The movies feel like cinema again

Every part of my body hurts

The whole of the winter film season felt like a soft and gently warm wave of enjoyment. Coming from someone who is not into Scorsese’s gangster pictures as much as things like AGE OF INNOCENCE and HUGO, THE IRISHMAN / I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES was so engrossing; I did not feel the length at all, and its style, from the rough eyeline matches in a baptism scene, and the cutting in one of Hoffa’s blowouts, had such verve and control. Then there was the brake lining of the wheels in FORD V FERRARI glowing orange while skidding into the night. And THE LIGHTHOUSE was a perfect midnight movie experience with high caliber technique included.

But two movies, PARASITE and PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE were just outstanding. Watching these two movies within months of each other was like getting two fully-charged defibrillator shots on a movie goer’s heart. Consider my love and desire to tell stories more than slightly rekindled. 

I was way too passionate about film in my teens; I couldn’t talk about much else. Nor did I truly understand the art in all its aspects, or at a depth that may require simply more time among human beings in society. I would see anything in the theater, I mean it. The multiplex on the car dealership avenue in the far suburbs of east Portland had a 5 dollar matinee; I remember some days called for a triple-header. Digital projectors were rolling out, and I wanted to savor the last days of 35mm exhibitions, with the big platters of film, the motor, the strobing shutter, the cue marks. These were all part of the charm.

The passion ebbed, and my interests narrowed into the ultra-minimalist tendency that began in the 70s, with filmmakers like Chantal Ackerman, James Benning, Bela Tarr, Pedro Costa, Lav Diaz, Apichatpong Weresethekul, and Tsai Ming Liang. These people often challenged the boundary between cinema and museum video art. Everything else was too commercial. 

Nevertheless, I have always loved Bong Joon Ho—especially what he manages to do with genres and tones—since I watched a DVD of THE HOST shortly before I went to see MOTHER in 2009. Never would I imagine that in a decade he would be holding two Oscar statues and making them kiss like Ken dolls. Even with as gaudy a meat parade as the Academy Awards, with a history as sordid and dishonorable as theirs, I felt so happy at the long overdue recognition and attention South Korea’s film industry is now getting from the mainstream. The reaction videos, from viewing parties to the news passing through Twitch streams, felt wholesome.

So. I loved every frame of PARASITE. The cinematography has the kind of range of color and grounded realism that I only associate with Korean live action, and the tracking and panning choreographed with the staging was a joy to behold. While viewing the monochrome version I noticed the interplay of background action (even the footfalls of extras are pretty loud in the mix) helping the foreground scene play out. I mean the guy smoking on screen left while Ki Woo starts his fast talk.

As he moves away, Ki Jung enters. The guy takes a seat, still looking in. He balances the pizza worker on the right.

The culmination of this scene is in one take, you learn how the Ki family does their work as you watch them crowd the shot, the camera slowly pushes in while the lady in the center tries to resist.

It’s simple. But the accumulation of meticulous details and choices made PARASITE into a supremely engineered genre movie. The editing, including a hidden cut on a swish pan and an invisible wipe to combine two takes, shows how the filmmakers were practically counting frames to make sure the timing and speed and flow of information secures Maximum Entertainment.

All of the performances are spectacular, especially Song Kang Ho and his facial expressions during the finale—which feels cathartic every time by the way.

The screenplay takes Bong’s playbacks to a new level. Chung Sook is introduced nudging her hubbie’s ass with her foot, an inconsiderate gesture that gets played again, and then a third time to disastrous results. Lines of dialog foreshadow and misdirect, and they flesh out characterization because Bong’s cast talk about their situations and their feelings about wealth and employment with such convincing realism.

The structure of the narrative is impeccable. What better way to enter an upstairs/downstairs thriller than with our con family searching for a wifi signal? The pacing accelerates toward the midpoint, with this skillfully handled montage with a great original score (baroque composition with a modern Alexandre Desplat type of arranging)—Ki Jung blowing the fuzz off a peach is so beautifully framed and shot, yet it does not feel superfluous because every moment of the film seems to be exuding this much enthusiasm.

And the humor—the pitchest of black humor coming through at the most inappropriate moments; this is classic Bong. What a joy to see this in a theater with a big crowd, so unified in its responsiveness. 


A romance by the sea? Too conventional? No! PORTRAIT has a narrative structure at least as immaculate as PARASITE, although they are also very different. PARASITE covers a week and change until the midpoint, then the plot goes through a very tense evening, night, and Sunday morning. PORTRAIT mimics the the ocean waves on the cliffs of Brittany, and has a diurnal rhythm. The romance takes its time to come to full flower, then leave only memories.

There are three women on an island (isolation, secrecy, Utopia) in a noble household with the parents missing. They are of different classes (an aristocrat, a petty bourgeois artisanal painter, and a servant girl), but they eat in the kitchen together, hang out, play cards, do drugs, help out in a crisis. Specifically, the servant girl Sophie wants to terminate a pregnancy, and Marianne and Heloise try their own methods, help gather herbal ingredients, and they stay by her. 

This subplot culminates so beautifully with the romance, in a scene involving Marianne painting a scene that Helouise and Sophie re-enact. They discuss Orpheus in the underworld. The movie meditates so well on its theme. Imagine that, a forbidden love plot that is neither tragic nor smarmy by the ending. It finishes on a note of gratitude for a cherished moment of passionate, individual sex-love, and even hope for the future. (There’s no music track in this movie! But music is important, and the sound mixing is extremely dense.) 

Engels in ORIGIN OF THE FAMILY identifies relations of sexual love as having appeared in modernity, and the late 18th century setting here is apt historically but the production also does not try to add period window dressing. The dialog feels current.

It hasn’t been lost on people that Marianne shares her name with the figure of lady liberty. We see her in profile quite a bit, sometimes with a light. (The final shot is also a profile, with an overwhelming performance, a reaction shot up there with the one in PARIS, TEXAS.)

The 8K digital cinematography, my God, the color saturation, the Rembrandt lighting…

Anyway, if I were a hack critic I would write that Celine Sciamma’s film is the 21st century PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. But I think I mean it.

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