Class rage goes to the movies
Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite starkly illustrates class dynamics with the well-to-do Park family and the struggling Kim family — underlining blissful ignorance on one side, and resignation and resentment on the other.

Class rage goes to the movies

MORE ADVENTUROUS - Fiel Estrella (The Philippine Star) - January 4, 2020 - 12:00am

It’s been quite a year for Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning Parasite, named best film of 2019 by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and best foreign language film by the New York Film Critics Circle. It has received three Golden Globe nominations including Best Director, and garnered a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for Best Ensemble Cast.

In many of these cases, it has been the first South Korean feature to reach such heights, connecting with worldwide viewers on a scale that’s unmatched and unprecedented. There’s a complexity and a twist to it that makes it hard to describe and a joy to watch when you go in not knowing anything about it, but it’s also plain in its stark depiction of class dynamics — which could be what makes it so resonant, even to “very local” (Bong’s words) Western sensibilities.

Interestingly, the line that divides the well-to-do and the rest of us who struggle financially has also been explored in other favorite movies from the past year, unveiling a possible pattern in what makes today’s audiences tick. This discussion was arguably brought to the table and anchored by Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, released last November and another awards season frontrunner.

The whodunit opens, like murder mysteries are wont to do, with a body: bestselling mystery author Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) throat has been slit in his gothic mansion. Initial investigation reveals he did it himself, but it’s hardly case closed. With his fortune and property up in the air, Harlan’s surviving family reveal themselves to be despicable and unpleasant in several different ways — daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), for instance, built her own business “from the ground up,” conveniently leaving out the hefty loan from her father, son Walt (Michael Shannon) refuses to give up control of the family’s publishing house and has raised a teenage neo-Nazi, and grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) is spoiled and jobless.

When the Thrombeys — who have been swimming in privilege and privilege-blindness — find themselves threatened with the possibility of losing their wealth, they prove themselves each willing to do whatever it takes to protect their own interests. Caught in the middle is Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse and friend, who is an immigrant and not exactly living in comfort. What she does have, however, is a pure heart, integrity, and fearlessness when it comes to standing up for what’s right.

Similarly, there’s bold and brash horror-comedy Ready or Not, in which Grace (Samara Weaving) marries into the Le Domas family, whose wealth comes from their board game empire. On the night of her wedding, she has to play a game with them as an initiation of sorts and ends up drawing Hide and Seek, which apparently now means they have to hunt her and kill her in ritual sacrifice to the Devil. But Grace is not so willing to die just for them to carry on with their elitism and their affluence, so she fights back and bursts their bubble (and maybe their insides) in the process.

Both Knives Out and Ready or Not depict the rich as the clear antagonist; the chaotic evil to Marta’s lawful good and Grace’s chaotic good. They’re both disruptive and subversive to a system that favors the upper class, and while this makes them far-fetched, it’s no less fun to watch some rich snobs get their comeuppance.

Mikhail Red’s Dead Kids, which premiered on Netflix this month, takes a more realistic approach. A group of misfits carry out a plan to kidnap the biggest jerk in school, motivated by revenge and the cool P30 million they’ll be receiving as ransom. The least well-off is Sta. Maria (Kelvin Miranda), who struggles to pay rent and couldn’t get a scholarship to the expensive university of his dreams. When they discuss what to do with the money, his co-conspirators talk about cars, and he only wants to get away from the big city and return to the province.

The movie comments on the drug war and how unfair society is and uses status symbols like Yeezys and AirPods to illustrate class differences, but perhaps lacks the tension and doesn’t simmer enough in the consequence for either the would-be kidnappers, the self-absorbed victim, or the corrupt cops to leave an impression or get a message across.

Parasite itself was criticized for its “failed revolution,” as the Kim family’s ruse of monopolizing the Park family’s payroll through taking different jobs without the latter knowing they’re related to each other — a scheme that would have made their lives infinitely more comfortable, if only it were sustainable — did not lead them to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, after all. But it’s a criticism that doesn’t really have merit when you consider how the turn(s) of events flow into one another and toward an ending that’s not only justified and believable, but also equal parts hopeful and wistful. It highlights that “work hard for a better life” is bullshit, and for the lower class, there’s always, always more to lose.

The main difference is that the Parks aren’t cruel. Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) observes that they’re actually quite nice despite their wealth, and his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) is quick to say that they’re nice because they’re rich, because they can afford to be. What the Parks are, instead, is stuck-up and blissfully ignorant, and this cultivates a resentment in the Kim family that festers and boils over as the action continues to rise — which is the most radical, true-to-life part of all.

Filipinos are used to narratives that lay out the class hierarchy for us, but it’s mostly on teleseryes and in movies that depict being rich as something aspirational. But with billionaires amassing collective net worths higher than those of the rest of the world combined, more and more people have become uncomfortable with the mere idea of wealth, even for themselves.

Cinema has always reflected the times, and these days, people are driven by their anger against and frustration with a system that puts certain races, genders, and classes first and leaves them powerless. It’s refreshing and thrilling to see that filmmakers are pushing back on the status quo, and that the general public is actually here to listen. In telling, hearing, and sharing these stories, we can find ways to revolt and lay the groundwork for change — or at least see what change could be.

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