The 2019 Philadelphia Film Festival got underway last week with Parasite and Just Mercy, a pair of highly-touted films screened back-to-back at the Philadelphia Film Center. While both are quite good, one of them is unlike anything seen on screen before, while the other is a lot like many things seen before.
The latest film from the acclaimed South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, Parasite was the unanimous winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Festival back in May, and on Thursday it opened up the Philadelphia Film Festival's Masters of Cinema program. The sold-out showing proved that the buzz is warranted: Parasite is a truly special film.
Parasite, coming from the director of The Host, Snowpiercer, and Okja, operates on a strange wavelength that's equal parts darkly comical and suspenseful. It's an ingenious satire of class that goes to some shockingly dark places. But it's also so, SO funny, finding humor in all sorts of places that the movies rarely do. It’s hard enough to make a movie about class tension that’s not preachy. Bong not only pulls that off—he’s made the year’s best comedy at the same time.
Best to know very little about Parasite before you see it, so I’ll share only the setup here. Set in South Korea, Parasite is the story of two families, the Kims and the Parks. The Kims are poor, living in a subterranean basement, and the Parks are rich, in a large house designed by a famous architect.
The Kims' son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), takes a job as a tutor for the Parks' daughter. And very strange and shocking things take off from there. Throughout, the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, and a marvel of tension and discomfort. This is also a movie, once again, with a lot of laughs, many of which pop up when you least expect them.
Highlights of the strong top-to-bottom cast are Cho Yeo-jeong as Mrs. Park and Park So-dam as the Kims' daughter, both of whom deliver delightfully multi-layered performances.
Parasite will hit Philadelphia theaters October 25, and it will clearly go down as one of the best films of 2019.
There's a fascinating dichotomy at the heart of Just Mercy, the dramatic film that served as the official festival opener. It's a watchable, entertaining treatment of an important true story, featuring no fewer than four standout performances. But at the same time, it comes from a very familiar genre, which it doesn't do much to transcend.
The film is based on a real story from the late 1980s and early 1990s. A Black man from Alabama named Walter "Johnny D" McMillian was convicted of a murder he didn't commit and sentenced to death. But a young, Harvard-trained lawyer named Bryan Stevenson took up his case. Stevenson, whose book was the basis for Just Mercy, was the subject of a documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality, which aired on HBO earlier this year.
Michael B. Jordan—star of the best Philadelphia-set film of the century, Creed—stars as Stevenson, while Jamie Foxx plays McMillian. The performances are the film's major strength, with Jordan delivering a charismatic turn, while Foxx does heartbreaking work as the condemned man. Foxx, who is 51, has always been older than he's looked, but here he relishes the chance to play an older man. Other standouts include Rob Morgan as another man on death row, and Tim Blake Nelson, wearing burn makeup as the primary witness against Johnny D.
Back to Monroeville
Just Mercy is a familiar story, echoing everything between A Time to Kill and To Kill a Mockingbird, even as its tale of racism and injustice in the American South is set decades after the 1950s. And in a bitter irony, the events of the film took place in Monroeville, the same town that was the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird. We repeatedly see citizens of the town talk up its civil-rights tradition, even as they actively perpetuate another terrible injustice.
Just Mercy director Destin Daniel Cretton co-wrote the film with Andrew Lanham. Cretton made a little-seen but amazingly great movie in 2012 called Short Term 12, which starred Brie Larson as the supervisor of a group home, and featured Lakeith Stanfield in his debut movie role.
The new film isn't quite up to that standard, but it does mark a major improvement over his previous film, The Glass Castle, which also starred Larson. The actress appears in Just Mercy as well, sporting circa-1990 hair and wardrobe as a legal adviser to Stevenson.
However, we've seen so many versions of this basic story before that it's something of a letdown when the filmmakers can't put a new spin on it, either aesthetically or thematically.
Just Mercy is a skilled and valuable film, but it comes in an era when filmmakers are finding astonishing and creative ways to explore and challenge racism, from Get Out to Sorry to Bother You to If Beale Street Could Talk to The Last Black Man in San Francisco. But Just Mercy doesn't have anything new to say. If a movie about this story had been made in, say, 1996 instead of 2019, it probably wouldn't look much different.
Just Mercy is set for its official release on December 25, 2019.
What, When, Where
Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho and written by Bong and Han Jin-won. Opens in Philadelphia October 26, 2019. Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and written by Cretton and Andrew Lanham. Opens December 25, 2019. The Philadelphia Film Festival continues through October 27, 2019, at Philadelphia Film Center (1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia) and other locations. (215) 422-4588 or filmadelphia.org/festival.
The Philadelphia Film Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Visit online for more info.