As ushering in the Year of the Metaphorical Rat comes to a close, WTF ASIA presents Elon Musk’s favorite film of 2019. Oh, and the Oscar Winner for Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Film, Best Director, and BEST PICTURE!
Hello and welcome to WTF ASIA. I have been posting one of these pretty much every week for almost two years starting here. The following post is somewhat spoilery, but I tend to draw, as one of the characters say, a line. And that is usually between a third of the way and halfway through the movie. You can post fully spoilery comments (under spoiler bars please) here, but there was also a Spoil Sports page that was posted a few months ago.
Kim Ki-woo and his family live in Seoul at the end of a street in an apartment that is halfway basement level, so he can get a clear view of people’s feet if he stands up. The Kim family is not faring particularly well, but perhaps they used to be on the up-and-up. In one conversation, they mention a chicken place and a cake shop, which are two things that formerly middle class Koreans had to turn to during the financial crisis of the late 1990s, both of which only delayed their inevitable economic decline. Ki-woo’s mother, Chung-sook had won a silver medal back in 1992, for example. And the potential for working well is still there, if only there were any work for them. With nothing to do, sometimes Ki-woo’s father, Ki-taek, just sleeps. The family cannot afford to send kids to college, so they have to get odd jobs where they can.
They had been using the wifi of their upstairs neighbor until she put a password on it, so Ki-woo and his sister Ki-jeong have to make do using their cell phones in the only place in the apartment that has a signal: right next to their street-level toilet. Chung-sook tells them to contact a pizza place, as they might have a job for her. Well, it is a job for the family: folding pizza boxes. Ki-woo shows them an internet video of someone folding pizza boxes really fast, and they give it a try. Meanwhile, the street is getting fumigated. Instead of closing the window, Ki-taek has them keep it open in order to get free fumigation for the apartment. Of course, the nastiness makes them cough and a little gets on the pizza boxes.
The pizza…person…does not necessarily notice the effects of the fumigation on the boxes when she arrives, but she does notice that a quarter of them are folded improperly, and wants to dock 10% pay. Ki-woo tries to charm her out of it, and then maybe get a part-time job out of it, pointing out that the actual part-time worker had gone missing, the reason for Chung-sook being offered this work in the first place.
The family sits down for dinner, celebrating what little victory that had achieved during the day. They notice a drunken man about to vomit and maybe urinate right outside their window, but he is interrupted by another man. Oh, it is Min, one of Ki-woo’s friends from his high school days. He had, apparently, texted Ki-woo to say that he was coming, but it was most likely during the time when Ki-woo did not have wifi. Despite not receiving a reply, Min stopped by anyways.
Min’s family is much better off than the Kims are, and since Min has already gotten into university, the gap between him and Ki-woo is probably only going to widen. Still, Min wants to look out for his temporarily set-back friend. First, he brings with him a large fancy box. What is in it? Cash? Jewelry? Food? Nope. It is one of his grandfather’s large scholar’s rocks, a relic from Korean tradition that his grandfather insisted he give to Ki-woo, to bring material wealth to his family. Ki-taek seems a bit confused and the others do not seem to be particularly impressed, but Ki-woo stares intently at the rock and says that it is very metaphorical.
Ki-woo and Min go out to get drinks and chat by themselves. Min shows Ki-woo a picture of Park Da-hye, a high-school girl whom he has been tutoring in English. He is going to study abroad and suggests that Ki-woo takes over. Sure, he could ask his university friends to do it, but he does not trust them around Da-hye, whom he plans to ask out when she enters college in two or three years. Ki-woo wonders if he has to pretend to be a university student in order to get the job, but Min argues that Ki-woo should know more about English than anyone, having taken the entrance exam four times already. And as for being a university student, Ki-woo can just fake it. That is how much Min trusts Ki-woo. He says that he will recommend Ki-woo to Da-hye’s mother, whom he calls a bit simple. Young and simple. Then Min recalls that Ki-woo had said that Ki-jeong was artistic.
So now, Ki-jeong is roped into this scheme, forging a document from Yonsei university at an internet café. They go back home and Ki-woo shows it to their father, who is impressed by how real it looks when he sees it. Ki-woo states that he does not consider making the document a crime, merely a fudging of the timeline. And he is off, walking from his poor neighborhood all the way to a fancy section of Seoul, where each house is blocked off and locked away from the street.
