A Film of Immediate Pleasures: Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ Wins the Palme d’Or at Cannes

The Korean director’s win marks a return to the expected, after years of films with mixed critical and populist support taking the top prize

At last, something unexpected: the expected. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the top prize of the Palme d’Or went to Bong Joon-ho for his superlative thriller Parasite (2019), breaking with tradition in several respects. For one, the genre master’s big win marks the very first Palme victory for a Korean director, a pretty gobsmacking statistic to come from a cinema hub regularly hosting such esteemed auteurs as Park Chan-wook (robbed for The Handmaiden in 2016), Lee Chang-dong (snubbed for Burning just last year) and Hong Sang-soo (take your pick; the guy never stops working, with two films in the 2017 selection alone).

More surprising, though, was the marked lack of surprise. The last five-or-so years have established a pattern of unpredictability, as films with mixed notices from the attending critical press and minimal populist support have snuck away with the gold. Last year’s Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, was well-liked enough, but generally viewed as an underdog, while the odds-on favourites – Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War were relegated to minor prizes. The middle of this decade has been filled with more straightforward upsets, films already forgotten by many of those in the house for their press screenings. Ken Loach’s rather milquetoast I, Daniel Blake from 2016 edged out such causes célèbre as German comedy Toni Erdmann, directed by Maren Ade, and Paul Verhoeven’s daring psychodrama Elle. The year prior, Jacques Audiard’s widely-knocked Dheepan won out over Todd Haynes’ heartrending lesbian romance Carol and Yorgos Lanthimos’ deadpan parable The Lobster, both of which went on to be nominated for Oscars.

Bong Joon-ho, Parasite, 2019, film still. Courtesy: CJ Entertainment

Parasite’s path to the top has been clear and arrow-straight from the earliest raves, however. Viewers in Cannes’s Debussy theatre responded vocally to the off-kilter thriller-comedy about a family of scammers gradually worming their way into an upper-crust household. The son infiltrates first as a tutor, then gaslights his new employers into putting his sister, mother, and father on the payroll, until they’re basically running the place. It’s a great bit, until the halfway mark hits and the film does a complete one-eighty into an entirely new register of lunacy, bowling over the crowd.

Parasite’s coming out on top feels like a return to normality, or at least comprehensibility. In addition to the most handsomely-rewarded, Bong’s film also happens to be among the best in this slate. Every year, Screen Daily assembles an international lineup of heavy-hitter critics on a grid compiling an aggregate score for each film in the competition, and Parasite waltzed away with the top spot at a 3.5/4. Beyond the highest echelon of the press, the enthusiasm only got stronger; a fandom referring to itself as the ‘#Bong Hive’ instantly materialized on Twitter following the first press screening, with breathless cheerleading the likes of which usually accompany the latest Avengers release. Meanwhile Guillermo del Toro has emerged as a vocal stumper for the film.

Bong Joon-ho, Parasite, 2019, film still. Courtesy: CJ Entertainment

Bong Joon-ho, Parasite, 2019, film still. Courtesy: CJ Entertainment

While there’s always a temptation to read into the Cannes jury members’ choices, extrapolating who might have argued in favour of what, this pick and its accompanying reception may say more about us commoners than the glitterati handing out the trophy. (Plus, attempting to gain any insight into the mental interiors of sitting jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu is a fool’s errand ending only in bafflement.) Iñárritu stated in his speech that the choice came unanimously, and in that moment, it sounded like he was referring to us, too. Parasite is a film of gratuitous and immediate pleasures, a true crowd-pleaser, the kind of raw force that earned roars of approval from a hard-to-impress group of global journalists. Its success makes sense, and the according cheers reflect a collective desire for the festival to make sense again.

It’s vital to understand that prognosticating for Cannes does not work the same way as prognosticating for, say, the Academy Awards. Instead of months upon months of soothsaying and analysis from every conceivable angle, we get two weeks to ponder almost entirely in the dark, as Cannes jurors keep their opinions to themselves until decision-making time. Everyone likes to make their predictions, but nobody really has any idea what will happen when the microphone goes live in the Lumiere theatre. All of which made the big moment such a cathartic rush. Cannes attendees have been recently trained to hope for the best but expect the whatever, and feeling joined in purpose with the folks at the top provided a perfect capper to an unusually strong festival. Cannes isn’t about giving the people what they want, that’s counterintuitive to the festival’s mission of challenging and occasionally shocking the audiences taking in their films. All the more precious, then, when we all end up wanting the same thing.

Main image: Bong Joon-ho, Parasite, 2019, film still. Courtesy: CJ Entertainment

Charles Bramesco is a film and television critic based in New York. He regularly contributes to The Guardian and Vulture. He tweets: @intothecrevasse

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2019
Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

frieze magazine

May 2019

frieze magazine

June - July - August 2019