2Any movie series that includes Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has already exceeded expectations—so I’m going to declare the 57th New York Film Festival a success even while I’m still catching the screenings. I’ll have more to say about the selections after the festival has wrapped on October 13. For now, here’s a hint—infinitely modest—of what you can expect of Parasite at the NYFF, or soon after when it’s released in theaters.
Watch out for the way Bong opens the movie, like a devilish chess master pretending to play along conventional lines. Here, crammed into a semi-basement apartment in Seoul, is a comic family much like others you’ve seen—gruff father, blunt mother, hip and attractive adult daughter and son—all scuffling to stay fed. Here, too, is the sort of scheme you’ve often followed, in which sympathetic rogues lie and cheat their way into the graces of the rich. The son sees an opportunity to gain employment in the home of a wealthy family; the others soon follow, deploying ruse after ruse, until you flatter yourself into thinking you’ve understood the position and are a little ahead of Bong.
Sucker. He’s planted traps all over the board. He’s thought up complications that will squeeze you until you squeal. As soon as the middle game starts, you realize you’re helpless before his onslaught, and happily so—even though happiness is exactly what this exquisitely devious movie will deny its characters. Call Parasite a satire of high and low, if you like—it’s certainly concerned with hierarchies of class and their embodiment in the architecture and geography of Seoul—but don’t imagine you’ll escape untouched. That’s the real story of Parasite, in two words: Nobody escapes.
Not that the Parks’ tastefully magnificent home looks like any kind of dead end when Ki-woo Kim (Choi Woo-sik) shows up to claim a tutoring job under slightly false pretenses. An immaculately detailed International Style box set behind a substantial wall and a glistening lawn, the house is all free-flowing, open-plan space and floor-to-ceiling windows: perfect as a showplace for the Parks’ immaculate lives and Bong’s ingeniously unfolding choreography. By the time you reach this ostensible Eden, you’ve already seen a more likely site of confinement: the bug-infested coffin of hopes where the Kim family abides in the narrow, crowded streets far below. There, the windows are no more than a grimy band set at pavement level, admitting the stench left by drunks who use this cul-de-sac as an open-air pissoir.
No wonder Ki-woo wants to get into the sunlight and a cushy gig with the Parks, alternately educating their teenage daughter and flirting with her. No wonder his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) bluffs her own way into the luxury of a job with the Parks, as an art therapist for their 9-year-old son. (Ki-jung knows all about art therapy; she Googled it.) So it goes, through one underhanded trick after another—until one dark and stormy night, when the Parks have left on a camping trip and the Kims think they’re alone in paradise.
As Ki-woo likes to say whenever he comes upon a striking turn of events, “It’s so metaphorical!” What happens next in Parasite is metaphorical, all right. It’s also metonymic, symbolic, allegorical, and terrifyingly out of control—for the Kims, I mean, but not for Bong, who puts his scam-artist family through a breakneck sequence that gives you great filmmaking not by the moment or minute but the solid half-hour. It starts with the unexpected ringing of a doorbell, proceeds through alternating episodes of Grand Guignol cruelty and dirty-minded farce—imagine a treacherous staircase, a noxious peach, some not-so-private sex, and a teepee, not to mention a mock North Korean newscast—and concludes, much later and far below the Parks’ home, in an unstoppable deluge of filth.
Bong is by now an acknowledged master of continuous action. Think of the emergence of the monster from the Han River in The Host, the onward-driving battles through the train in Snowpiercer, the shopping-mall rampage of the giant pet pig in Okja. But he’s never before created a sequence that’s so uncanny and yet so grounded in the mundane. The contrast between high and low expands to become outsized and dizzying, but the social vertigo it represents is already built into the hillside topography of Seoul. The horrific deluge has been present in potential since the first shot of a drunk peeing on the street; the Tales From the Crypt motif is already implicit in the Kims’ dismally ordinary below-grade apartment. The visual correlate of this merger of fact and fantasy glows in Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography, which dwells obsessively on the surface of every material: stone, wood, glass, concrete. The images make even the shafts of light in the Parks’ house seem tangible—and therefore bursting with a promise or threat beyond themselves.