Ki-woo is let in to the Park residence, first admiring the large house and the yard that is probably as big as the Kim apartment. He is welcome into the house by the housekeeper, Gook Moon-gwang, who takes him to Da-hye’s mother, Yeon-gyo. Yeon-gyo looks over his forged documents, but says that she is not that interested in them, instead putting her trust in Min that Ki-woo will be as impressive a teacher. Still, she wants to be certain, demanding to sit in during that day’s lesson.
We do not see much of the lesson, but what we do see can be taken as an encapsulation of Ki-woo’s life strategy. Da-hye had been struggling with a particular question, so she skipped it, and then went back to it later. Ki-woo says that this would have cost her if it were a real exam. He says that she should slash through the exam and dominate it, worrying not whether she gets particular things right. Momentum and vigor are what matters. He takes Da-hye’s wrist, which gets Yeon-gyo to sit up attentively. But, instead of concern, Yeon-gyo is impressed with what he has said.
Yeon-gyo pays him in cash, a little more than what she had given Min to adjust for inflation. She Ki-woo (or Kevin) to give two-hour lessons three times per week. Things are about to wrap up when Yeon-gyo’s son Da-song interrupts the conversation, firing toy arrows from his toy bow and play-fighting with Moon-gwang when she tries to pick up after him yet again. Yeon-gyo tells Ki-woo that Da-song had been obsessed with Native Americans thanks to his time in the Cub Scouts the year before. She had hoped that that would help to moderate his eccentricities and trouble paying attention, but it was not to be. She had also hoped to help guide his budding artistry, but none of his art teachers lasted even a month. Of course, this gives Ki-woo an idea.
Just before he leaves, Ki-woo recalls someone. What is her name? Oh, right. Jessica. She went to the same art school as his cousin. She went to Illinois State University. Yeon-gyo perks up. Illinois? That is in America. It must be a prestigious university. Ki-woo says that Jessica’s teaching style is strange, but she has a special reputation and can help kids get into good art schools. Yeon-gyo is intrigued. Jessica is in pretty high demand and Ki-woo does not know her very well…but…
Yes, of course, Jessica is really just Ki-jeong. And the extent of their plan seems to get her some fancy clothes and to repeat a barebones backstory set to this song:
“Kevin” brings “Jessica” with him to the Park house. He introduces her to Yeon-gyo and goes to give lessons to Da-hye, who had been spying on their conversation. Da-hye tells him that Da-song has been faking all of his artistic eccentricities, but Ki-woo tells her to write her grievances about her brother in English. Da-hye then starts acting jealous, asking whether “Jessica” is “Kevin’s” girlfriend or whether he has his sights on her. Ki-woo insists that it is not the case and flatters Da-hye. She responds by taking his wrist and DON’T DO IT, DUDE!
Crikes, he kisses her! Jeez, dude.
Both embarrassed, they recover and it goes no further than that. Back to studying.
Yeon-gyo brings Ki-jeong up to see Da-song, who is currently drawing something while a toy arrow is stick out between his legs. Ki-jeong insists that Yeon-gyo leave, saying that she never teaches when parents are in the room. Yeon-gyo tries to respond, but Ki-jeong tells her to go back downstairs. So, Yeon-gyo waits nervously in the kitchen/dining room. Before she can get not-parent Moon-gwang to check up on the lessons, Ki-jeong and Da-song have also come downstairs. Da-song has drawn something that “Jessica” finds concerning. Ki-jeong tells a surprisingly compliant and polite Da-song to go back upstairs, she also tells Moon-gwang to leave her alone with Yeon-gyo. Ki-jeong says that she has determined that Da-song may have some serious psychological issues, and that he will need not just art tutoring, but art therapy. Two-hour lessons, four times a week. Mortified and terrified, Yeon-gyo agrees.
The patriarch arrives. Yeon-gyo introduces Ki-jeong to Park Dong-ik, who seems rather uninterested in engaging in discussion. He is nice enough to get his driver to use his own free time to give Ki-jeong a lift. So Driver Yoon does. He suggests that he drive her home so that she does not get caught in the rain, but she insists on going to the station. Then, while Yoon is not looking, she slips off her underwear and hides it under the seat.
The next day, while the Kims are splurging on a meal in a driver’s cafeteria, Ki-jeong talks to Ki-taek about his time as a valet, saying that she had laid a trap for Dong-ik’s driver. Ki-woo asks Ki-jeong what she had said to Yeon-gyo to upset her so much. Ki-jeong has no idea; she simply googled the term “art therapy” and ad-libbed the rest.
