Hidden Families and Class Conflict in Bong’s Parasite

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“We often think of class conflict as a product of distance but in Bong’s films this sense of class conflict is a product of both distance and connection or closeness.” Dr. Marc Yamada (Department of Comparative Arts and Letters) addressed a full crowd eager to learn more about this year’s Academy.Award.winning film and Bong Joon-ho’s latest picture Parasite (2019). Yamada situated the film in what he called the “post-Crazy-Rich-Asians moment” (referring to the 2018 romantic comedy). That film, which was screened last semester at the International Cinema, focused solely on the glamour, style, and extreme wealth of a few in Asia. Other films look at the flip side of the coin, like the film that won the Palme d’Or the year previous to Parasite’s win, Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters (2018). Parasite has often been compared to Shoplifters not just because they were both the recipient of one of film industry’s biggest honors, but because they both explore themes of the economy, class, and the family. 

Yamada began by giving the background of Korea and Japan’s economic success over the last century. The rise of both was due largely to state sponsored capitalism. Their governments would pick out a few main companies to sponsor and make the centerpieces of the nations’ economies. In Japan these companies are called keiretsu, in Korea they are called chaebol. Some of these chaebol such as Samsung and Hyundai are well known even outside of the region. 

Because of the massive economic growth of these nations in such a rapid period, the structure of families changed in turn. Families today in Japan and Korea are characterized by the distant, salaryman father who provides everything for the family and a wife who does everything possible to help her husband continue to perform well at work while doing the same for their children and their schooling. Kids are supposed to work rigorously in school so that they too can become these kinds of effective workers when they grow up. The family then acts as an extension of the corporation, which is itself an extension of the state. Yamada said, “The idea of family as an extension of the corporation, or even the family as corporation, is really key in South Korean culture,” and pointed to the central role of the chaebol.

Yamada also noted the ways in which chaebol, while being owned and operated by a single family, will keep the different divisions separate from each other. Each works for the corporation but only works within their respective fields. Normative families follow suit and families members have become increasingly separated from each other in these two nations. This of course is true on a large scale but exceptions are sure to occur.

One such exception, and even a challenge to this normative state-extension family, is the central family in Shoplifters. What seems to be a fairly regular, poor family is revealed to be entirely self-constructed: the family members are not biologically related. Yamada read this organic family as a critique of the normative, top-down structure. 

Parasite in turn offers a critique of the ways in which chaebol have created an elite class within South Korea. Likewise one of Bong’s previous films, Snowpiercer (2013) depicts a post-apocalypse where all of humanity is stuck on one perpetually moving train. The train has become stratified according to class with the rich up front and the poor in the back. Despite the forced distance between them, the upper-class passengers require the lower-class passengers to work dehumanizing jobs in order to sustain their opulent lifestyle. It is the distance but also the proximity of members of the different classes that leads to the film’s conflict.

Parasite, Yamada suggests, is engaging in these themes of economy, family, and class. The film centers around two families, the wealthy Parks and the poor Kims. The families are separated by the differences in their houses, the houses’ placements in the city, as well as their respective lifestyles. However, they are interdependent. The Kims rely on the Parks for jobs and financial security while the Parks couldn’t sustain their way of life without the Kims as their workers. Their proximity is also emphasized in them both having incredibly common surnames and similar family structures as well (father, mother, older daughter, and younger son). Look for, Yamada suggested, ways in which proximity and distance is visually manifest in the film such as stairs, the interior design, and the architecture. It is often in these locations that Bong’s unique tone of comedy and drama plays out. One thing Yamada noted near the end of his lecture was how this mixture of comedy and drama can make many viewers uncomfortable. The violence of a comedy is often reversible, but in a drama or horror it is not. Bong’s violence, showcased near the end of the film, is a great example of how he can make something so sinister so funny and something so funny so sinister.

Re-thinking Rom-Coms?

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“Is the Rom-Com dead?” Some hands warily raised while others remained still. Dr. Marc Yamada from the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters is currently serving as one of the co-directors of the International Cinema. One of the co-directors’ main responsibilities is to choose the films shown each semester. Yamada knows that the romantic-comedy Crazy Rich Asians (2018) is not the typical fare here, so the goal of his lecture was to provide a context for why this film belongs at the International Cinema.

Romantic-comedies, while not in the mainstream film industry as strongly anymore, are very much still alive. Many minority cinemas have adopted the rom-com formula to tell new stories about their specific group dynamics. In recent years, there has been a huge influx of rom-com’s in American Black cinema, LGBTQ cinema, and—most recently—Asian cinema. What was typically the love triangle between one woman and her two male suitors has now become a framework for discussing issues of class, race, gender, and sexuality. Crazy Rich Asians, as you may suspect, is primarily about class and race, but gender finds its way in as well.

The film is concerned, Dr. Yamada argued, with the question, “What does it mean to be Chinese?” Is the answer determined by ethnography? Geography? Linguistics? Citizenship? Crazy Rich Asians invites viewers who previously thought of all Chinese people as homogenous, to see the differences in Chinese communities around the world. The film follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) who acts as the outsider’s insider. She’s Chinese-American and fits the stereotype, according to her, as she’s “an economics professor with lactose intolerance.” Rachel is invited to accompany her Chinese-Singaporean boyfriend to a huge wedding event between two elite families in Singapore. She naively believes that she’ll get along with everyone because “she is Chinese.” It comes as a surprise to Rachel to find that not all Chinese communities are the same.

Dr. Yamada proposed that the rom-com formula is used to explore these differing identities. Instead of the regular meet-cute we see in older rom-coms, the romantic leads have already met and are seriously dating when the film begins. Additionally, the love triangle is seemingly done away with as there are no other men pursuing Rachel, but Dr. Yamada argued that the love triangle, has not been trashed, it has been transformed. The triangle is not one of romantic love between three individuals but of maternal care and identity between Rachel, her mother, a Chinese-American, working-class immigrant and her boyfriend’s mother, the powerful, traditional, and wealthy matriarch (played by the unparalleled Michelle Yeoh). These three women’s interactions in the film directly relate to the key question Dr. Yamada asked, “What does it mean to be Chinese?”

As suggested earlier, the film does not only use the rom-com formula to explore race and class but gender as well. As opposed to the older Asian male stereotypes of “Evil Other,” “Wise Master,” and “Side-kick,” and the newer stereotype of soft masculinity (as seen heavily in the pop music from Northeastern Asia), the film is very interested in a more masculine, Asian male. The men in the film receive affection not only narratively from their female partners, but cinematically from the camera.

Dr. Yamada concluded by asking us to be wary of the stereotypes put forth in this film. Not all Asians are as wealthy and hyper-materialistic as depicted in this small slice. Rampant maid exploitation is the sweat that makes the “Crazy Rich Asians’” lifestyle possible. To combat this, the International Cinema is also showing a companion piece this week of Koreeda Hirokazu’s newest, Palme d’Or winning film Shoplifters (2018), that shows the flip side of this wealth disparity.