Monster Mash

Monstrum

by Hope Madden

Very little in life brings me joy quite like a decent creature feature. Even the silly ones where a big, boil-riddled muppet winds up slathering pus leakage all over Korean mountain people in the 1500s.

Especially those.

Hun Jong-ho’s new import takes us back to 1506, a time when the king is beset by troubles: his disloyal prime minister, a plague across the land. That is a lot for one man to handle, and an even larger load once his most loyal guard, Yoon Gyeom (Kim Myong-min), abandons him to save a little girl’s life.

Fast forward a decade or so and strife still divides the nation, but that strife has a new name: Monstrum.

But is that monster really there? Or is it all just a figment of mass hysteria planted by a conniving prime minister? The sleuthing sets up a clever-enough through line and the deception creates space for plenty of gory action sequences.

Jong-ho’s story, which he penned along with Byeon Jeong-uk and Heo-dam, offers a relatively simple “the people have the power” narrative elevated by some nice set pieces and a handful of choice performances.

Myong-min cuts a properly heroic figure: quiet, savvy, handy in a fight. Kim In-kwan makes the perfect sidekick, his comedic moments (though often anachronistic) offer welcome moments of levity.

With K-pop’s Lee Hye-ri (of the band Girl Day), Jong-ho delivers a little 16th century girl power via one spunky adolescent who’s smart, capable, irreverent and fearless. (Another anachronism? Probably, but again, it’s a movie with a giant, pus-dripping puppet. You came looking for realism?)

And hey, who’s that handsome young man beguiled by Hye-ri’s badassedness? It’s Parasite’s Choi Woo-sik, charming as ever.

The film looks great, thanks in part to some exceptional costuming but mainly to cinematographer Kim Dong-Yeon’s capable maneuvering through interiors and exteriors, false backdrops and lushly wooded hills.

Monstrum is no masterpiece—go in expecting The Host and come out disappointed. But for creature feature fun and just a touch of flatulence humor, Monstrum delivers.

Many Mansions

Parasite

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

We’ve said it many times, but since there may still be people who haven’t heard, we’ll say it again. If Joon-ho Bong makes a film, you should see it.

Today, make it Parasite.

The film’s opening act introduces the Kim family, folding pizza boxes in a squalid basement apartment in Seoul and scrambling from room to room in search of free WiFi after the neighboring business locked theirs down with a password.

In a single scene the film appears to articulate its title and define its central characters, but the Kims are not who you think they are. In fact, every time you think you’ve pinned this film down—who’s doing what to whom, who is or is not a parasite—you learn it was an impeccably executed sleight of hand.

Longtime Bong collaborator Kang-ho Song (Memory of a Murder, The Host, Snowpiercer) anchors the film with an endearing and slippery performance. Kim patriarch, he is simultaneously beloved head of the household and family stooge. Watching Song manipulate his character’s slide from bottom to top to bottom again without ever losing his humanity—or the flaws that go along with humanity—is amazing. It’s a stunningly subtle and powerful performance.

He’s nearly matched by Yeo-jeong Jo as the righteously oblivious Mrs. Park, who spends her days in constant search for an empty validation that comes from every new indulgence for her children.

When young Kim Ki-woo ( Woo-sik Choi from Train to Busan and Bong’s last film, Okja) is able to convince Mrs. Park he’s a suitable English tutor for her daughter Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), the Kim and Park families become connected in one of the few ways afforded by the social order: master and servant.

Methodically, the rest of the Kim clan gains employment from Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee) through the systematic feeding of the Parks’ ego and privilege. And then just when you think Bong’s metaphoric title is merely surface deep, a succession of delicious power shifts begins to emerge.

Think the simmering rage of Joker with a completely new set of face paint.

As the Kims insinuate themselves into the daily lives of the very wealthy Parks, Bong expands and deepens a story full of surprising tenderness, consistent laughter and wise commentary on not only the capitalist economy, but the infecting nature of money.

Bong, as both director and co-writer, dangles multiple narrative threads, weaving them so skillfully throughout the film’s various layers that even when you can guess where they’ll intersect, the effect is no less enlightening.

Filming in an ultra-wide aspect ratio allows Bong to give his characters and themes a solid visual anchor. In single frames, he’s able to embrace the complexities of a large family dynamic while also articulating the detailed contrasts evident in the worlds of the haves and have nots.

Parasite tells us to make no plans, as a plan can only go wrong.

Ignore that, and make plans to see this brilliantly mischievous, head-swimmingly satisfying dive down the rabbit hole of space between the classes.