official Selection like the Grand Prize, Jury Prize, Un Certain Regard Prize and the Camera d'Or, because artistic risks, formal or otherwise, are more likely to be rewarded here.

Case in point, just look at past winners of the Un Certain Regard Prize like Blissfully Yours, The Death of Mr Lazarescu and Border, which are most certainly too weird for the main Competition, let alone win the Palme d'Or.

But something a bit special happened when South Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho's latest film Parasite won the Palme d'Or this year, after Japan's Shoplifters took home the award last year, making it the first time ever in the history of the festival that Asian films have won the big prize back to back.

What this means in the Cannes festivals of the future, we'll only ever know on hindsight, but try viewing the two films back to back and you'll find some striking similarities between them, even if they're films from completely different genres.

Parasite

Exactly 10 years after his film Mother, with the period in between filled with international co-productions like Snowpiercer and Okja, Bong is back home exploring familiar territory and themes with Parasite, but executing it in a way that's quite different from his previous films.

Like The Host (which also stars his regular leading man Song Kang Ho), Parasite is centred around a lower class family, and also has a former national athlete in its rank, but this family's financial situation is much worse than that f the family in The Host, and their likability factor is less as this bunch of sadly unemployed (but sharp and smart) losers are more or less con artists, creatively finding ways to steal wi-fi and doing whatever's necessary to stay afloat.

Fortune strikes when the son fortuitously stumbles upon a job tutoring a rich girl from the Park family; slowly the Kims insert themselves into the lives of the rich Parks and a wicked satire about the class divide in South Korea commences, probably to the delight of anyone watching, as proven by its blockbuster status not only on its home turf South Korea (where it raked in US$71 million or RM297 million) but also in France (US$8.6 million) and even Vietnam (US$2.9 million).

That probably helped it find its way to Malaysian cinemas this week, and it's even getting a pretty wide release all across Malaysia... at least when you're comparing it to other foreign language and award winning titles.

There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot, so I shall keep that a secret. Once you've seen this, I'm sure you'll be able to spot the reasons why this won the Palme, and deservedly so if you read reports from respected film critics.

Most apparent is Bong's delight at visually contrasting the very different homes of the Kims and the Parks, with the widescreen frame making the Kims' small basement home look really cramped, and the Parks' spacious modern home look really big, thanks to the art direction and framing.

Then there's his delight at subverting audience expectations, shifting our sympathies from one clan to the next, alongside shifting the genres that the movie's playing with at various turns in the movie.

What began as a wicked and satiric comedy increasingly becomes darker and more desperate as the movie progresses, but all these tonal shifts never once feel out of place because the way the characters and the story are set up made it all feel like a natural progression.

Clearly one of Bong's best movies, alongside The Host and Memories Of Murder, this is one Palme d'Or winner that anyone out there can, and will, enjoy.

Shoplifters

If Parasite felt like a fully deserving Palme d'Or winner, with almost no complaints coming from the respected film critics camp, the win by Shoplifters at last year's Cannes felt a bit like a safe choice.

Not that I have anything against the great filmmaking talents of director Kore-eda Hirokazu, whose career I've been following very closely ever since he first broke into the scene with Maborosi in 1995 (ahhh, the days of VHS), which he followed up with the achingly beautiful After Life, before finding his groove as an heir to both Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse with his family films like Still Walking, Like Father Like Son, Our Little Sister and After The Storm.

Shoplifters again explores family dynamics, much like he did in Like Father Like Son, but again he's exploring a slightly different angle, wherein the family of shoplifters here are actually not related by blood at all.

It's a rag tag crew of a grandmother, a husband and wife, an adult sister, and two little children, but all of them choose to be with each other as a family, for their own reasons, and none of them are related by blood.

And just like the Kims in Parasite, the family here is also in financial dire straits, working menial jobs and shoplifting to get by, but clearly united by their love for each other.

One of the little children is a new addition to the family, a little girl who was locked out of her home and looked to be very hungry, so the father and son brought her home for dinner, but she ended up staying.

This being a Kore-eda movie, even a family of small time crooks will have their humanity and dignity intact, and this tension between what the law deems right and what sometimes necessitates survival is like a solo instrument that he keeps on playing to toy with the audience's emotions.

This is one of the most touching and thought provoking films you'll see, despite its very simple premise.

It's probably this rich emotional grey area that made the Cannes jury fall for it, even if the film verbally mentions its thesis a few too many times for my liking, which is to disprove the old saying that “You can't choose your family.”

It's a gentle and lovely film about defiance, and it's one you definitely should seek out.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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