This review is part of a series of the best of the decade. You can read the other entries in the list by clicking this link. This review contains full spoilers for Parasite as well as minor spoilers for The Lighthouse and I recommend watching both before reading this.
When making a list of the films of the decade, it’s tempting to try and avoid recent picks, because recency bias is a very real trap. My two favourite films of 2019 so far are Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse and highlighting their differences provides a clear example of how recency bias works.
Let’s talk first about The Lighthouse. Eggers’ film is one that takes some sitting with – it’s certainly not immediately understandable what it’s going for, although the film still works brilliantly on a surface level. Looking only at the immediate story, and it’s a captivating one. Two lighthouse keepers arrive on a lighthouse island in the middle of the sea. One is an almost parodic figure of an old grizzled seaman who speaks in poetry and farts loudly during the night. Willem Dafoe plays him as if on stage, speaking forcefully and often incomprehensibly about the cruel mistress of the sea and his past life on deck. He would make the film almost unbearable were it not for Robert Pattinson’s turn as his no-nonsense assistant, a down on his luck chancer who turns Dafoe’s performance from the theatrical to the brilliantly comedic. A better double act is rare to find on screen.
The mutual dislike (as well as occasionalt outbursts of brotherly love) of the two wickies towards one another soon turns into a tale of growing cabin fever and semi-Lovecraftian horror involving Dafoe’s mysterious attraction to the light and Pattinson’s increasing hatred to his companion. Like Eggers’ previous film, The VVitch, its main draw is a thick and suffocating atmosphere that often makes it a tough watch but allows the film to play in your mind over and over – helped in great part by Jarin Blaschke’s brilliant black and white cinematography.
Most important for this discussion though, is that The Lighthouse’s other similarity to The VVitch is hinted at by looking at The VVitch’s poster, which calls the film “a New England folktale”. The Lighthouse, too, feels like a more modern folktale. Perhaps its bigger Lovecraft influence isn’t the sense of something otherworldly in the light, or the tentacle motif, but that it feels like a less than literal story being told by someone who’s heard tell of strange things that happened in that island off the coast.
There’s a lot of strange details and imagery in The Lighthouse that aren’t immediately obvious, but that, like the best folktales, may carry some hidden truths or metaphorical meanings to be discussed for ages to come. One could argue for years about the significance of certain elements of the film, or the interpretations of various scenes, and satisfyingly never come to a clear answer, because the film is built without one in mind. The great works of literature are not studied now because they all have one solution to make their meanings clear, but because they offer value beyond that – value in the discussion and the debate of the unclear, as well as value in the acceptance of the unknowability of the work. Perhaps Robert Eggers knows the truth behind The Lighthouse, but I doubt it – the joy comes in the mystery.
The problem with making a list so close to the time of watching a film like The Lighthouse is that it remains unclear for the time being how deeply the discussion can be delved into. It’s important to note that even if the waters of The Lighthouse discussion are shallow, the film still remains a worthy achievement, but its true brilliance is likely yet to be discovered.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, on the other hand, is a film which lays all its cards out on the table, for better or worse. There is very little debate to be had over the meaning of Parasite – even when the film dips its toes into the water of symbolism, that symbolism is clear and immediately understood. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the lower class family living in the basement is symbolic of class oppression, after all.
The interesting point here is whether you regard the obscurity of The Lighthouse as somehow objectively better than the somewhat ham-fisted bluntness of Parasite. Richard Brody of The New Yorker, whose work I admire and have linked to favourably on this blog in the past, had this to say on Parasite; “[Bong] has a very clear purpose, sees exactly what he’s doing, and does it with a directness that is itself deadening: his messaging is so on point, his rhetoric so rigid, that there’s hardly anything left untethered to allow the viewer imaginative freedom.”
To almost every extent and purpose, I completely agree with Brody. Parasite is not a film that leaves itself particularly open to discussion – even if I combine all the times I’ve seen the film with other people (three times as of writing) to the one time I watched The Lighthouse with my family, the discussion I had about the latter was greater and deeper, whereas most of my discussion about Parasite revolves around just how good it was. The disagreement I have with Brody is that this stops Parasite from being a “great” film. Parasite is a great film precisely because it delivers on its clear message pretty much perfectly.
To be clear, I think that Brody’s analysis of this aspect of the film leans into a sort of elitism, that precludes any film which isn’t open to years of scholarly discussion from entering the pantheon of the great. Parasite’s clarity is the culmination of Bong Joon-ho’s career of making films which have clear and easily digestible social commentary wrapped in formally fantastic filmmaking.
As Snowpiercer is to the sci-fi genre and The Host is to the monster movie genre, Parasite is to the thriller. A young man tricks his way into the employ of a rich family, then proceeds to remove the other members of the staff and replace them with his own unemployed family members. The sequence involving getting his father and mother into their roles as the rich family’s driver and housemaid respectively is particularly genius. One continuous music track plays under it as the family schemes and executes that scheme flawlessly. It’s a piece of thriller and montage filmmaking unlike no other, one that has me on the edge of my seat grinning every time I’ve seen it.
As the film continues, it takes a turn into a more outright thriller, leading to the inevitable bloody conclusion. But what’s so impressive is that although the film continues to surprise right until the very final shot, it never feels like you’ve left capable hands. Every decision and image is so carefully thought through, to the extent that both houses in the film were specially built for purpose. It seems inconsequential to mention, but what could have easily been filmed on location needed to be sets for everything to run as smoothly as Bong required.
Think of any detail from Parasite and marvel at how carefully it has been used. The seemingly throwaway joke that Song Kang Ho (putting in a career best performance)’s character Kim Ki-taek ran a castella shop that went bust reappears later as a similar motivation for Geun-se to hide underground for so many years, further tying together the two couple’s fates. Or the fact that Park Da-song’s obsession with Native Americans is yet another analogy for systematic oppression. Think even about how elegantly the most obvious symbols – the families consigned to live in basements, or the smell of the subway, are constantly used in clever and thoughtful ways.
Yes, Parasite is not a film that trades in subtleties. But does it need to? It’s a satire that’s fuelled by righteous anger, and that anger is one that Bong has decided needs to be understood by everyone who sees it, and has accomplished that in the most watchable, careful and often joyful way possible. I’m sure that Bong Joon-ho has a film like The Lighthouse in him. Indeed, his earlier films like Memories of Murder and Mother are often more open to interpretation, and equally as well made as Parasite. But Parasite has another, equally worthy goal. It begs to be seen whether I’ll regret putting Parasite on this list over The Lighthouse. Despite calling attention to the problem of recency bias and how Parasite may fall into this trap by being more instantly understandable, I still consider it the film I want to put on this list – for now. But if anything, I think this calls attention to the inherent flaws in lists like this. Both films are fantastic and worthy of the utmost praise, and I urge you to watch and celebrate them if you haven’t already.