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Parasite and Democracy: A Case for Space

In the midst of an ever-extended quarantine, I often find myself thinking back to the opening night of Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 film Parasite and the neglected promises of global Capitalism.

Parasite and Democracy: A Case for Space

Written by Aiden Mirza

A still from the film Parasite. Two people hold phones selfie-style in a cluttered, rundown bathroom

Image: CJ Entertainment

--Caution: contains minor spoilers--

In June 1987, the death of student protestor Lee Han-yeol became a key event of the June Democracy Movement in South Korea, which eventually led to various democratic reforms in the country.  

In many ways, the June Democracy Movement can be thought of as the culmination of South Korea’s previous May Democracy Movement in 1980, which led to the Gwangju Uprising. During the highly polarising and ill-fated historic protest, students in the provincial city marched for their beliefs. In the wake of this moment, freedom of assembly became severely restricted throughout Korea. 

These moments of protest and political turmoil are jarring bookends to the authoritarian dictatorship of Korea's fifth president, military strongman Chun Doo Hwan. In each case, the regime used military force against civilian populations in order to silence dissent. In 2020, it seems that echoes of such turmoil not only resurface in Korean pop culture, but serve as important lessons on the wellbeing of democracy. 

In the midst of an ever-extended quarantine, I often find myself thinking back to the opening night of Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 film Parasite. My roommate and I, who had initially joined the ticket queue to see another film, quickly caught on to our neighbours’ enthusiasm. People walked slowly around the cinema as if catching their breath, or struck by a revelation. This change in pace is something I’ve witnessed in every group of people leaving a screening of the film. 

In many ways, I was witnessing the film Parasite rescale modern cinema to the big screen. While contemporary blockbusters use their screen space, lauded for impeccable editing and cinematic technique, many have heavily neglected the social space of the cinema: they are equally legible in the brimming plastic stands before the silver screen as they are when viewed alone on a beat-up sofa facing a high-res laptop monitor. 

In contrast, Parasite demanded presence and synchronicity. The heavy social allegory centres on the relationship between the poor Kim family and their rich employers, the Park family. The intricate plot left audiences not only hypersensitive to the feature itself, but to fellow audience members. In the hushed conversations after the lights came up, we silently weighed our places in society against one another. Who lives in the hills? The semi-basements? Who lives underground? The film, which gathered viewers in the same place, suggests that these levels can exist in the same house at the same time. 

The luxury to gather together is something that many have forfeited in fulfilling their civic responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as containment draws to a close, the  Black Lives Matter Movement is demonstrating the importance of standing together against systemic injustice. Demonstrators demand that those in positions of privilege recognise the atrocities which are enacted against the Black community on both institutional and individual levels. 

 

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Systemic injustice is a running theme in Parasite, which recalls various unresolved issues of dictator Chun Doo-hwan’s leadership. In unearthing a past which contemporary modernity would rather pave over, the film betrays the types of neglected promises which destabilise global capitalism.

A still from the film Parasite showing a clean, very modern home interior a woman walks in the background followed by two dogsOne clear instance of this criticism is the pivotal flood at the climax of the film. As the Kim family flees the Park household in the famous and beautiful neighbourhood of Seongbuk, they climb downwards through the highways and byways of Seoul. At the very bottom of their path, they reach their home in Ahyeon-dong, the site of a redevelopment project which targeted the poor neighbourhood. Although indications of the former disrepair remain, such as the cramped convenience store depicted early in the film, citizens residing in the hillside warren are threatened with increasing property values and resulting evictions. 

Although Ahyeon-dong was long established by the presidency of Chun Doo Hwan, haphazard housing development plagued Seoul during his presidency. In an effort to appease the public, who had demonstrated for democracy at the beginning of his rule, the dictator promised to encourage housing developments within the urban centres such as Gangnam: a promise he made good on through deals with predatory realtors. 

The uneven distribution of resources which ensued left a seemingly permanent under-class of families such as the Kims stuck in semi-liveable, semi-basement apartments. Ironically, redevelopment projects are slowly eradicating this lifestyle, putting additional pressure on families in such situations. 

Such practises can be seen as analogous to redlining in the United States, a process by which many Black communities were relegated to undesirable or unsafe real estate. Based on residency demographics drawn up by government authorities, banks and investors would systematically deny development opportunities to predominantly non-white neighbourhoods. The effects of redlining are still apparent throughout urban centres today, making Michigan one of the most segregated states in the union. 

The film’s more sinister twist, taking place amidst a fateful rainstorm, reveals subterranean subalterns.

Below the Park house is a sub-basement cellar, a forgotten relic from the heart of the military dictatorships. While North Korean invasion is a mostly-forgotten threat in contemporary times, it was an important mechanism of control in South Korea’s authoritarian past. Unexpected military drills are a constant hallmark of South Korean cinema in the 70s and 80s, continually interrupting and brutalising the natural flow of civilian life. The threat of a foreign invader which never arrived was a perpetual pretext for maintaining martial law, silencing dissent, and suppressing democracy. 

While a North Korean invasion never materialised, the fear led people of privilege to prepare for the worst. Under such a threat, those such as the fictional architect who built the Park house built cellars for their own safety, and failed to speak out against the systemic injustices perpetrated by the military regime. 

In the contemporary United States, it is important to be cognizant of our fears. Is any threat so great as to justify the use of military force against a lay citizenry? 

In June of 1987, many Koreans decided it was not. As students marched the wealthy international district of Seoul on June 9th, Yonsei University student Lee Han-yeol was severely wounded by a grenade of tear gas. His image went on to become one of the most powerful rallying cries of the democracy movement. The sacrifices of Lee and other protestors lead South Korea to conduct its first free and open elections in December of the same year.

Aiden made the long, tumultuous journey from the University of Michigan’s cloistered program in abstract mathematics to the arts through a series of happy accidents. Currently pursuing BA degrees in Art & Design and Art History, they concentrate in digital media and Asian Art, respectively. With their humble hypothetical twitter feed, they hope to bring a different perspective into discussions of sound synthesisers.

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