Surely enough, Dong-ik notices the underwear in the car that evening. He shows it to Yeon-gyo, assuming the Yoon had maybe had sex with a woman in the car. In his car. In the backseat. And maybe the woman had been on drugs. They (well, Dong-ik) decides against involving the police or confronting Yoon about having sex in his car, preferring instead to find some other reason to fire him and give him a good severance so that he does not complain about it too openly. Ki-jeong, who had been eavesdropping, makes her presence known.
As Yeon-gyo walks her out, she asks Ki-jeong about her ride with Yoon. Feigning innocence regarding any problem, Ki-jeong…well, technically tells the truth, though she emphasizes that Yoon wanted to drive her home and completely omits anything underwear-related. Yeon-gyo says that Yoon will not be working for them anymore. Ki-jeong acts surprised, which Yeon-gyo misinterprets as youthful naiveté. “Jessica” says that maybe an older driver will be more reliable, and refers to her uncle’s former driver, Mr. Kim. Her uncle’s family moved to Chicago, though, so is Mr. Kim free now? In any case, Yeon-gyo is interested, saying that she can now rely only on recommendations by people whom she trusts…like Jessica.
Ki-taek is sent to Dong-ik’s office. The company is called…Another Brick…and it is involved in…virtual reality…or something. In any case, Ki-taek is made to sit and wait until Dong-ik is ready to leave. In a car that Ki-taek only recently got familiar with, he drives Dong-ik home as Dong-ik holds a cup of coffee, waiting to see if it spills. It is not a test, of course. In fact, Dong-ik seems quite impressed with Ki-taek.
So, the son got a job, the daughter got a job, and one employee got bumped off so that the father could get a job. That leaves Chung-sook. Perhaps they could come up with some strange job for her to do, but why not shoot for the one that is already there? The housekeeper. It will not be as easy to get rid of Moon-gwang as it was to get rid of Yoon. She had been the housekeeper for the original owner, the architect who had designed the house. She is near perfect at her job. But they have to get rid of her. They have to.
So…what can I say about this movie that has not been already talked about? Well, not much, especially if I don’t want to get more spoilery than I already had been. So, I will just say whatever.
I suppose that I should touch a little on the hubbub surrounding the movie. The South Korean entertainment industry has been making waves internationally for decades, but has had some difficulty making inroads stateside. That has been changing. Korean television shows have been pretty big, and I sort of talked about my own personal experiences in my article about Jewel in the Palace. K-Pop has been pushing at the side-door of the American mainstream for years, always getting closer and almost making it. Psy may have been seen as a novelty (and the hype surrounding “Gangnam Style” was the reason for me originally starting this series elsewhere back in 2012), but other acts, and the companies around them, have done more work to be taken seriously and to develop genuine and…uh…passionate fanbases.
The Korean film industry is also part of this Korean Wave, or Hallyu. While there has been a lot of junk, Korean cinema has garnered a lot of fans among both film snobs and movie nerds. And while different fans may like different things, certain directors have attained great and widespread admiration, and Bong Joon-ho is among the top names. His full-length debut was 2000’s Barking Dogs Never Bite, which…it was fine. But he really made his mark in 2003 with Memories of Murder, which I talked about back in June. And it was pretty much an uphill trajectory since then in terms of his reputation. His fanbase grew…and became just as rabid and nerdy as any other. Even if his English-language movies were not quite as well-received as his earlier works (as is usually the case), they still helped to give him even more attention, building up further to this moment: a South Korean movie is in the American mainstream popular consciousness and has multiple awards and award nominations in America. In an Oscar year that has revealed itself to be extremely White, Parasite has been one of the exceptions. And whether Bong had intended for this to happen, it has been a long time coming. It does not hurt that it has been, as far as I can tell, his most financially successful movie to date.
Does this movie deserve the hype? The accolades? The mainstream popularity? The love? The deep analysis? Well, sure. It is not even a year-old, but I enjoyed it enough to see it three times before even starting to type this up. Was there some hyperbole surrounding the movie? A bit, particularly regarding people not knowing where the movie was going? Have they not seen a Bong Joon-ho movie before? Even so, I would not make an article about it if I did not love it. Sure, there are other movies, including a few in this series, that I wish had gotten as much mainstream attention in America as this one had, but, as this movie shows, not everyone can be winners. Maybe this movie will finally allow South Korean cinema to break into the mainstream. Or maybe it will be an exception. I will take what I can get. It is not for me to wonder why other people like this movie in particular; this series is for me to talk about why I like the movie in particular.
