Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers for “Parasite.”
The central object in the director Bong Joon Ho’s newest film, “Parasite,” which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a suseok, or an ornamental rock. Scholar’s rocks, as they are also called, represent the unity of humans and the cosmos as venerated in Confucianism. They are formed by nature into aesthetically pleasing shapes — and, as we soon learn in “Parasite,” are harbingers of good luck. The film opens with the Kim family, who live in a basement apartment on a dead-end street in Seoul. They are broke and unemployed, resorting to folding pizza boxes for a nearby restaurant to make money. By chance, the son of the family, Ki-woo, is visited by a former classmate, Min, who is quitting his gig as an English tutor to a wealthy schoolgirl to study abroad and wants Ki-woo to take over. Before leaving, Min gives the Kims a suseok that once belonged to his grandfather. Fortune is such an abstract idea to the struggling Kims that Ki-woo’s mother, Chung-sook, wonders why Min couldn’t have just brought them something to eat instead.
And yet, whether through coincidence or the rock’s ancient powers, the moment the suseok enters the Kims’ lives, their luck changes. Ki-woo arrives at the home of the Park family, a Modernist palace set in the upper-class Seongbuk-dong neighbourhood situated high above the rest of the city. Going by the name Kevin, he shows the sweet and gullible Mrs. Park a doctored diploma, which she dismisses — personal recommendations matter more than paperwork. Her other child is a difficult and artistic little boy, and Ki-woo slyly suggests that Mrs. Park hire an art tutor he knows, Jessica, who is in fact his sister, Ki-jung. Soon, through a series of subtle deceptions and manoeuvres, the Kims infiltrate every part of the Park household’s staff: Their father, Ki-taek, takes over as chauffeur after the Kims lead the Parks to believe that their previous driver is a sexual deviant; their mother replaces the housekeeper, Moon-gwang, after the Kims convince the Parks (falsely, of course) that Moon-gwang has tuberculosis.
From left: the actors Choi Woo-shik, Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin and Park So-dam in “Parasite” (2019).
In this way, the Kims turn the Parks into a financial life raft, and their scheme seems perfectly sound until they discover an even lower-class leech living among them: the former housekeeper’s husband, who, hunted by loan sharks, has been stashed away by his wife in a subbasement that even the Parks aren’t aware exists. The room is heavily symbolic — the poorer the person is in “Parasite,” the farther underground he dwells — and yet it is also a practicality: Rooms such as this, we are told, are a common amenity in wealthy homes, a safeguard against nuclear attack, perhaps, or a place to hide your worst secrets. This discovery throws the Kims’ plans into disarray and, like Chekhov’s gun, the suseok returns, not as a symbol of fortune but as a weapon, setting off an explosion of violence with a Shakespearean-level death toll.
If a desire for wealth propels “Parasite,” then class differences are the film’s foundation. Mrs. Park is “nice because she’s rich,” says Chung-sook, observing what money actually affords people. And yet the suseok is a metaphor for something more ancient — the Confucian philosophy that still influences South Korean society, a place where fundamental beliefs about obedience and respect have been manipulated to create a highly wealthy and functional economy, one in which women are not considered equal to men and where there is an ever-widening divide between rich and poor: the result of a relentless pursuit of rapid economic growth.
Like South Korean cinema, the staples of East Asian and some Southeast Asian cinema are steeped in florid personal vengeance narratives — from Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 “Throne of Blood,” an adaptation of Macbeth, to Kim Ki-young’s psychosexual 1960 thriller “The Housemaid” (and its equally disturbing 2010 remake by Im Sang-soo) to the vengeful ghosts of Japan’s 1998 horror film “Ringu” to the ultraviolence of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy, which includes the acclaimed 2003 movie “Oldboy.” These films are among the most violent and gruesome in cinematic history: gothic spectacles of anger and obsession. They present families and relationships that seemingly obey the tenets of a harmonious society. But eventually, something goes wrong, harmony is disrupted and violence ensues. All of the films contain elements of exoticism: Submissive women are seduced; a man eats a live octopus. These details reveal, in part, why these movies surprise and delight American audiences. But below the surface is a deeper rupture. These movies both reinforce certain Confucian values and simultaneously combat stereotypes about Asians: that they are obedient, dutiful, loyal, timid and fearful. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
Just as Alfred Hitchcock invented an entirely new genre of film by channelling European wartime anxiety, films such as “Parasite” challenge globalization and its effects. The Park family displays their wealth not just in their ability to afford a full-time staff but also in their embrace of Western culture. Mr. Park works for a multinational company; Mrs. Park casually drops English words into her speech. Yet what powers the story is the profound rage that runs beneath all the characters’ lives, an infection about to erupt.
Courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Choi Min-sik in “Oldboy” (2003).
Confucianism originated in ancient China with the scholar and philosopher Confucius, who was born in 551 B.C. After being formally adopted as a political ideology during the Han dynasty (from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220), a golden age of learning and law whose influence lasted for nearly two millenniums, it traveled east, first to Korea and then Japan, by means of its own popularity but also the dominance of the Chinese Empire. Confucianism proposes the idea that people are fundamentally good, that we are capable of improving ourselves through education and self-cultivation. It emphasizes loyalty, sacrificing one’s own goals and satisfaction in order to maintain traditional hierarchies and the status quo: A citizen is faithful to his country, the son to the father, the wife to her husband, the younger brother to his older brother. In more contemporary times, the philosophy has re-emerged as a political ideology: In 2013, President Xi Jinping of China made a pilgrimage to Qufu, Confucius’s hometown, and promised to make “the past serve the present.” But it has also occasionally been used — much in the way democratic ideals are employed to promote a neoliberal, Western agenda — to justify the larger mechanics of political manoeuvring. On the one hand, it’s surprising that these East Asian societies that so value obedience should have perfected the revenge narrative in popular culture, though on the other, it isn’t at all: When the idea of obedience is used to justify authoritarian governments and socially rigid hierarchies, rebellion is never far-off.
But why is cinema, in particular, such a powerful tool for telling stories of rage and revenge? The contemporary literature of East and Southeast Asia also touches on these topics: The 2007 South Korean novel “The Vegetarian,” by Han Kang, tells of a wife’s revulsion to meat that upends her place in society; the short stories of the Japanese writer Taeko Kono, whose violent fantasies of disembowelling toddlers can be difficult to read, speak to a deep-seated rage of being an independent woman in 1960s Japan. But fear is more easily manufactured with movies, a visual medium that lends itself well to making the gruesome and ridiculous seem possible.
Movies are also easier to export. Martial arts films of the ’60s and ’70s required little in the way of dialogue — the plot was advanced by a well-choreographed fight. Similarly, these revenge films rely on a lexicon of violence: Nearly every culture understands the danger of a hidden gun, of looking into dark corners during the middle of the night. And as disparate as these films can be, they’ve also created visual tropes of their own: Eyeballs and ears are gouged with blunt objects, people are shot point blank, people fling themselves from buildings. Women — thin and unsparing, tough and uninterested in sex — often take centre stage. Sex, incidentally, is rarely a focal point, but when it is, it is in service of character development or humour — “Buy me drugs,” Mrs. Park coos to her husband in “Parasite” in the middle of the act, in a scene that is as bizarre as it is pathetic. By contrast, in American horrors and thrillers, a woman who has been sexualized onscreen is usually the first to die.
Gelatin silver print © Miwa Yanagi and Loock Galerie, Berlin
Miwa Yanagi’s “Rapunzel” (2004).
The revenge narrative of East Asian cinema is often rooted in the breaking of tradition. Jia Zhangke’s 2013 “A Touch of Sin” examines what happens when individuals choose to confront corruption and inequality. It tells four loosely intermingled stories of a group of ordinary Chinese citizens; the first centres on Dahai, a poor villager in Northern China’s Shanxi Province, who is angry that the village boss of the local coal mine hasn’t fairly distributed the profits from its sale. What follows is a classic sequence of violence, in which Dahai, rifle in hand, enacts bloody revenge against each person who has caused him distress — from the coal mine owner to the idiot farmer who savagely whips his horse. It’s hard not to cheer for Dahai, who represents a simple desire for equality, as he leaves a path of bodies behind him — here is someone who seems to be broadcasting his anguish beyond his private enemies and onto society as a whole.
