In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Karen Han, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here. Read the previous dispatch in the series here.
Dear Dana, Bilge, and Alison,
Second, after this discussion on singular stars, I feel it’s only right to talk a little bit about ensembles. Specifically, Parasite’s ensemble.
Parasite. Parasite, Parasite, Parasite. If I would fight for Gilliam, then I would die (or kill) for Bong Joon-ho. The first time I saw the film, I had to sit on the sidewalk outside the theater in order to collect myself, while simultaneously feeling like I could run 500 miles, and then 500 more. As I’ve tried to parse that feeling more coherently during awards season for the sake of figuring out where to throw my (nonexistent) awards votes, it’s become clear to me that there’s no real “lead” actor or actress in the movie.
As much as I’d love to see Song Kang-ho win an Oscar for Best Actor, Kim Ki-taek isn’t Parasite’s main character. Indeed, singling any performance out above the others does the whole a disservice. Director Bong is known for writing and storyboarding his movies meticulously—like the Coen brothers, or even Mozart, he seems to see the entire piece of art in his head before actually creating any of it—and it feels as though he casts them in much the same way. Every single part is crucial. (Broadly speaking, yes, it’s true of any movie that a weak performance from one actor can wreck the whole venture, but, as we’ve discussed already with Brad Pitt and Scarlett Johansson, sometimes it’s a single great performance that makes a movie, too.)
Part of the brilliance of Parasite is that the two families at its center, the Kims and the Parks, mirror each other. Each is composed of a father, mother, son, and daughter, and each could easily serve as the movie’s protagonists. But director Bong chooses to follow the Kims, who live in a sub-basement apartment and fold pizza boxes part time to try to make ends meet. It’s by chance—Ki-woo is offered the opportunity to tutor the Parks’ daughter in English—that their paths cross, and by the awful nature of capitalism that their lives implode. The system corrupts and destroys us all.
Much has been made of Song’s performance as the Kim patriarch, as well as that of Park So-dam as Ki-taek’s bright daughter, but I think the characters that I thought most about were the older women: Chang Hyae-jin as Chung-sook, Ki-taek’s wife, a former Olympic-caliber hammer thrower, and Lee Jung-eun as Gook Moon-gwang, the Parks’ housekeeper. They’re the kinds of parts that are stereotypically considered secondary. (Indeed, both actresses’ previous credits are mostly variations on “middle-aged woman” and “[character]’s wife.”) But these women are perhaps the most affecting characters in Parasite for being the most aware of exactly what’s going on.
As the Kims worm their way into the Park household by taking jobs—Ki-jeong becomes their youngest child’s art teacher, Ki-taek becomes their driver, and Chung-sook takes Moon-gwang’s place—they only briefly wonder at what the people whose jobs they’ve taken must be doing now. The ghost finally comes to call when Moon-gwang returns to the house, revealing that unbeknownst to all she’d hidden her husband away in the bunker under the house. Ki-taek is baffled by what’s going on; only Chung-sook and Moon-gwang seem to already understand how awful their circumstances are, Moon-gwang because she’s an early victim and Chung-sook because she simply knows better—she still drinks cheap beer even as her family celebrates their improved fortunes by partaking in nicer alcohol.
They also go the most feral in trying to protect their respective loved ones, asserting themselves in ways that are generally reserved for male antiheroes. They’re more compelling because they, unlike the Walter Whites of the world, derive no real pleasure from it. They’re simply struggling to survive. Focus on their eyes in the final act of the film. Both Chang and Lee have incredibly expressive faces, but never more so than when their expressions convey one thing and their gazes convey another, which is what they’re forced to do in order to keep up a charade for the Parks—and for each other.
And, yet, for all that their performances stand out, they’re not leads. They’re parts of a peerless whole. Which brings me to two other ensembles, composed almost entirely of women: Little Women and Hustlers. Like Parasite, neither film has a concrete lead. Little Women is remarkable in this regard given the way that the March sisters tend to jockey for popularity, with Jo being the time-honored favorite and Amy being turned into something of a villain. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation makes a case for Amy’s petulance and perceived selfishness, as well as bringing Meg and Beth a little further into the light. It’s Little Women, after all, not Little Woman. I actually came out of Gerwig’s adaptation feeling more annoyance at Jo, which I’m told by my Alcott-head friends is a bit of a subversion of expectations. (Anyway, I’m sorry, Little Woman is a bad joke.) Hustlers has more clearly defined leads, as Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez dominate the screen as Destiny and Ramona, but separating the two of them into lead and supporting feels like a disservice. The climactic moment between them would have no impact if we weren’t as invested in Ramona as we were in Destiny.
That said, the one thing that I keep finding myself stuck on when it comes to Little Women is that, though Gerwig’s adaptation is mostly successful in bringing a story from the 1800s into 2019, it flubs it when it comes to trying to address the story’s Civil War setting. Which brings me to another thought—there are certain movies I don’t care for but can’t dismiss for the sake of a single, striking scene, and certain movies I love but can’t totally commit to because of a single misstep. I’m curious if any of you, but particularly Alison, have had any experiences like that this year?
Read the next dispatch here.