Without really knowing a good place to start, I will start randomly. One thing that I enjoy is the momentum of the film. Everything seems expertly timed and paced, focusing on what needs to be focused on, lingering on something interesting, and cutting pretty much everything else. There seems to be whole scenes that were blatantly skipped over altogether either because the audience does not need to know what happened or because the audience can guess pretty much what happened by what is going on in the next scene. This movie is 132-minutes long and sometimes it seems to fly by. Slow scenes simmer with tension as the audience anticipates the plot to shift into high gear at any minute. The only real exception is the ending, which I felt went on a little too long, though that may have been because I no longer felt any real tension building and was not waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sure, this skipping over stuff may lead to some niggling questions, like the length of time the Kims had been living in that apartment, the nature of the relationship between Ki-woo and Min, where Ki-woo’s fancy clothes came from, the weight of a rock, the length of time that it takes for grass to dry, and so on. I guess that you can focus on details like these…if you really wanted to.
I am not really one to take much notice of the technical aspects of movies unless they call attention to themselves, either in a good way or a bad way. So, I did not really pay attention to most of the cinematic subtleties in the movie during the first time that I watched it. Sure, I knew that I was watching a masterwork, but it was only after reading up on behind-the-scenes stuff and watching videos about it and listening to interviews that I gained a deeper appreciation for the movie the second and third time around. Sure, I did not learn everything and I have already forgotten a lot, but I was really impressed at the idea of creating a fake house and neighborhood from scratch in order to serve the narrative and film choices, when working within the limitations of an already created house or house set was a perfectly workable option. But, of course, this was not a production based on workability, but of care and dedicated craft. Sometimes, the lengths that some productions go make me roll my eyes, but not here. Indeed, a virtual house excels an augmented house.
In filming the house on a set, it was probably deemed necessary to block off visibility the nearby neighborhood, leading to high walls covered in greenery that reveal only places off in the distance. This piece of movie-making practicality resulted in a home that looked not only locked off from the street (which is not uncommon in rich urban neighborhoods in Seoul), but isolated from the world outside, its own little world. A virtual world that excels the augmented world. Meanwhile, the Kim family cannot help but be exposed to the world, even as the world looks down upon them when it even looks at them at all. With the exception of Da-song being a messy child, the Park house seems to be neatly spare, with vast areas of nothing and every item given its own spot to shine. Thanks to the housekeeper, of course. The Kim apartment is not necessarily cluttered, but every area not meant for walking seems to be stuffed with stuff. The Park house has a place that would be perfect for a television, but there is none there because I suppose that they have no use for the outside world. The Kims have no room for a television and might not be able to afford one anyways. The Park house is so large that the family members probably could spend hours in the house without interacting. The Kim apartment forces them together, so they have to get along. The Park house allows the Parks to shut themselves away from the the struggles of the world, not looking at others, not listening others, and certainly not smelling others. The Kim apartment forces them to see a world that is free to completely ignore them.
The thing that interests me most is what perhaps is what made this movie stand out so much, even as the previous two movies that I have talked about in this kind of approach this issue as well. The Park family is not portrayed as mustache-twirling villains. They are classist, yes. They seem to believe that simply giving their employees extra cash and a condescending compliment means that said employees will do anything beyond their job functions. They seem to be rather (sometimes conveniently plot-wise) incurious about the world around them. They want to ensure that those below them stay in their place, but have no problem imposing themselves upon their social lessers. For sure, the Parks are not shown to be well-meaning people who can be redeemed through some life-lessons by the end of the movie. But they are not presented as outright evil. Surely not like Tilda Swinton’s Mason in Snowpiercer. Dong-ik may come close, with his arrogant attitude and his dismissive laugh and his not so kind description of poor people, but he never truly, in his own words, crosses the line. He is just this really rich guy who is in charge of designing some virtual reality technology that I guess helps people be in their own little world. And that seems to be how it is for the rest of the family. Da-song does his art whatever in his room and Da-hye is on her phone. You know; kids. And Yeon-gyo…well…
Yeon-gyo’s life seems to center around her family, particularly her children. Does she drive them to school? We don’t know. But it seems that most of her activities involve shopping for groceries, being with her kids, making sure that they are cared for. And, of course, she is a companion to her husband when he is home. Beyond that, there is not much. Since Moon-gwang is in charge of maintaining the house, Yeon-gwo’s “womanly” duties are rather limited. So what does she do? Does she have hobbies? Does she hang out with friends? Does she watch K-Dramas on the television that is not there? Nope. At least two times, we see her unceremoniously asleep in some random part of the home. Her family is her world and she will spring into action to help or indulge. Beyond that, nothing. Well, there is the previously mentioned shopping. I am not sure if Bong meant for her to fit into the “women be shopping” trope, but here we are. So, when she is not shopping or doing stuff for her kids, she goes into her dreamworld. Ki-taek slept in the middle of the day because he had nothing. Yeon-gyo did because she needed nothing. Also, she tries to match her husband’s confident and condescendingly calm attitude, but she gets easily (and somewhat theatrically) excitable, which the Kims exploit at any opportunity.
