If you’ve ever wondered what “mainstreaming” means (it has a bit of an alchemic ring to it, doesn’t it?), I suggest you take a look at what’s been happening in the world of cinema in the last few years. There’s still some uncertainty on why some ideas manage to creep out from the gutters of public debate, but while the process may be unknown, the outcome is sometimes obvious to the point of satire. Five years ago, who would’ve thought that a movie about the Joker, no fewer thanks to its pointed criticism of inequality, would’ve won the Golden Lion in Venice? Of course, credit is given where credit is due, the ocean of comic books out there has always been deeper and more turbid than the shallow puddle of their big-screen adaptations. Then again, when social conflicts rise to the point of ebullition, weird things will start to happen: a post-Marxist French brick will become a best-seller, billionaires will discover the virtues of modesty, and most importantly, many lips will loosen up, either to utter what they held back for years, or to add their own voice to the chatter, fearing to be outshouted.
We’re lucky enough to be living in the phase of debate where ideas are sprouting up left and right with a wilderness of perspectives mixing old and new — gems and junk food for thought. We should cherish this before a mowed, tidy, structured, and institutionalized version of the debate on inequality emerges. What may idealistically be born out of a sense of purpose to right historic wrongs, is already being mass-marketed, as outlined by many observers of brand wokeness [link Hbomberguy]. Despite the crass failure of these attempts, this trend is slowly but surely contributing to a certain stiffness in the debate. As the world of advertisement tries to direct and stylize gripping feelings (there isn’t much nuance in the decision to buy or not buy something), it’s also indirectly encouraging similar simplicity in other socially critical mass narratives.
Consider the most recent darling of the public and the critics, Joker (2019). Todd Philips deserves praise not only as a narrator, but also for being able to shoot a movie about austerity measures and oligarchy without being considered a virtue signaller or a stooge propagandist “for the ruling class,” as it often happens with Hollywood productions. On the contrary, outlets like Jacobin Magazine elevated the film to the manifest of everything that is wrong with modern oppression, be it economic or psychological. While abhorring the violence in which Joker’s unsettling dance ends in, one cannot escape the feeling that many left-wing commentators are more or less attracted by the elegant hand waves with which Joaquin Phoenix draws a line in the sand between “us” and “them.” Joker is a story of exclusion. Arthur Fleck seeks acceptance, to be put either in the limelight of entertainment, or the delicate candles of Wayne manor. The realization of being fundamentally different, of being alienated from these realities, is what finally drives him to go his own way: to turn towards chaotic guerrilla warfare against the palaces of power. We are many and supple. They are few and weighted down by their wealth.
Upon second watching, while seeing the city be engulfed by revolution, I could almost hear the marveling exclamation of Parasite‘s Kim Ki Taek: “It’s so metaphorical!” One could expect much from a movie which manages to be so completely antithetical to its American cousin, despite treading the same ground. Sure, the fire consuming Gotham may be horrifically pretty, but anyone who has ever witnessed a flood will readily tell you that the floods of Seoul can be equally, if not more, panic-inducing — things suddenly decompose and collapse on themselves, remembering that the neat human patterns they’re put into are not as natural as one may expect. Beyond catastrophes, Parasite (2019) is far more concerned with this kind of inner decay: hollowing out a way of life by its own contradictions. Some will see, in Bong Joon-Ho’s most successful movie to date, a testament to the rising inequality of Korea, a topic which has concerned him ever since Memories of Murder (2003) and Snowpiercer (2015). The matter is, I believe, a bit more complicated.
Being completely out of my depth when it comes to South Korean economics, I can only make some observations to point out why Parasite struck a chord that is far more existential and distressing than the action-oriented Joker. South Korea is technically faring much better than the US on the Gini coefficient scale, an (imperfect) measure of inequality, scoring 0.36 against an aghast American 0.49 (zero would signify an equal distribution of income). The divide, however, looks to be closing, with medium and low incomes stagnating, and Korea’s elite being rocked in numerous scandals. What I found far more interesting than the rather obvious differences in household, livelihood, and luxuries enriching the wealthy Parks, is all the behaviors the indigent Kim family adopt to infiltrate their counterparts — almost like a tourist adapting to the local customs. English sentences scattered around in the Korean dialogue is to underline the linguistic difference between rich and poor. Phrases associated with Thatcherite strategies to escape poverty on ones own (“Have a plan!”) are endemic. Crucially, the feeling of subordination towards their masters emerges in pointed, painful interjections, rather than being hammered continuously and relentlessly. In this, the Parks aren’t meaner or less controlled in their relations than the Kims among them, but it’s this marked sense of otherness that finally precipitates the situation. Being other is different than being excluded: while the latter implies incompatibility, of being defined against someone else, otherness is the sudden realization of not being what one thought to be. In this case, it’s understanding that far from being clever parasites, the Kims are just as subject to relations of power as anyone else.
What do the two movies share? Well, they’re nominally about the same thing: inequality. They both encouragingly resisted the urge to put a “The” in their titles, which has helped make this essay more fluid (the pains my editor and I go through for you, dear reader!) Beyond that, they respond to the same question, that of social injustice, in very different ways. Where Joker highlights how “the people’s” interests are essentially opposed to those of “the elite,” Parasite insists on the hopeless entanglement between “us and them” — between the beauty of the architect-drawn Park home, and the horrors to which it is also a monument, not-so-deep below the surface. By dealing with what comes after this annihilating realization, Parasite can try to suggest a much despised and old alternative: one that escapes the cynicism of exploitation, murderous rapture, and embraces a fragile search for redemption.