Outside of the Chicago International Film Festival, the hottest movie ticket in town this week is likely Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which is now playing at River East, the Arclight, and the Landmark Century. I consider Parasite to be Bong’s best film since Memories of Murder (2003); the South Korean writer-director mixes comedy, suspense, and social commentary so successfully that the combination comes to seem irreducible. Clearly I’m not alone in my admiration for the film—it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and it’s been selling out screens across the country since it opened in the U.S. a couple weeks ago—though I don’t love it to the extent that some of my peers do. Bong is not a subtle social commentator; he lays all his ideas about class conflict right on the surface of the film, where you can’t miss them. At its worst, the filmmaker’s directness can suggest an inability to trust his audience to figure things out for themselves.
On the other hand, whoever said that satire needed to be subtle? The unmistakable anger of Parasite is often invigorating, as Bong takes dead aim at the wealth inequality that comprises one of the major problems in the world right now. Moreover, Bong preempts any sense of breast-beating with a good dose of humor—Parasite recognizes the absurdity of our skewed economic situation and generates laughs from characters who recognize it as well. Bong’s fable about a poor family preying on a rich one is often quite funny, as the antiheroes employ their understanding of society to scam it for all it’s worth. In using comedy to address issues of class relations, Bong joins a grand tradition of filmmakers who knew how to ameliorate their social analysis with jokes. This week’s Movie Tuesday collects five capsule reviews from the Reader archives that spotlight some of those filmmakers.
Boudu Saved From Drowning Jean Renoir’s effortless 1932 masterpiece is as informal, beguiling, and subversive as its eponymous hero, a tramp who is saved from suicide by a Parisian bookseller and ends up taking over his benefactor’s home, wife, and mistress. Michel Simon’s Boudu is one of the great creations of the cinema: he’s not a sentimental, Chaplinesque vagabond, but a smelly, loutish big-city bum; all he’s got going for him is his unshakable faith in his perfect personal freedom. The bookseller thinks of himself as a free spirit and a dedicated humanitarian; he wants to be both Boudu’s brother and his benefactor, but the tramp resists all of his approaches. He won’t be trapped in any roles; like the water of the river from which he comes (and to which he returns), his only duty is to keep moving. Shot largely on location along the quays of Paris, the film features several early experiments with deep focus and nonnaturalistic sound, though its chief stylistic feature is Renoir’s incomparable way of gently shifting moods, from the farcical to the lyrical to the tragic and back again. —Dave Kehr
Trouble in Paradise It’s possible to prefer other Ernst Lubitsch films for their more serene stylings and more plangent emotions, but this 1932 production is probably the most perfectly representative of his works—the most Lubitschian Lubitsch. Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins are a pair of professional thieves who fall in love while plundering the Riviera, but when Marshall falls under the spell of the wealthy Parisienne he intends to fleece (Kay Francis), their perfect relationship falters. The bons mots fly and an elegant immorality abounds, while beneath the surface the most serious kinds of emotional transactions are being made. With Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles, and C. Aubrey Smith; the screenplay is by Samson Raphaelson and Grover Jones. —Dave Kehr
Viridiana Luis Buñuel returned to his native Spain to create this 1961 masterpiece, which marked his rebirth as a filmmaker of international repute. Mexican star Silvia Pinal plays the title character, a girl about to enter a convent whose confident plans for sainthood are interrupted by her uncle’s (false) announcement that he has raped her in her sleep. She forges ahead anyway, filling her uncle’s estate with beggars and madmen in an obsessive demonstration of Christian charity. Franco’s government, which financed the film, later attempted to suppress it, burning all the prints that remained in Spain. Luckily, a few had already been sent to France, and the rest—Buñuel’s brilliant late period—is history. With Fernando Rey and Francisco Rabal. —Dave Kehr
O Lucky Man! The gradations of sham and corruption and the quirky contours of modern society, as revealed in the epic wanderings of Lindsay Anderson’s modern Candide/Everyman (Malcolm McDowell). Mick Travers (now Travis), the vicious public school of If . . . behind him, learns the bitter lesson of how to play the game for all it may (or may not) be worth in this valiant, comic, yet quietly sad three-hour journey to a kind of wisdom. Fuzzy in its particulars, the film makes up for it with standout performances from Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts, and Arthur Lowe (1973). —Don Druker
Eijanaika This 1981 nihilist epic by Shohei Imamura is witty, grotesque, relentless, and beautifully engineered. The setting is the Edo era, when local warlords battle the emperor for control of the country, and all of Japan is under cultural pressure from its long delayed opening to the West. Political loyalties and personal loves disintegrate; the only certainty is money, and even that is crumbling. Imamura follows eight major characters through a bright, bursting, impossibly dynamic mise en scene, leading up to the Eijanaika (“What the hell?”) riots—a frightening, exhilarating explosion of empty freedom, the freedom of those who have lost everything. A very important film, and possibly a great one. Alternate title: Why Not? —Dave Kehr v