*A Call To Independent American Filmmakers to Step Up Their Class Critique Game!
By: Connery McDowell
Not long ago, the world was graced with the release of two very important films.
I’m speaking of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, and another movie out of South Korea called Burning directed by Lee Chang-Dong. These two films alone carried with them a class critique aimed right between the eyes of capitalism, and put to shame the lukewarm attempts at a similar effect by Hollywood in the last 75 years or so.
First, let’s speak about filmmaking as an art form. Indeed, in order to create a film, one must have a ton of money at their disposal. And if not, one must have a bunch of dedicated people surrounding them seeing the same vision and willing to do their jobs for free or cheap. There are very few examples of low budget films garnering box office success. There are far more examples of high budget films being complete financial disasters, but Hollywood seems willing to continue to gamble on sequels no one asked for in order to keep the machine turning.
The question is: Why?
Why, as a filmmaker, do I feel hopeless pitching a dark complicated story of class struggle to a producer, and super comfortable pitching “Iron Man vs Ant Man: The Return of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man in Beautiful Panovision”? The reason is because Hollywood has become a snake that eats its own tail: the producers are motivated by money, and will only choose scripts based on potential to make money, and writers knowing this will only write scripts producers might choose, and in the end no difficult narratives are shown to the public, very little truth escapes this system.
Is this sustainable? Absolutely not. Has it been making the rich richer? Absolutely. So it will continue. Enter South Korean film.
Now, I will admit a gap of knowledge here and at the risk of sounding racially insensitive or dull I would like to add a disclaimer. I am not a film professor or historian, I am merely someone interested in the creation of film. I do not know exactly what it is about South Korean directors that make their films more honest and free to discuss a critique of capitalism. Perhaps it’s their distance from Washington DC, and New York City, and Hollywood, and the ruins of what was once Detroit. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference unrelated to geography. Perhaps it’s bravery. Whatever the case may be, South Korea has produced two of what I view as the most influential and prescient films of my lifetime. Let’s start with Parasite.
Spoilers ahead (obviously).
Parasite is a film that follows the rise of a family of - shall we say scammers or skimmers or survivors - who one by one convince a rich couple they are not who they believe them to be - in order to infiltrate the relatively high paying jobs previously held by others. They are shown early on to live in squalor, even keeping their windows open during a fumigation process in order to have their infested apartment rid of bugs for “free.”
One thing to note about each family member is that they are all shown to be extremely hard working at different times in the film. Clearly their squalor is due to factors beyond their control. They’re shown to have to fight - almost literally - for every last South Korean Won. Living on the brink of starvation drives the young son to take an opportunity tutoring a rich high school girl, a job for which he lies about his education. Again, Bong makes it a point to show that clearly the son is smart enough to go to a college as good as the one he forged papers for, and the daughter has enough artistic talent to quickly whip up these fake documents, but the implication here is that they cannot afford schooling beyond (i assume) public high school.
Now on the other side of the coin, we are shown the rich family - which consists of a dad, a stay at home young mother, a high school aged girl, and a younger boy. The insults to the poor are constant in almost every scene with these people, and it’s not even that the characters themselves hate the poor necessarily or that they’re even conscious of their hatred. It’s that despite having all the resources in the world, these characters are so self centered as to believe that every little challenge in their daily lives is the most important thing in the world and requires immediate attention (usually by someone else). I won’t drone on too much about how accidentally loathsome these characters are, but I will end this section by pointing to one particular example that stands out from the rest.
There is a scene where the poor family is hiding under the huge living room table of the rich family as the rich have just come home on a whim because it rained a bit on their camping trip. The rich father makes a comment to his wife about how the room smells like his driver (the poor father), and that it’s a distinct smell he’s only ever smelled once before when he was in a subway train or station. In this moment he reveals his contempt for poor people, as well as the fact that he is so incredibly disconnected from the poor as for his other interactions with them to be like a distant memory.
Now, I don’t exactly love how Parasite ends, but that’s for another discussion. The second to last scene so to speak is pure brilliance. Blood is shed, a poor person who’s been literally living in the nooks and crannies of the rich man’s house emerges - forced out by other poor people who wish to inhabit that space and benefit from the occasional generosity of the rich man. The blood that is shed is innocent blood at first, the poor daughter is killed (ironically Bong includes a line earlier on about how the daughter is viewed as the only person who could really fit in with the rich folks - a warning perhaps that anyone who is complicit with the actions of the rich could be killed alongside them in the future if we come to a point of violent revolution).
Then, in an incredible cinematic moment the poor father stabs the rich father to death. It is everything about the way the poor father looks that tells the story. It’s pure adrenaline. It’s dejection. It’s visceral. And in his eyes, it’s more than justified. The rich man was unconcerned with the stabbing of the poor daughter, more focused on his own sheltered son who had fainted at the ghostly sight of the hidden poor man. Again, Bong is saying more here than I’ve seen any American filmmaker say. He’s saying that the rich are more focused on minor injuries to themselves than to say, mortal wounds to others - particularly the poor. Parasite is absolutely brilliant and cuts like a razor blade through Jello - the Jello being any argument that capitalism breeds a meritocracy.
Before I shift to Burning, I would like to briefly list some of the events that have happened recently in America. We’ve had a pandemic, during which our government has doled out measly support to a select few far too late and far too little. Most small businesses have died. Countless humans have died. Our politicians seem more concerned with arguing over the morality of Dr. Seuss than actually helping people not die or go homeless. It is completely disgraceful, and I have almost entirely lost faith in our government's ability to problem solve. Historically, where a government fails, the broader culture and private sector sometimes have ameliorated wounds. Or that’s at least what we’d like to think.
In truth, the pitiful donations by multimillionaires and billionaires have added insult to actual injury. One of the Kardashians early on donated something like a million dollars to a hospital in LA, back when the nurses were strapped up with garbage bags due to lack of protective equipment. I remember vividly all the positive articles raving about the sacrifice this multimillionaire/billionaire made for the good of the people. I even remember some of my own friends (well, acquaintances) reposting those articles and blurbs unironically. Of course, come to find out that a million dollars was equivalent to pennies from an average wealth earner, and the positive press she received as a result was probably worth quadruple what she donated. These are the parasites our society faces, on the brink of collapse. Not just the Kardashian billionaires, but the kiss the ring attitude that so many people have towards wealth. The idea that you could be a billionaire someday. That idea alone is a parasite planted in your brain by capitalism. It is not feasible, and your belief in that informs how you vote, who you support, and how you spend and share (or not share) your money, causing harm to others - in particular the most vulnerable, the poor.