Which is to say that the morality in “A Touch of Sin,” as in “Parasite,” is askew. This, too, has become one of the major emblems in today’s Asian cinema. Near the end of Chan-wook’s 2005 “Lady Vengeance,” a young woman named Lee Geum-ja, who has been wrongfully imprisoned for 13 years for the death of a 5-year-old boy, finally has the man actually responsible for the crime tied up before her. She offers the assembled group of parents whose children were also murdered by the man a choice: They can hand the case over to the detective (who is also present) or they can solve the problem themselves. They choose the latter, and the resulting scene is at once violent, cathartic, therapeutic, restorative but also utterly grotesque and horrifying.
It’s telling that most of these films, unlike most of Western cinema, rarely incorporate an authority figure such as the police or a judge — if they do appear, it is often as an accessory. The fight for justice nearly always happens on the individual level, but in the interest of a shared goal of vengeance, which is both a repudiation of Confucianism as well as an embrace of it. If Western films depict vigilantism as romantic, East Asian films embrace the idea that the individual is sometimes the best person to answer to his wrongs. Western horrors and thrillers operate with and against Puritanical values — evil is innate and must be purged, purity is often defiled and can never be recovered. But the Analects, an ancient text composed of ideas and sayings directly attributed to Confucius, espouses the transformative power of virtue. Nothing should be coerced, nothing forced. Confucius said: “Not to mend one’s ways when one has erred is to err indeed.” Justice is more complex when one has been wronged, and when morality becomes disconnected from a clear set of laws. In a Confucian society, where there is no distinct sense of heaven or hell, where a deity will not necessarily punish you for your sins and where citizens must ultimately manage one another, these movies suggest a different course of action. Violence is not necessarily immoral, if done for the right reasons. Just be aware of what such actions ultimately do to one’s self. As Confucius also said: “Recompense injury with justice, and recompense kindness with kindness.”
Courtesy of Kino Lorber
Im Su-jung as Su-mi in “A Tale of Two Sisters” (2003).
There is A Korean word, han, that has been used to describe the violence of Asian cinema. The word doesn’t have an English equivalent but encompasses feelings such as suffering, anger, resignation, grief, pain, longing and revenge. The term became popular in the 1970s, as Koreans advocated for a kind of cultural authenticity. But its origins are from the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century, when the Japanese art critic Yanagi Soetsu described the artworks of Korea he admired as possessing a kind of “beauty of sorrow.” In the ’70s, the poet Kim Chi Ha likened han to a “people eating monster,” saying that “accumulated han is inherited and transmitted, boiling in the blood of the people.” “Han” may be a distinctly Korean term, but it is the one that best describes contemporary Asian cinema writ large as it attempts to reckon the present with its past — it stands for a collective trauma, a larger idea of suffering that can move through generations and settles into the bedrock of history. Today, the idea of loyalty, of obedience and self-improvement, can seem hopelessly outdated, as can the idea of achieving a collective harmony in the face of poverty and greed. Rage is a destructive emotion in this equation, but within art, it is also radical and, in rare moments, elucidating. The best of these films understand that the outcome of pitting people against one another can be violent, that it will invariably end badly. But they also understand that a repressive society can transform individuals into monsters.
In “Parasite,” none of the families involved are responsible for the inequality of the society that has made their situations so different, and neither are they necessarily best equipped to answer for it. These films appeal to a need to confront a deeply inflexible world. They’re not interested in showing the hero’s journey that results in both victory and a personal transformation. Which is why we cheer for our doomed protagonists even when we know that tragedy is inevitable. These films make us recognize that our desires and our impulses — our sense of what is wrong and right, but also what we irrationally want — are often rooted in a past that can be hard to see, like the edges of a riverbed from which a beautiful limestone rock was once lifted.
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