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by Karin Lowachee

The Disease of Class Divisions


The Korean New Wave of cinema has produced films that have garnered praise worldwide. Examples include Oldboy, Train To Busan, and, most recently, Parasite, which has been taking the filmmaking institutions by storm. Parasite was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won both of those and two more. It also won a SAG Award for Best Cast in a Motion Picture and was honored with the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film.

Of course, award recognition is not necessarily the ultimate marker of quality, but it does demonstrate the growing international awareness and appreciation of South Korea's film industry. South Korea is now the fifth largest film market in the world for gross box office revenue, standing behind the U.S., China, Japan, and the U.K. Understandably, Netflix recognized this fact and produced its first original Korean drama, Kingdom, which premiered January 2019 to universal acclaim.

On the outside, the two films—Kingdom is a tightly told six-part series that feels like a single film—could not seem more divergent. Kingdom, written by Kim Eun-hee (and based on his webcomic The Land of the Gods) and directed by Kim Seong-hun, is a period zombie drama set during the Joseon Dynasty. The characters possess seventeenth-century weaponry (and reference recent wars with Japan that occurred in the 1590s), but the lack of technological advancement becomes a salient point of tension and drama as the characters struggle to understand and fight a growing epidemic of the undead. This is not the world of The Walking Dead, which is arguably the twenty-first-century juggernaut of all zombie productions, where one is used to a certain visual aesthetic of post-apocalyptic disrepair. Kingdom is by turns vibrant with the decadence of the aristocracy and muted in the colors of peasant life, all with the backdrop of sweeping landscape cinematography.

By contrast, Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite (he wrote the story, co-wrote the screenplay with Han Jin-won, and directed) is a modern story set in urban South Korea, about two families occupying opposite ends of an economic divide, and the "parasitic" invasion by one family into the other. Like Kingdom, however, aesthetic alone could tell the story of these two spheres: the rich and the poor, as the affluent Parks reside in a world of open spaces, pouring light, and rich palettes, whereas the Kim family subsists in sub-basement tight confines and grungy hues and textures. Both films serve as studies into the forces—represented literally as a disease in Kingdom and metaphorically as a biological entity in Parasite—that polarize and dehumanize people in bitter class conflict.

Though the films balance drama, a varying amount of horror/suspense elements, and humor, the throughline in both narratives highlights the negligence or direct malevolency of the upper class to the detriment of the lower class. In Kingdom, this manifests as an outright disease, as the king falls ill and, through the machinations of his Chief State Councillor, is resurrected as a flesh-eating monster. The perils that ultimately beset the kingdom carry from the top down, an age-old story that asserts when the royal family is in disorder, or the monarch is corrupt, the ramifications fall upon the entire kingdom. But Kingdom also depicts the other possible outcome through the story's Crown Prince, that when those with power take up the cause for the betterment of all, such leadership can bring people together and even save their lives. "I wanted to be different from those who abandoned the weak," he declares. It requires courage rather than selfishness, though even with the Crown Prince, the class divide never quite disappears, even if his position is questioned.

Thwarting his efforts to some degree is the behavior of the nobility around him; other than his old master Lord Ahn, most of the wealthy citizens from town to town refer to the lower class as peasants and insist upon their own survival above those who serve them and toil in the land. One tortured scholar even accuses the Chief State Councillor of "feeding off the people." This allusion to ravenous hunger reflects in the literal zombie hordes that rage through the land, but it also points to the rich and powerful who readily sacrifice those economically beneath them—literally and metaphorically—for their own survival, greed, or simple arrogance.

Some of the destitute communities eat their dead to survive even before the undead rise, while more than one scene depicts the aristocracy gorging themselves on meat and treats. The poor are taxed heavily, neglected by their lords, and restricted from hunting the royal game for sustenance upon threat of penalty. Stepping out of line as a peasant can result in anything from imprisonment to the annihilation of whole families—a threat made by the Crown Prince to his bodyguard in jest, but later repeated in earnest by more than one powerful individual. The massacring zombies equalize the fear for one's life, but when the nobility possesses more resources and clout—whether it's hiding behind barricades or kiting off on battleships—those in poverty must fight twice as hard to survive. Remove the zombie element and this is still true in our modern world. While horror has ever been a metaphor for so much of what humanity fears or struggles with, by setting a zombie narrative in an ancient land where systemic inequality is both accepted and exploited, the horror gains a certain depth of feeling and meaning that transcends the genre.

Bong Joon-Ho is a filmmaker who routinely bends and plays with genre elements, from his weird and wonderful Snowpiercer and Okja, to 2019's Parasite. As in Kingdom, the dehumanizing of those less fortunate fuels both the humor and the horror. But where Kingdom spans an entire country, the characters in Parasite exist in basically two locations: their individual homes. The contrast of these environments is stark, and though nobody is getting eaten in the world of Parasite, the metaphorical representation of a biological entity attaching to a host is no less damaging in the real world consequences of the film.

"They're rich but still nice," says a drunk Mr. Kim of the wealthy Parks, whose home Kim's family takes over, to which his wife replies: "They're nice because they're rich." The implication that affluence allows for a certain generosity or magnanimity, to which the poor must more often than not be grateful or obsequious, highlights the expectations society may have for those on opposite ends of the economic spectrum. The audience finds their allegiances flipflopping as the Parks, though clueless and self-involved, are hardly malicious. The machinations of the Kims become increasingly dire, and yet one can understand their desperation, frustration, and even anger, particularly at the condescension so breezily laid upon them by the Parks. Mr. Park mentions how grateful he is that Mr. Kim, who becomes his driver, never "oversteps," and worse yet, how Mr. Kim smells "like an old radish." These off-the-cuff criticisms echo similar statements by the nobility in Kingdom, who differentiate themselves from the peasants by their attire and cleanliness. There is a disturbing undertone in both films, entrenched in the wealthy characters, that implies that the poor somehow deserve their state, or have brought it upon themselves, or are somehow meant to be there.

This is compelling, entertaining, and relevant storytelling. South Korea's film industry seems to be taking risks that the rest of the world is responding to, perhaps exactly because there is that throughline of truth no matter how unbelievable the circumstances. With high production values, deft direction, and smart scripts, the uniquely South Korean point-of-view is well worth the investigation. As director Bong Joon-Ho stated in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes: "Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films."



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