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:

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The Five Best North Korean Movies: Watch Them Free Online

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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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