The Kim family is not simply a group of angels pushed to the brink of desperation. For most of the film, Ki-taek appears to be in a state of contentment regardless of whether things are in a state of decline or ascendance, trying to find the best of any situation. Chung-sook is a little more overtly cynical and skeptical. Ki-woo is an opportunistic charmer. And Ki-jeong dives into her role as Jessica, managing to smugly bulldoze over Yeon-gyo through interrupting her assertively and casually tilting her head like a psychopath.
If any of the Kim family displays initial hesitation over pulling one over on a rich family, the movie skips right past it. The closest thing to that is Ki-woo telling Ki-taek, without prompting, that he does not consider this fraud, just jumping the gun a little bit. Anyways, his English should be good enough (actually, the actor playing him, Choi Woo-sik, lived for some time in Canada when he was a child) to be an English tutor, fine. Ki-jeong, as talented as she might be, is not some hotshot art teacher, and whatever “art therapy” she gives might be harmful to Da-song. Ki-taek and Chung-sook may be legitimately be good at legitimate jobs, but their positions would come at the expense of those who already work for the Parks. That said, there were no job opportunities for them, so what are they supposed to do? So, they consider their increasingly shady (and definitely criminal) acts to be necessary, giving little regard for ethics, kind of trying to justify their actions on rare occasions. And when Ki-taek notes that the family seems to be nice despite being rich, Chung-sook counters that their being rich allows them the luxury of being nice.
This gets to what I feel is the core of the movie’s theme. In avoiding turning the rich family into cruel abusers or literal monsters, the movie can complicate the rich/poor dynamic while depersonalizing the economic system that leads to such a dynamic in the first place. Whatever led the Kim family to the circumstances that they were in at the start of the movie, they were the losers of society. The status quo was awful, and moving up through solely legitimate has proven to be impossibly slow. They are much more likely to fall even further down the ladder from where they already are, and soon. The Parks did not hurt the Kims specifically; that is not the point. This is not about honor or vengeance, but pure necessity. The Parks are not the hyperbolically bad or fantastically good. They are not an exceptionally extreme cases to be isolated and quarantined away; their faults are recognizably mundane in ways that may strike the viewer as painfully familiar, a bit close to home, or even excusable. This is not meant to signify one particular family, so it does not matter whether this particular family is nice.
And anyways, we have seen for a while examples of “nice” rich people coming to the defense of the cruel against the pleas of the helpless. Whether they realize it, they benefit from cruelty against the poor, whether that by other rich people or other poor people. And they are safely insulated from all facets of that cruelty, so they can live their lives as if such cruelty does not exist. Or, at least, as if such cruelty has nothing to do with them. So, sure, why not be nice? The Kims may take great pains to fake being nice, but the Parks are effortless in their meaningless niceness. By paying people what they think that they are worth…or maybe even a little more, the Parks may consider themselves to be generous benefactors. Dong-ik also seems to think that occasionally turning a blind eye to an employee’s minor violations of rules that he made up makes him some sort of merciful boss. As long as they remember who is boss. Yoon having sex in the boss seat (which he did not do) is enough to get the man fired, but, you know, quietly and discreetly, without scandal or police involvement. Nicely. The Park family members may have believed that they were treating their employees nicely, but there was little question as to the power dynamics and the lack of options behind a request. It does not really matter whether they thought that the Kims were rich or middle class or poor. Their position gave them the ability to do as they pleased and they were pleased to just be in their little worlds, thoughtlessly dropping both scraps and crap upon the lower classes. Did they deserve to be taken advantage of by the Kims, simply for not giving up all of their wealth and using their status to overturn the system? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe whether they deserved anything good or bad is irrelevant. The kind and the cruel both benefit from the system that keeps the Kims down, so it would make no sense to target only the bad apples while keeping the system as a whole in place. The Parks are not meant to show how bad the system can sometimes get without stopgap measures; they show how bad the system is on a good day.