You might say something similar about the dialogue, which remains plausible even while rising toward hyperbole, like the speech in comic books borne aloft in balloons. When the Kim family’s patriarch, played by Bong’s wonderfully rumpled signature actor Song Kang-ho, speaks about the wealthy, he does so as poor people may do at times, with a terrible forbearance that helps him live with himself. Mrs. Park, he comments, is rich, but she’s nice. To which his wife (Jang Hye-jin) snaps back that Mrs. Park is nice because she’s rich. Money’s like an iron, she says: It takes out the creases. The son finds himself similarly at odds with his sister when he pauses in the midst of catastrophe to wonder what his affluent, college-educated friend Min would do in this situation. It’s a reasonable question—to which the sister shouts, “Min wouldn’t be in this situation!”
That’s about three-quarters of the way through the dark and stormy night, with worse still to follow. But as morning comes, bringing sunshine that now seems jeeringly bright, and the characters move into place for the climax, you begin to feel once more as if you can see what’s coming next. This time, you’re not mistaken. Parasite has gone into the end game; the final moves feel inevitable.
But even as the logic plays out, Bong pulls a twist out of the position, this time startling you, paradoxically, by using understated observation rather than satirical excess. Having dramatized the struggle of rich versus poor in wildly lurid terms, he brings the conflict to its dreadful conclusion with the simplest, smallest, most everyday gesture possible. One man sniffs disapprovingly at another.
And that’s mate.
Just because Brad Pitt plays a role doesn’t guarantee his character will be omnicompetent. Goofballs, flakes, screw-ups, and the occasional self-tortured demigod have also figured in his repertoire, to excellent effect. Still, Cate Blanchett may have summed up the prevailing attitude toward this perpetually underrated actor—underrated as in taken at face value—when she saw him in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and groaned, in exasperated surrender, “Oh, God. You’re perfect.”
In Ad Astra, James Gray plays with this image, and exploits it, by casting Pitt as astronaut Roy McBride, an action hero who never fails and for just that reason suffers in endless, lonely silence. Roy is a guy who can tumble off a needle-like International Space Antenna somewhere in the mesosphere and come to ground minutes later all but unharmed. (No spoiler alert; this is how the movie introduces him.) He can battle shrieking, ravenous beasts, outrun and outgun lunar pirates, wrestle an out-of-control spaceship into line, and when necessary prevail single-handed against multiple assailants who ought to know better than to mess with Brad Pitt. Still, it makes him deeply sad to kick ass. Even the knowledge that he’s rescued an entire crew from incineration doesn’t lift his mood but leaves him gazing to the side in sorrow and a prettily arranged raking light, giving Gray plenty of time to capture the pain in middle-aged eyes that have gone beyond crinkly to wrinkled.
How is it that Brad the Unconquerable (or, if you prefer, Roy McBride) performs his duties so impeccably—including their distasteful public aspect of strutting around as an alpha astronaut—while feeling shriveled inside and cut off from humanity? Why are his only heart-to-heart conversations the automated psych evaluations that Space Command makes him undergo, in which he blandly lies to the computer and is told, once again, that he’s good to go?
The answer may have to do with the burdens of living up to the audience’s expectations of Brad Pitt. (Gray forces me to consider a movie-about-the-movies interpretation by constructing Ad Astra out of reminiscences of older, better films.) Or the solution may concern Roy McBride’s father (Tommy Lee Jones), an ideal who is doubly beyond reach: because he is by far the most legendary of astronauts, and because 16 years ago he capped a lifetime of neglecting Roy by disappearing on a mission somewhere around Neptune. The father is godlike, and like God he is absent.
He might also be threatening an apocalypse. Discharges of antimatter-driven energy have recently been pulsing toward Earth from Neptune—so we are solemnly informed, without the good-humored winks that accompany, say, discussions of the warp-inducing capability of dilithium crystals—and the effects are threatening Life As We Know It. The joyless son must accept orders to venture far into the cold vastness of space and attempt to contact an even colder father with whom he has no connection.
