The Secret of the “Perfect Montage” at the Heart of Parasite, the Korean Film Now Sweeping World Cinema

For near­ly as long as mankind has tried to com­mit the per­fect crime, mankind has tried to tell sto­ries of the per­fect crime. Both endeav­ors demand inten­sive plan­ning, the sto­ry of the crime per­haps even more rig­or­ous­ly so than the crime itself. No less obses­sive a teller and reteller of “per­fect crime” sto­ries than Alfred Hitch­cock knew that well, and so he remains an icon of such sto­ry­telling in cin­e­ma. Hence the visu­al ref­er­ence, albeit a van­ish­ing­ly brief one, to the mas­ter of sus­pense in Kore­an block­buster auteur Bong Joon-ho’s Par­a­site, which has run vic­to­ry laps around the world ever since win­ning the Palme d’Or last year. Or so Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, tells it in his new video essay on Par­a­site’s “per­fect mon­tage.”

This mon­tage comes at the end of the film’s first act, about 40 min­utes in, at which point Bong has clear­ly estab­lished the plot, both in the sense of the sequence of events that sets the sto­ry in motion, and of the devi­ous plan devised by the main char­ac­ters. Those main char­ac­ters are the Kims, a poor fam­i­ly in Seoul who, one by one, ingra­ti­ate them­selves with and obtain employ­ment with­in the house­hold of a rich fam­i­ly, the Parks — all while pre­tend­ing not to be relat­ed. After the father becomes the Parks’ chauf­feur, the son becomes their Eng­lish tutor, the daugh­ter becomes their art ther­a­pist, the Kims all work togeth­er to get the moth­er hired as the house­keep­er. But this requires the dis­place­ment of the rich fam­i­ly’s exist­ing house­keep­er, who’s worked in the home ever since it was first built.

That dis­place­ment is the sub­ject of the mon­tage, which over five min­utes relays to the view­er both how the Kims devise their plan — which involves turn­ing the old house­keep­er’s peach aller­gy into a seem­ing case of tuber­cu­lo­sis — and how they pull it off. Puschak under­scores “how bal­let­ic every­thing is, helped along by a clas­si­cal piece from Han­del’s Rodelin­da,” as well as the “mes­mer­ic” qual­i­ty enriched by Bong’s use of “both slow-motion and lin­ear cam­era moves.” Pre­sent­ing new infor­ma­tion in each and every one of its 60 shots, the mon­tage also fore­shad­ows com­ing events and ref­er­ences pre­vi­ous ones with­in itself, inspir­ing Puschak to com­pare it to a con­ver­sa­tion, and lat­er to “an organ­ism all its own.”

All well and good as a demon­stra­tion of cin­e­mat­ic tech­nique, and indeed “a tes­ta­ment to Bong Joon-ho’s con­trol of his craft.” But unless form aligns with sub­stance, no art can attain great­ness; what makes this a “per­fect mon­tage” is how its very per­fec­tion reflects that of the Kim fam­i­ly’s machi­na­tions — at least at the point in the film at which it arrives. As with most sto­ries of the per­fect crime, things start to fall apart there­after, though even as they do, Bong’s hand (as well as that of his edi­tor Yang Jin-mo) nev­er fal­ters. This sequence, and Par­a­site as a whole, would sure­ly com­mand the respect of Alfred Hitch­cock. But Hitch­cock would also rec­og­nize, as Bong him­self must, that a mon­tage can always be more fine­ly tuned. There may be no such thing as the per­fect crime, but it remains a promis­ing the­mat­ic vehi­cle for get­ting ever clos­er to per­fec­tion in cin­e­ma.

Below, as an added bonus, you can watch the direc­tor him­self break down Par­a­site’s open­ing scene:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Ser­gio Leone Made Music an Actor in His Spaghet­ti West­erns, Cre­at­ing a Per­fect Har­mo­ny of Sound & Image

How David Lynch Manip­u­lates You: A Close Read­ing of Mul­hol­land Dri­ve

Mar­tin Scors­ese Intro­duces Film­mak­er Hong Sang­soo, “The Woody Allen of Korea”

The Five Best North Kore­an Movies: Watch Them Free Online

A Crash Course on Sovi­et Mon­tage, the Russ­ian Approach to Film­mak­ing That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Cin­e­ma

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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