Mansoo Cho is a visiting professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Sunhee Park is a visiting scholar at the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales de l’Université de Montréal.
Parasite, the film directed by Bong Joon-ho that won the Palme d’Or prize at Cannes in 2019, has continued its run of international success, earning nominations at the coming Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.
In the movie, Mr. Bong, who is known for his ability to wrap heavy social themes in seemingly light packages, has achieved a triumph in depicting a destitute family of four living in South Korea who manage to take over a wealthy family’s mansion on a mountain by becoming their tutor, driver and housekeeper using a falsified certificate and preying on false beliefs about connections. Their hard-earned security becomes short-lived, however, when they learn about the occupant living secretly in the underground of the mansion, and the film veers from comedy to tragic thriller.
But the true power of Parasite lies in its brutally honest depiction of today’s South Korean society.
South Korea is one of the few non-Western countries in modern history to achieve both a full democracy and large-scale economic development. Culturally, too, South Korean pop culture has been gaining recognition globally, finding a new peak recently thanks to the boy band BTS, which has helped inspire interest among young people from all over the world in visiting the Asian country.
But according to a recent survey, 75 per cent of young South Koreans (between 19 and 34) said they want to leave the country – prompted by the excessive work hours, unstable employment, insecurity after retirement, soaring real estate prices and loss of respect for others amid endless, cutthroat competition.
A 2015 report from South Korea’s Ministry of Employment and Labour states that South Korea’s workers have the highest turnover rate, even as they put in 300 more hours of work annually than the average among countries in the 36-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. More than 20 per cent of South Korean workers are temporary workers, the fifth-highest rate of irregular workers among the OECD countries.
Increasingly, too, there is the sense that you can only succeed if you’re a SKY graduate – that rarified-air abbreviation for Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University. Alumni go on to become South Korea’s elite class, while the rest are forced to live in a kind of lower underworld.
That experience is summed up by a half-joking nickname for South Korean society that has become popular among the younger generation: Hell Chosun. Chosun, the last Korean dynasty that reigned for more than 500 years until South Korea became colonized by Japan in 1910, was a strictly hierarchical class society – a feudal kingdom where abilities meant nothing, and social class was everything. The nickname Hell Chosun is a reflection of young people’s feelings about its anachronistic society, where the next rung on the ladder is out of reach, no matter how much you strain for it.
As Parasite resonantly shows, the battle to escape despair blinds those in it to the true nature of hell. As the family descends from the mansion on the mountain, they find their home covered with feces: This is their hell.
In Parasite, there is tragicomedy in doctors who don’t seem like doctors and police who don’t seem like police. Much in the same way, South Korean society is full of leaders who do not seem like leaders, including former president Park Geun-hye, who was ultimately impeached in 2017 for massive corruption involving bribery, infringing on press freedoms and abuse of the right to appoint government officials.
So, as the poorer family’s daughter Ki-jeong asks: “What’s the plan?” Mr. Bong suggests the older generation has neither the vision nor the ability to make our society better, meaning young people will need to figure out how to move to higher ground themselves, even if it requires stepping on top of others to achieve it.
In short, to survive, young South Koreans must effectively become a parasite or, as was the case in Yeon Sang-ho’s 2016 film Train for Busan, become a zombie and eat other humans. You can scream for help, but up there, beyond this hell, no one can hear you – and even if they can, they can’t understand you. The last few standing may think they have succeeded, but unfortunately they, too, are doomed to fail.
Mr. Bong is a film director, so it is not his job to come up with a revolutionary plan to reform South Korean society. But his message rings clear: We need to open our ears to the voices underground. The wild capitalism that infiltrated South Korea following the 1997 financial crisis was received without resistance by the country’s older generation, but today’s youths are raising their voices to demand that society shows respect for all its members, even as they struggle to compete to climb up the ladder with disdain in their Hell Chosun. What they want is for their society to uphold its fundamental values, not a reform of social systems.
Sadly, though, it is difficult to ignore the thought that the global popularity enjoyed by this deeply South Korean movie just means that the desperate reality faced by its characters isn’t unique to the country.
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