How did the Park family get rich? Who knows? However it happened, the system put them there and protected them from the outside world, allowing them to be as entitled, ignorant, thoughtless, and sheltered as they can be. Meanwhile, the Kim family have to deal with bug spray and urine. From virtual reality to manufactured eccentricities, the Park family thrives on fakery that is treated as ingenious, so why should the Kims be punished as sneaky crooks for simply lying to get what the Parks probably consider breadcrumbs? By the way, those breadcrumbs allow only for the Kims to eat more and buy fancier clothes, but not move out of their half-basement apartment. The Kims may lie, cheat and steal for their own benefit. Society lies, cheats, and steals on behalf of the Parks so they they don’t have to do so…at least not as blatantly. They have all the resources to waste while the Kims have to be resourceful. Grades may not matter to Yeon-gyo because her daughter will be fine regardless. Meanwhile, neither grades, knowledge, intellect, nor talent have allowed Ki-woo or Ki-jeong to get into any school, let alone a good one. The Parks are allowed make the rules, casually break them on a whim, and then remake them as if nothing actually happened. Yeon-gyo completely restricting her hiring choices to referrals may have been sparked by Ki-jeong’s actions, but decisions like that meant that none of the Kims could have gotten the jobs in the first place simply by using the proper channels. And even given that Ki-woo lucked into getting a referral, Yeon-gyo would not have accepted him as a poor man who never got into college. Being themselves will only make the Kims poorer, even working with sincerity may have let them do their jobs more effectively. The Kims know that rules will work against them more than for them. So, while they cannot break the system, they cannot work within the system either. So they have to work the system that favors exclusive in-crowd status over merit.
The rich people may not necessarily be evil, but the system insulates them from the damage that they thoughtlessly cause, with every minor inconvenience or violation treated as a crisis. The system allows for evil from above to run wild, while making evil the only visible path out from below. Ki-woo’s monologue about slashing through tasks without worry about being wrong may apply to the Kim family’s approach to the hustle, but it also applies to the Park family’s approach to everything. The system incentivizes the rich to callously live off the labor of the poor while making leeching off the rich the only clear path for the poor. The parasite is metaphorical, people. And if people like driver Yoon and Moon-gwang become collateral damage, well, the system already pits members of the lower classes against each other, forcing them to compete and fight for their dreams and for whatever potential scraps that the rich may drop. Yoon, Moon-gwang, the people at the pizza place the drunk guy; no sympathy for them. All the Kims have are each other.
In other words: this is a family film.
Since I could not find an elegant way to transition into this next part, I will just state for the record that I have lived next to a half-basement with only one tiny window and currently live near a half-basement with three regular-sized windows. I cannot compare the floor-space between them and that of the apartment in the movie, but neither of them were meant to house four adults.
The story of South Korea is not one that I know particularly well, but I will give it a shot. Korea had been its own thing for centuries, though it had to acknowledge the cultural dominance of China for most of the time…until Japan started causing problems at the end of the 16th century. Colonial times were not particularly great for Korea and then in 1910, Japan officially stepped in and took over everything, ruling through cruel brutality. Of course, like with other colonial powers, they did not simply rule all by themselves, they had certain Koreans and their families hold positions of power and authority over the rest of the populace. These collaborators may have come from rich families or not, but becoming collaborators had cemented their status.
This status remained even after the Japanese occupation ended in 1945. The country was split into two, with the United States taking over the role of occupier from Japan in the Southern part. For the United States, preventing the Soviet-supported Northern part from influencing the South took priority over providing any sort of reconciliation or reckoning between the ruling class of South Korea and the general populace. Those who had benefited from the Japanese occupation were in charge of determining its policy towards Japan, leaving the surviving victims of Japanese oppression to seethe and suffer until they died off. For sure, the South Korean people were not fond of this, so those in power had to maintain their power through dictatorship, labeling dissenters as Communist agitators. And, I guess that the leader of the Free World supported this, deciding that the Korea under its protection was simply not ready for freedom. The war between North and South Korea severely hurt both countries, but the South was left much worse off economically. So, how did the country rise to where it is today? Through bloodthirsty merciless means that I do not really understand myself. Of course, it was a bumpy ride. Many were killed. Many simply got left behind. So, how did those who got left behind manage? Well, I guess the same way as in other countries: scrounging, hustling, and fighting. Did the social-political-economic divide between the collaborators and the victims soften? Maybe, but I am not sure. Even after the country became a true democracy in 1987 or so, those in power pretty much remained so. Park Geun-hye, president between 2013 and 2017, is the daughter of brutal dictator Park Chung-hee, whose reign ended in 1979 only due to his assassination. Eventually, she was impeached and removed due to what I can only imagine was her deep and long-term association to a family of sham shaman scam artists. Or I don’t know: you can judge for yourselves.