Assuming you go to see Ad Astra, I will leave it to you to decide whether Tommy Lee Jones is Ahab or the great white whale. It’s enough to say there’s a long, dangerous voyage, a struggle, and a confrontation with the infinite. And then comes something that Melville doesn’t float amid the shivers of the Pequod, but that Gray and his co-screenwriter Ethan Gross have been patiently, laboriously filtering into the movie all along: a moral. Two morals. Several morals. As presented in IMAX, Ad Astra may be the largest needlepoint sampler ever to hang on a wall.
Why, by the way, should IMAX be part of the package? Ad Astra has outer space vistas and other elements of spectacle—borrowed, as I’ve mentioned, from the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity, and even Soylent Green—but I’d estimate about a third of the images are close-ups of Our Brad of Sorrows. It’s fine that moviegoers pay to see that face, but why at such inflated prices and dimensions? Part of the reason, I suppose, is that Gray wants evidence of the actor’s age and apparent weariness to help carry the film’s meaning. But another part of the reason is that Gray has chosen to make Ad Astra as if it were an illustrated lecture. Pitt’s narration explains in voiceover what his character thinks and feels about everything, while the pictures, often reduced to an accompaniment, pass by in compensatory gigantism.
As a James Gray fan, I’m disappointed, not just in him but in the alarmingly enthusiastic reception this hot air balloon has received. A very smart writer-director who loves movie traditions, Gray has created astonishing, deeply felt, and above all intelligent revivals of 1920s melodrama (The Immigrant) and the jungle exploration epic (The Lost City of Z). In Ad Astra, unfortunately, he’s revived another tradition—not sci-fi adventure, but addressing the viewers as if they can’t keep up.
Speaking of long, perilous journeys and parental ties: Film Forum in New York has just given the US theatrical premiere of Hassan Fazili’s Midnight Traveler, the story of an Afghan family’s three-year, 3,500-mile trek toward provisional refuge in the European Union. Like Ad Astra, the film concentrates on relationships and emotional states as much as on outward action. Unlike Ad Astra, Midnight Traveler tells a story that actually happened and was recorded not on IMAX equipment but by the family members themselves, using mobile phones.
The family had this much of an advantage: Before setting out on the smugglers’ route, both Fazili and his wife Fatima Hussaini were already filmmakers. As intellectuals and artists open to tolerant currents in Islam, they also had a disadvantage: The Taliban had issued a death sentence against Fazili for establishing the Art Café in Kabul, which catered to both men and women. After being deported from Tajikistan, where the family had taken temporary shelter with friends, their thick slab of an asylum application having gone nowhere, Fazili and Hussaini decided they had no choice except to risk an illegal crossing by way of Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Serbia with their young daughters Nargis and Zahra in tow.
The story they recorded together—Nargis and Zahra shot video, too—is one of privation and dangers, but even more of the bonds of marriage and the resilience of youth. Some of the strongest moments are the most joyful: Nargis laughing at the way the Bosporus splashes her feet; Zahra frolicking in the snow at a Serbian refugee camp (which looks like a group of barracks but was by far the cleanest, safest, most supportive place the family stayed). Until the family is shut in a transit zone in Hungary—a real prison environment—there are also moments of beauty captured on the fly. And even there, Fazili has painfully lovely memories, shown in an impressionistic montage.
Emelie Mahdavian edited those montages and all the rest and wrote the film, having helped Fazili at long distance throughout the journey and consulted with him after the family reached Serbia. This highly selective collaboration makes Midnight Traveler a constructed documentary if not a quasi-fiction. Think of it as being just across the genre line from Michael Winterbottom’s extraordinary 2002 reenacted documentary of East-West migration, In This World. Contrasting methods, and more than a dozen years’ time difference—but both are essential films, about a story that needs to change and hasn’t.