For some of us returning ‘foreign press’, it’s like the festivities never really ended: there’s the same bustle on Kings Street where the TIFF Bell Lightbox is situated, the same smiling volunteers in their neon orange jackets, the same fevered glint in the eyes of the delegates, all debating that impossible question: how do you watch forty films in a day?
On Day 1 at the latest edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, though, among the many excellent choices, the one that will stay with me was Bong Joon-ho‘s Parasite. It’s the one that created major buzz at Cannes 2019, and you can see exactly why the S Korean director is one of the most exciting filmmakers at work currently. His story-telling is utterly distinctive, each frame almost like a painting demanding multiple viewings.
Parasite is many things rolled into one: a sharply observed satire, black comedy, thriller, tragedy. We are introduced, in short order, to two families, so far apart on the social ladder as to be on different planets. Ki-woo is a young man who lives with his sister and parents in an overcrowded basement in a sorry part of town. The Parks, husband, wife, and two kids, are also four to a house, but what a house that is—all chrome, glass, classy, expensive interiors, surrounded by well-tended lawns where each blade of grass feels manicured.
The binaries are set up swiftly: here’s a family of haves, all tasteful designer clothes, cars and liveried retainers; and here’s another who struggle with getting enough food on the table, stealing bandwidth, and living by their wits as they go along, trying to, literally, keep their heads above water: their basement floods when the rain comes in.
A stroke of luck gets Ki-woo into the Parks’ home, and from here on we see the fortunes of the two families collide, and change. With great stealth and imagination, the family which has nothing begins preying upon the family which has everything, and we see the parasites at work, nibbling, tasting, burrowing deep, fattened with bile and blood.
Social inequities exist. We know. There will always be those who have, and those who don’t. There will be men who give the orders and women who execute. Parasite doesn’t preach, it just shows how its characters behave, when opportunities present themselves, and gets us to a vantage where it is difficult to judge. The popular British comedies which used the practiced rituals of the upstairs-downstairs old-order in which the landed aristos lorded it over maids and butlers, used to be a TV staple, and crept into the movies slowly but surely. Back then, balance was maintained because that’s how things would always be.
Aspiration is now a handy weapon, which knows no class. Anyone can aspire to anything, and a WhatsApp message can change a life. But what Bong Joon-ho, who has rapidly become a global festival darling (his 2017 Okja, a sci-fi fairytale about a girl and a pig who set out to save the world from corporate sharks ruining the environment, is a celebrated Netflix original which set the Cannes festival authorities and the streaming giant onto a war-path), manages, is remarkable: we are left asking uncomfortable questions—who, really, are the parasites? The poor who are waiting on the sidelines, planning their moves, or the rich who have amassed their wealth battening on the labours of those less fortunate?
The elements of subterranean horror that play out in Parasite is brought right up to the surface in another, very different film, The Long Walk by Mattie Do, who has also been making a name for herself on the international festival circuit.
The Laotian American director has used horror to tell her stories right from the start (Chanthily, 2013), but it is in the way she subverts the tropes that makes her creations interesting. The Long Walk is not an easy film by any means, featuring a strangely impassive middle-aged man, a young woman in a black-and-white striped dress, another young woman who is brutally injured, and a boy, all criss-crossing each other in a rural outpost.
It takes a while to get into this weird world: is it real, are these people alive or dead, is it the past or present or future, just what is going on? But slowly you settle in, and see, somewhat, where the director is going with her strange, unsettling tale, but only after a while. There’s a chip embedded under the skins of these characters which lights up to show telling details, but we never know how they got there. There’s a mysterious black liquid that people are made to drink to ease them into the afterlife ( or is there such a thing, even? ).
And then you realize that it is a universal story of how differences can drive people apart, and get them together, and how pain can sometimes be a great reliever, and how time is, merely, ‘maya’. The Long Walk is a tough, demanding film, and reveals its rewards slowly. Odd but good way to kick-start one of the most rewarding film festivals there is.