Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho picked up a richly deserved Palme d’Or on Saturday for his “Parasite”, a brilliant family-based tragicomedy about the gap between rich and poor, wrapping up the most dazzling and political Cannes Film Festival in years.
Cannes loves Asian cinema, and an Asian family drama all the more. Twelve months after Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda won a Palme d’Or for his “Shoplifters”, one of the world’s most prestigious film award has gone to another family-based critique of social inequality, this one by South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho. And his “Parasite” is every bit as brilliant as last year’s prize-winner.
A Seoul-set satire, “Parasite” follows an impoverished family’s cunning scheme to con a wealthy household into giving them jobs. Bong, whose Netflix-produced “Okja” caused a row in Cannes two years ago, is known for blending genres and defying categorization, and his latest film is perhaps his most hybrid yet, mixing social-realism, comedy and thriller, with more than a splash of horror. The director had suggested it may be “too Korean” for international audiences, but I was on the edge of my seat throughout this absorbing drama, a beautifully-shot work as hilarious as it is harrowing.
While “Parasite” was also a critics’ favourite, Cannes juries have a history of confounding predictions, and the nine-member panel headed by Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu proved no different. Politically-charged works by newcomers were rewarded, with French directors Mati Diop (who also holds Senegalese nationality) and Ladj Ly picking up the runner-up Grand Prix and third-place Jury Prize respectively. Diop made history by becoming the first African woman to pick up a prize in Cannes’ main competition – and with her very first feature-length film too. Her bold and poetic “Atlantique” offered a fresh perspective on the refugee crisis as seen from African shores.
In “Les Misérables”, Ly delivered an angry flick on police brutality in France’s run-down suburbs, providing the social-realist shock the festival always wishes to include in its line-up. The Frenchman shared his third-place award with Brazilian duo Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles, whose eerie sci-fi western “Bacurau” marked a brilliant foray into genre – and a scathing critique of Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil.
France’s Céline Sciamma, another newcomer to the Cannes competition, won the Best Screenplay award for her “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, an elegant and intriguing tale of love and art in 18th century costume, carried by an all-female cast. Adding to their impressive tally of awards, two-time Palme d’Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne took Best Director for “The Young Ahmed”, about a Belgian teenager lured into violence by radical Islamists.
The hot favourite for Best Actor, Antonio Banderas was duly rewarded for his deeply moving turn as Pedro Almodovar’s persona in “Pain and Glory”. Banderas dedicated the award to the revered Spanish director, who was – yet again – snubbed for the Palme d’Or. There was surprise when Britain’s Emily Beecham claimed the female acting prize for her part in Jessica Hausner’s “Little Joe”, a dystopian tale of genetically-modified life, widely regarded as one of the festival’s main disappointments.
Overall, the 72nd Cannes Film Festival offered a fascinating competition, with an exciting and balanced roster of newcomers and veteran directors. It was timely and political, touching on an array of pressing contemporary issues including climate change, fundamentalism, emigration, and growing inequality. Many filmmakers veered deep into genre cinema, from fugitive thriller to sci-fi western and zombie fests. And there was Hollywood confectionery aplenty on the red carpet, more than making up for the dearth of star power witnessed last year.
Aside from Almodovar, whose “Pain and Glory” recaptured the emotional heft of his finest work, other filmmakers neglected by the jury included Quentin Tarantino, Ken Loach and China’s Diao Yinan. Tarantino gave us his best film in years – and a red carpet for the ages – with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Loach showed he is becoming sharper at each new film with “Sorry We Missed You”, his indictment of the zero-hours gig economy. And Yinan proved he is among the world’s most visually creative directors with his fugitive thriller “The Wild Goose Lake”, which shines a seedy neon light on provincial China’s criminal underworld.
A record five former Palme d’Or laureates featured in this year’s competition, including Terrence Malick, who recovered a measure of form with his much-touted return to narrative, “A Hidden Life”, the story of an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to fight for the Nazis. And then there was Abdelatif Kechiche, of “Blue is the Warmest Colour” fame, who delivered the shock of the festival with his second instalment in the “Mektoub My Love” summer-romance saga. It was a leery, more than three-hour-long nightclub extravaganza that placed his film firmly in the realm of endurance cinema.
Aside from the Palme d'Or competition, Elton John was the festival's main red-carpet attraction, attending the gala premiere of Dexter Fletcher’s biopic “Rocketman”, which stars Taron Egerton as the iconic artist. Sylvester Stallone also climbed the famous steps to the Palais des Festivals for a special Rambo night, featuring snippets of the forthcoming “Rambo V”. But there was disappointment for football fans when Argentine legend Diego Maradona failed to show up for a screening of Asif Kapadia’s documentary on his extraordinary life.
All the awards
Palme d'Or – “Parasite” by Bong Joon-ho
Grand Prix – “Atlantique” by Mati Diop
Jury Prize – “Les Misérables” by Ladj Ly and “Bacurau” by Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Best Director – “The Young Ahmed” by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Best Screenplay – “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” by Céline Sciamma
Best Actress – Emily Beecham in “Little Joe” by Jessica Hausner
Best Actor – Antonio Banderas in “Pain and Glory” by Pedro Almodovar
Special mention from the Jury – “It Must Be Heaven” by Elia Suleiman
Caméra d'Or (for best first film) – “Our Mothers” by Cesar Diaz