How did the Park family get rich? Who knows? But Dong-ik was probably only 11 or 12-years old when democracy came to South Korea. And Yeong-jo even younger. So, of course, they were not enforcers the dictatorship. They were not collaborators for the Japanese occupation. They were not slaveowners. And, sure, maybe they have some near ancestors who were and maybe they freely associate with people who were and are on friendly terms with a few of them and maybe reluctantly tolerate several others and protect them from criticism and receive protection by them in return. But the Parks did not do those bad things. They never would. They are nice.
From its painful birth, South Korea has been a country of unapologetic competition built upon a fundamentally unfair foundation. We can tsk-tsk the level of plastic surgery that people get, but if that is what it takes, then that is what it takes. The Korean Wave is not simply an international phenomenon, but a deliberate corporate push that takes every opportunity to dig in. There have been, for example, stories coming out from the K-Pop industry of would-be-stars being put through training at a level that could be considered debasing and abusive, of their personal lives being micromanaged to a humiliating degree, of their payment being withheld to an extent that they are completely financially dependent on the companies that employ them, of their being pit against other performers going through the same issues, of “idols” being tossed aside if they are considered less worth the investment than others, of dangerous behavior by fans, of dangerous behavior of fans of rival performers, and so on. And of those who attain massive fame, how many of them actually get enough money to live comfortably? I don’t know; probably fewer than it seems. It is upsetting, but it fits within the narrative of South Korea’s economic rise: built upon the bones of those who dared to dream. At the same time, stuff like this does not happen only in South Korea. Every country has a story. We may not know the entire story of our own country, but we can feel at least some of the effects. Some stories transcend borders and oceans. Whether or not it was purposeful, this movie was a near-perfect mix of the unique and the universal. That may be why it has done so well in the United States and elsewhere…and maybe a deliberate corporate push played a part.
One of Bong Joon-ho’s inspiration for this movie was having been recommended by his girlfriend as a math tutor for a rich kid when he was in university. He was terrible and was let go pretty quickly if I remember the story correctly, but it still stuck with him, I guess. Another inspiration may have been the 1960 South Korean classic The Housemaid, about a middle class family on the rise that descends into chaos when they hire a predatory housemaid. The patriarch was even named Dong-sik. There was a remake in 2010, where the housemaid was a poor innocent and it was the rich family that was predatory. I talked about the latter in a previous WTF ASIA article here. Perhaps Bong thought to combine the two movies; keep the poor family as the overt “parasites” while having them also be the point-of-view characters.
The movie, like the family, provides few excuses and gives no apologies for the schemes against the Parks. You may exit the train at any time that you wish to, but it will not slow down for your convenience. This decision to avoid showing the Kim family being wracked with guilt over their actions has to be deliberate. It helps with the momentum of the movie, speeding up until it no longer needs to or no longer can. It helps to frame the actions as a kind of heist (or Mission Impossible sequence) rather than a drama, which may be why Ki-woo and Ki-taek keep alluding to a plan, though that is usually a combination of daydreaming about long-term aspirations and outright winging it. And, there may be a bit of allowing for wish-fulfillment vibe. That may be part of the specific appeal of Ki-jeong’s character, who is great at getting under Yeon-gyo’s skin exploiting her insecurities. Meanwhile, the others have to at least pretend to indulge in the whims of the Park family members, saying what they want to hear and doing what they want to have done and taking every opportunity dig in.
This extends, yes, to Da-hye’s not-so subtle high school crush on Ki-woo. Instead of holding back AS HE SHOULD HAVE DONE, AT THE VERY THE LEAST BECAUSE THE AGE OF CONSENT IS 20 IN SOUTH KOREA, he goes through with it. Without spoiling how this subplot goes, I will say that I have a few questions for Bong Joon-ho, especially since having Ki-woo tutor Da-hye was the catalyst for this entire story. Maybe Bong has addressed this subplot somewhere and I simply have been using Google and Youtube incorrectly, but I certainly have not noticed him discussing it. Yeah, stuff like this has cropped up in other well-loved movies and even movies that I have previously talked about in this series. But this is the most recent movie that I have featured and the South Korean movie industry had been hit with a few indirectly relevant scandals over the past few years. I must have some serious internet blindspot in regards to finding discussion about this subplot, since the only place that I have seen even mentioning this subplot was TV Tropes. The closest I have seen elsewhere is more about Min choosing Ki-woo as his replacement over his university friends due to being unable to see Ki-woo as a legitimate romantic rival, diverting the discussion about power dynamics elsewhere. People seem to be more interested in talking about the symbolic significance of stairs or whatever.
