A Review that Isn’t Really a Review: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Spoiler Paranoia, and the Joy of Going
The idea of the “spoiler” and all that it entails is pretty new. Famously, Shakespeare’s plays were based off of stories from history that audiences would have been familiar with, and Greek tragedies often laid out the entire plot in the opening dialogue. The term “spoiler” still didn’t connote what it does today until well into the 20th century. Quite famously, The New York Times published an article in 1976 in which George Lucas explained what exactly was going to happen in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope a full year before it was released. So when—and why—did we start caring about spoilers?
Societally, we’ve fraternized with spoilers for decades, the teaser trailer being a notable harbinger. Advertising campaigns for films have always been defined by the way that they can arouse interest without giving too much information away, and the teaser trailer became a perfect vehicle for doing this. In some cases, creative ad campaigns have directly contributed to the success of a film. Famously, The Blair Witch Project was advertised as actual found footage, with advertisers even drawing up fake missing posters for the film’s cast to further convince moviegoers that the events were completely real—and it worked. The 1999 film grossed over $200 million at the box office, a monumental success given its modest $60,000 budget. It’s important to note that spoilers used to be not that big of a deal. In the olden days (you know, the decades in which your parents grew up), going to the movies was an occasional outing, and movies didn’t enjoy the same mega releases that they do today.
Two trends shifted our way of thinking. The first was the influx of movies into movie theaters—more and more theaters started opening, and thus, more movies were available to the masses. Joe Shmo in Nowhere, Iowa could likely see the The Empire Strikes Back the same night that it was amassing huge opening weekend lines in New York City. The second, was, of course, the advent of the Internet, which turned sharing movie secrets into a giant free-for-all. In the late 90s and early 2000s, the term “spoiler” entered the mainstream after having previously existed primarily in fandom circles. Studios didn’t love this new avenue for spoilers mostly because it had the potential to destroy box office momentum. But they recognized that there was no real way to police it. Predictably, studios found a way to use spoiler paranoia to their advantage. The preservation of surprises to ensure spoiler-free viewing experiences gave filmmakers and showrunners a drum to beat while the implication of spoilers gave marketers a way to convince moviegoers to get to the theater as soon as possible.
However, in the age of streaming, it’s harder and harder to avoid spoilers, even if they have an implicitly understood expiration date. Enter spoiler paranoia. Fans have become so obsessed with preserving their virgin viewing experiences and avoiding spoilers that they are finding inventive ways to mitigate the threat of spoilers, most commonly by muting specific words on Twitter or even muting accounts entirely.
The consensus on spoilers is divided. On the one hand, they are regarded as inevitable—in an interview for Dark Tower, Stephen King said, “There are no spoilers! You might as well say I’m never going to watch Wizard of Oz again because I know how it comes out.” Conversely, famed film critic Roger Ebert once wrote that though it is our right as filmgoers to disagree with the choices made in a film, “It is not our right, however, to destroy for others the experience of being as surprised by those choices as we were.” But it’s a fact that spoiler paranoia and the culture that bred it are engaging in the unfortunate practice of valuing narrative over style — which is fair, because the plot drives the film. On the other hand, it seems that we care less and less about the way the plot is presented.
So it is basically a miracle to step into a movie theater these days knowing nothing about the movie you’re about to see, and, very fortunately, these were the exact conditions the night I saw Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.
Chances are, by now you’re at least moderately familiar with the buzz surrounding Parasite, either from the Internet or some dudebro movie buff in your film class. I don’t usually go into movies totally blind — it’s virtually impossible these days and, on top of that, it’s helpful to have a little context before you decide what to see. Imagine galavanting into a screening of The Silence of the Lambs with no prior knowledge, thinking it was going to be about farm animals.Or randomly selecting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for a night in, hoping it’ll be an English literature-themed slasher movie.
It’s easier to avoid spoilers when it comes to international films because, unfortunately, Hollywood and America at large are too often ignorant of the way cinema is blossoming, evolving, and being experimented with abroad. Furthermore, it often takes a while for films to cross international borders. Parasite was released in South Korea in May and didn’t hit U.S. theaters until mid-October. At this point, you might’ve heard that it won the "Palme d’Or," the highest award given at Cannes, putting it in a league with seminal films such as Taxi Driver, Paris, Texas, and Pulp Fiction. You also might’ve heard people that have seen it say that it “wasn’t at all what they expected” or that it is “unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.” I’m here to tell you that while the hype should absolutely be believed, it should also be avoided at all costs.
Don’t get me wrong—this isn’t as dire as the big death in Endgame or as high stakes as the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense. Parasite, in fact, doesn’t rely on a big reveal or a shocking plot twist. The joy of going in cold was that I got to watch this story unfold the way it was intended, and the effect was much like enjoying a delicious five course dinner that just keeps getting better and better. Each new plot development was exciting, each meticulously-composed shot a new feast for the eyes. This movie-going experience reminded me of what it was like to go to the movies as a kid, when my mom would take me and my sister to see the latest Disney releases when they came out. At that point, there was no way I could be privy to spoilers—I wasn’t on the Internet yet, and I certainly wasn’t reading any movie reviews. With my knowledge of current cinema that limited, going to the movies felt magical: my mom would buy a matinee popcorn combo special and my sister and I would share a package of Skittles or gummy worms. I was enchanted by animation the way only a kid could be, and by the way time seemed to have either sped up or stopped while we were in the theater—I was always surprised to step outside to find that dusk had fallen or that it had been light outside the entire time we’d been shut away in the dark. This is how I experienced so many beloved movies from my youth: Monsters Inc., Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and The Incredibles. Seeing Parasite with virtually no prior knowledge reinstated that childhood magic of going to the movies, a feeling I had lost in the interim years of copious Marvel and A24 releases that I saw mostly out of an obligation to stay up to date with pop culture. I’m tempted to give more away but instead I’ll deliver on what the title of this post promises and just shut up.