★★★★★ - STUFF
Back in 1896, HG Wells wrote – in the serial novel The Time Machine – of a distant, future Earth in which humans had evolved into two, distinct species.
There were the small, effete and basically useless Eloi, who lived above the ground. And the brutish, cunning Morlocks, who lived in darkness, beneath the ground, emerging only at night to kidnap Eloi children to feed on.
Wells' unnamed narrator at first believes the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlock is one of master and servant. He later comes to realise the Morlock are essentially farming the oblivious Eloi.
It's a device that predated Wells' by centuries, but The Time Machine is still endlessly quoted and referenced whenever anyone is putting together a commentary on the relationship between the moneyed, investor class and the people whose labour supports them.
There's even a monologue on the exact subject, delivered by Gary Sinise to Mel Gibson, in the 1996 thriller Ransom, which is pretty much the only scene in that film I can clearly remember.
But it's been a long time since the Eloi/Morlock trope has been quite as savagely, darkly and hilariously dissected as it is in Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite.
Parasite is a portrait of two very different South Korean families. In the cramped and twisting streets of a city's old quarter, the Kims (mum, dad, one son, one daughter) live in a dank semi-basement. Looking for work, they make a tiny living by folding pizza boxes for a nearby store, dreaming of wild schemes to get back on their feet.
Across town, the Parks (ditto) occupy a massive concrete pile, set in a vast, walled garden. Huge, spacious rooms are flooded with light all day long.
The Kim's teenage son, tipped off by an old friend, talks his way into a job tutoring the Park's daughter in English. He soon finds work for his sister as an art teacher to the Park's young son. Mum and dad plot to follow their children, finding their own places inside Park's charmed existence.
As the Kims relax into their new environment and the Parks' obliviousness to the home-invasion around them starts to recede, Parasite makes a rapid move from social satire to violent farce, as we discover the Kims might not have been the first predators to have the Parks in their sights.
Like a Michael Haneke film, but with a sense of fun – or a Terry Gilliam effort, if Gilliam been born with an iron-clad self-discipline – Bong seduces us with slapstick and warm character comedy, only to pull back the curtain on real menace and malevolence. Then there's another bait-and-switch, to an ending that descends into murderous chaos, but which never seems tacked-on or gratuitous. Bong makes sheer dementedness seem not just credible, but probably inevitable.
I don't know enough to tell you for sure that there is also a satire of the relationship beneath North and South Korea at play here. But I'll assume there is – and it's pretty terrifying.
Parasite is a masterclass in writing and narrative control. That a film as funny, subversive and relevant as this can still win the Cannes Palme d'Ór makes me very happy indeed.
If I see a film I admire more this year, I will be amazed.
-GRAEME TUCKETT, STUFF