To quote a favourite superhero, from a rather shameless franchise; “these are confusing times.”
If you’re reading this, you’re probably watching the news, perspiring over stock-market reports, or losing faith in humanity. You know; the usual.
Class-conflict could be in the cards, a global recession is in the works, and a pandemic has already made headlines.
All of this, of course, means one thing; let’s talk about movies.
And before you write that off as a bad joke, let me explain. There is always truth in jest. And during times of turmoil, it is helpful to consider what artists are saying. Often, they are able to ask all the right questions.
And I find that the right questions are often the need of the hour. Even more so than any kind of answer.
We can debate at length, about whether or not the Academy Awards are still relevant. But, if you were paying attention this year, then you know that there were quite a few historic moments. Eminem finally attended. DC got its second major Oscar (sorry Marvel). And, South Korean cinema had its moment.
If we were to narrow it down to the major categories, then two films in particular received a fair bit of buzz. There was Joker; the Todd Phillips directed origin story of a legendary comic book villain. And, there was Parasite, a South Korean film that was being called ace director Bong Joon-ho’s finest effort.
Among the roster of admittedly excellent productions, these two stood out because they shared some pertinent similarities.
A Tale Of Two Underdogs
Firstly, both films could be considered wildcards, when you think about the Hollywood status quo.
On the one hand, Joker was asking the Hollywood machine to take what is essentially a comic book movie, seriously. And, in case you haven’t heard, Hollywood bigwigs aren’t willing to do that. To the extent that people you genuinely respect are bent on imploding, and losing some of that respect. All because they’re insisting that comic book movies belong in theme parks.
In the other corner, we had Parasite; a foreign movie, in a foreign language. Now, to be fair, there are some really excellent non-English films in the Oscars canon. And outside the Hollywood circles, that Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (now dubbed Best International Film) is a coveted prize.
But, very rarely has an international film garnered the kind of critical and commercial success that Parasite has amassed.
The Song Of Angry Men
Perhaps most prominently, both films tackled a common monster.
The disparity between the haves and the have-nots has been cultural fodder for generations. And it has made its big cinematic comeback of late, because of the shift in global politics. Disparity, and its egregious byproducts, have encouraged the polity to adopt a distinctly populist, and undeniably exacerbated, tone. And that anger is what has fuelled a lot of contemporary cinema.
It is certainly what won both Joker and Parasite a lot of praise.
Now, in my opinion, one of these movies was clearly superior. As you will see. And it was because of both artistic choices, and the messaging.
Also, since we will be talking about both movies, please expect spoilers. If you haven’t watched both films, now would be the perfect time. Rent them on YouTube, watch them, and then come back for the deep dive.
Ready? Okay; let’s go.
Let’s Put A Smile On That Face
Joker revolves around Arthur Flick, an aspiring comedian, who struggles to make ends meet in a decrepitly corrupt Gotham City. He lives with his ailing mother, and is routinely met with abuse by the city’s inhabitants. Simultaneously, he is frustrated by the underfunded and apathetic welfare system.
His frustrations mount, until he responds to an attack by some affluent businessmen by shooting and killing them. And thus begins his metamorphosis into the legendary titular character.
The Parasite Within
Parasite’s approach to class divide is slightly different. Rather than an individual, it focuses on the divide between two families.
The Kims live in a poor ‘semi-over-ground’ dwelling, working a menial job as pizza box folders. That is until Ki-woo, the son, gets a chance to tutor the daughter of the wealthy Park family. Slowly and gradually, members of the Kim family infiltrate the Parks’ home. Under the tutelage of the daughter, Ki-jung, they replace members of the Parks’ staff, until they’re all employed.
Their positioning in place, the Kims realise that they’re not the only ones invading the Park home. Things escalate, there’s a secret in the basement, and a murderous garden party. And you’re left wondering who the titular ‘parasite’ is; the encroaching Kims or the woefully ignorant Parks?
And The Winner Is…
Here’s the thing; Joker is a good movie, but Parasite is a masterstroke. I’m sure that it has its flaws; but I couldn’t tell you what they are. And as I hinted, it is superior because of the artistry and the messaging.
Because, while Joker is not a bad movie, it does present some troubling messages. Perhaps most egregious amongst its sins was the treatment of Penny.
The narrative is asking us to sympathise with Arthur. Now, he might not be a sympathetic character (my favourite film critic, Mark Kermode, called him ‘pitiful’ without being sympathetic).
But, the narrative is asking us to sympathise with him nonetheless.
I think it’s interesting to note the difference between a villain-protagonist and an anti-hero.
For example Split, is a great example of a film with a villain-protagonist. James McAvoy’s character is the main character; it is his story. But, he is also undeniably the bad guy. His actions may be given reasons, but they are never justified.
This differs from a classic villain being portrayed as an anti-hero, as is the case in Joker. Not only is this his story, but Arthur’s actions are offered justifications. A lack of justifications makes it clear that this person is, at the end of the day, the bad guy. Joker goes the opposite route. But, in doing so, it treats at least some of the other characters unfairly.
For example, Arthur’s mother, Penny.