Sure, let’s talk about the symbolic significance of whatever. Stairs lead people up; stairs lead people down. Generation Pizza may signify where the Kim generations are economically. The fumigation present the Kims as the parasites. The reference to “Dokdo Is Our Land” could be a direct political statement, a means to use nationalism as a rationalization for crimes against the rich, or just using a song that every Korean knows in order to easily remember details. The various references to North Korea could be something bigger than simply the acknowledgement of a country only a few miles away or maybe not. It could be mere coincidence that the names Kim and Park are the names of the Dear Leader of North Korea and the previous conservative leader of the previous government as well as her notorious dictator father, or maybe not. The rich boy’s Scholar’s Rock could mean many things, maybe being itself the parasite that infects Ki-woo with this dream of upward mobility. Or it could simply let you impose upon it whatever importance you want. And so on. That Ki-woo refers to at least three things as metaphorical suggests to me that Bong could have just thrown in things as a joke to send his fans on wild goose chases.
I would like to talk a little bit about one theme: the obsession with America and English. Because of course I do. With America having been a major political, social, cultural, military, economic, and physical presence in South Korea since the 1950s, it is inevitable that America would cast a shadow over the lives of South Koreans. People accusing K-Pop of ripping off American music seem to ignore how much of modern Korean musical culture can trace its origins to entertainers that had no choice but to cater to American soldiers. That said, there are so many examples in this movie that it has to be purposeful. Let’s start with the English stuff. English is everywhere, including the pizza boxes. Ki-woo is supposed to teach Da-hye English, and goes by a name with a sound that I am pretty sure is rare in the Korean language. The newspaper article that catches Ki-woo’s eye when he first enters the Park house is an English article about “Nathan” Park, a name that I am also pretty sure is difficult for most Koreans to pronounce. The Kims make up a fake organization with an English name. Yeon-gyo occasionally breaks out into English for emphasis. And it turns out that she is not the only person to do that. The use of English does not necessarily point to America specifically, since there are plenty of other countries where English is the common language. Still, America is referenced a lot. That aforementioned article about “Nathan” Park is about New York City. That “Jessica” went to a college in America is seen as a sign of prestige, regardless of what college it was.
And then there is Da-song’s obsession with Native Americans. He is obsessed, but his obsession is as superficial as everything else. This rich kid who is considered an artistic genius, also fancies himself a Native American while having little understanding of Native American cultures or the context of where they fit in the narrative of America past or present. He does not care about any of that; he just plays around with consumer products while playacting a lazy stereotype of a marginalized and historically oppressed minority. And, of course, despite attacking everyone with his toy arrows unprovoked, he himself is the good guy in his narrative. The good Indian, of course, not the bad Indian. Just as his father is a benevolent overlord. And everyone has to indulge this lie. I don’t suppose that there is meant to be any parallel to certain fans of this movie, ahem.
As a reward for this America obsession that does not explicitly paint America as the bad guy, America has eaten this film up. $33 million may not sound like a lot, and is not even half of the $72 million from South Korea, but it has been the second biggest market for the movie so far and is more than the combined stateside total of his other four films released theatrically here…though I am not sure how much Okja made through Netflix US. Also, it is noticeably more than the $25 million that I had originally put there when I initially typed this up a few weeks ago. There is even talk of there being a show on HBO based on the movie. A remake? A spin-off? A continuation? Who knows? I do not even know if it is going to be set in South Korea or the United States. How would the show manage the America-obsession if it is the latter?
In other words, the ball is in your court, UK. This thing got a BAFTA and y’all love this class stuff, right?
Huh…I thought that I had more to say about the movie, but maybe a lot of what I had wanted to say here has already been discussed in much deeper terms in other places. Well, in any case, I am glad that this movie has been so beloved and has received six Oscar nominations. And that it won four of them, including BEST PICTURE! Indeed, that is okay with me. Respect.
WTF ASIA 94: 7 Khoon Maaf (India: 2011, approx. 148 minutes)
WTF ASIA 95: Chocolate (Thailand: 2008, approx. 93 minutes)