Cinema has long proposed there is nothing more frightening than an enormous old house, but what of its wealthy owners? Jordan Peele’s Get Out found brilliant disturbance in white liberal sanctimony, and two new films aim make thoroughly modern boogiemen of the wealthy and benevolent. Rian Johnson’s ensemble murder-mystery Knives Out — a US studio Thanksgiving mid-budget release — and Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite — a Korean Palmes d’Or winner — differ greatly in form and intent, but both prioritise the demonetisation of the cluelessly privileged above their generic conventions, and are thus two of the wittiest and most prescient films of the year, as well as unlikely statements against the reemergence of extraordinary class prejudice in global politics.
Knives Out has been sold as a Daniel Craig/Chris Evans vehicle but in reality it’s quite assertively an Ana de Armas picture. The Cuban Blade Runner 2049 actress plays a young immigrant woman working as live-in nurse for wealthy old crime novelist Christopher Plummer. When he is suddenly killed, she is caught up in the murder investigation and a web of family fighting in which she is both a central figure and a peripheral, foreign intruder.
Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson are among the Red Staters accusing her of leeching money off of Plummer’s character, Jaeden Martell plays an alt-right teenage troll constantly muttering about snowflakes, and perhaps the single most sinister character is Katherine Langford as a seemingly-positive college girl, the first member of the family to constantly reassure de Armas that she is treasured as “one of them”. Ultimately, Langford’s true colours are shown: vapid, Instagram-friendly white liberalism that’s capped off with her demanding money from de Armas. This is a character I’m oh so familiar with.
De Armas is fabulous casting: she absolutely charges Craig and Evans off the screen with sharpness and warmth. Craig isn’t on standby, though, he’s doing a bizarre Hercule Frank Underwood performance that could potentially establish him as the Kevin Spacey replacement the world needs, should he choose that path after No Time To Die (also starring, it should be said, Ana de Armas).
Parasite looks from afar to be precisely the opposite type of film: for western audiences it is a vacuum of star credentials, it has a bumper running time and almost no commercial elements to its premise. Yet it’s one of the most narratively accessible foreign language features in recent memory, hitting loosely similar tonal beats to both Knives Out and those aforementioned Jordan Peele movies while constructing a pride in poverty that’s as moving as it is morbidly shocking. A poor Korean family are all seeking better work as they build cardboard pizza boxes in their basement; an opportunity arises to home-tutor a wealthy child and a chain of hirings begins that results in every member of the family infiltrating their rich counterparts’ stunning glass demesne. After a number of twists, things get grisly.
Parasite does (suitably, given the plot) outstay its welcome a little: there’s a sentimental coda that pushes the theme of working class aspiration a little unsubtly into the audiences laps. Yet it’s an unforgettable sensory experience: loud and fast and intensely contemporary in ways you couldn’t begin to imagine. This is the most 2019 film conceivable, and it came to us from halfway across the world.
As audiences still put their stock into work like The Crown and the Downton Abbey film, which idolise the aristocracy no questions asked, it’s assuring to see two films with such a distinctly trickle-up perspective on global economic structures succeed critically and commercially (Parasite has been one of the biggest homegrown hits ever in Korea) — in addition, it’s fair to admit Joker also had an element of class politics, although that’s certainly not the reason for that film’s success, it being based on existing comic-book IP. Support original films, support films that demonise the wealthy, and maybe the wealthy people who run Hollywood studios will treat us to more of these. After all, the paying cinema-goer is the real Parasite.