Ignorance Is Bliss
In the movie, Arthur’s mother is pretty much accused of being responsible for his eventual turn. Even blamed for Arthur turning out the way that he did. Her own mental illness, and even abuse is overshadowed by her ‘allowing’ him to be abused by her spouse.
Neglect is a very complex topic, and I hope that we can have discussions about it. But often, a victim of abuse loses sympathy, if a child is involved. The very complex reality of being in an abusive relationship is masked by the ‘she was selfish’ sentiment. That her own fear isn’t valid, because she didn’t sacrifice herself for the child.
Here, the fact that Penny is singled out as a ‘narcissist’ (literally diagnosed as such) cements this argument. And Arthur smothering his invalid mother is seen as a cathartic experience. He even utters a very character defining, “comedy not tragedy” phrase while he does the deed.
But, her abusive spouse doesn’t even make a cameo.
If we go by the simple action/reaction equation; her spouse is presented as a reaction to her actions. As opposed to another person who is responsible for their own actions. Or, even more so a representative of a system that is failing, and imploding.
The Master At Work
So, before we get into Parasite; let’s gush about Bong Joon-ho. When you watch the film, you can’t help but marvel at the depth of his talent. Clearly, this time around, he came in, having decided that he was taking it. All of it.
Everything was perfect. Or, to echo Mr. Kermode’s sentiments; it was as close to perfect as it gets.
The story was poignant, the score worked beautifully, the acting was incredible, the twist was executed brilliantly. The only way that I can describe it, is that it’s just incredibly cinematic. And the confidence of the filmmaker drives this movie. He’s at the height of his craft and you have to just take it in.
“You Get What You Deserve”
While not apparent at first glance, the climax was very similar in both movies.
Many of the elements were similar. In fact, Pseudo-bulbar Affect (PBA) which is responsible for Arthur’s pained laugh in Joker, even makes a cameo in Parasite.
But while Parasite shows you, Joker tells you.
Parasite raises questions. It asks, what would you do? Or even more-so, can you blame them? Joker attempts to offer an answer; and therein lies its weakness. The human experience is so fluid, that no one answer will ever be enough.
I suppose this is because Parasite uses fantasy to underscore reality, whereas Joker is trying to make the fantastical real.
Lights, Camera, Magic
Masters of magical realism, have said that they opt for the technique because reality is more absurd than imagination. Parasite taps around a similar vein. Interspersing real-world politics with impossible scenarios.
Interestingly, Parasite was called a home invasion film, and in a way it is. But, it also transcends genre. It merges drama, dark comedy, thriller, and even horror. And, It is very cinematic for this very reason; because you cannot put it in a box.
But arguably the most fantastical aspect of the film isn’t impossible at all. In 2008, it was reported that a homeless woman had been living in a man’s closet for a year. She had snuck into his house, and lived undetected, until the residents noticed food disappearing.
Post production interviews reveal just how much of the film is inspired by reality. Apart from his own experiences, Bong Joon-ho also drew on the systemic realities in present day South Korea.
When you compare Parasite to other representations of the class divide, it is distinctly systemic in its outlook. In Joker, the rich and powerful are marked by greed, corruption, and ruthlessness. In more sterilised representations, such as Downton Abbey, a few good people are presented to counter the inequalities.
We Didn’t Start The Fire
Parasite dwells on a different plane. The Parks are not ruthless, greedy, or even calculating. They seem like, for the most part, decent people. Elitist? Absolutely! But really, is that so very surprising?
The true culprit is the system. Which quells any chance for the Kims’ succeeding, and also encourages them to compete with other equally poverty stricken people. Eventually, it is the system, which necessitates competition, adversity and inequality, that is at fault.
And ultimately, individual niceties or even charity cannot mitigate this. The tragic ending of Parasite is a harrowing reminder of this.
One More Thing…
Parasite made history, by becoming the first non-English language film to win the Best Picture Oscar. And many people were actually surprised by this. And when I say surprised, I of course mean seething with rage.
Like I said; seething. Essentially, there was a ton of criticism because of the use of language. As while the title was translated, the film as a whole wasn’t.
And I could go into how colonially hungover this is. Except that, the film kind of does that for me.
English tutoring is the plot point that gets the movie moving. Throughout the film, a lot of importance is granted to learning the English language. Simultaneously, there is a constant mention of getting things from the US; as somehow the quality is better. Because, of course it is. And then there is the Parks’ matriarch, who intersperses her speech with English phrases.
The power dynamics of language in a post colonial society, are littered throughout the film. (I’ll let you decide whether I mean ‘post’ as ‘after’, or as ‘a continuation of’). But, this also says something about Parasite’s artistic merits. It was able to represent and even predict, these very real biases.
As far as dirges go; this one was pretty thorough. And while these films aren’t relics, they’re also anything but recent. So, why dwell on them? And that too, in such detail.
Well, because like I said; it’s those questions that we need to be looking for. Especially, when the seeds of uncertainty are so readily being sown. If we turn our canon onto present day, the class divide is ever relevant.
Given the recent pandemic, social distancing and self-quarantine have become pertinent needs. And yet, how are those that live on hourly wages, surviving on pay-cheques supposed to cope? Moreover, how is a system that thrives on individualism, and competition supposed to deal with their concerns?
And, given this calamity, how will the ensuing anger manifest?