*spoilers ahead for Parasite & Joker*
Two films – both from different nations – tackled eerily similar themes this year. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite gave us a measured and precise take on social and economic disparity between the rich and the poor of South Korea while Todd Phillips’s Joker offered up a chaotic rise of terror born from the aforementioned disparity.
Where the two films differ is in the exploration of their commentary on class. Joker operates as an edgy, incendiary film that has no genuine take on class other than to inflate the social views of the audience. Though its chaos is entertaining and works as a crisp character study of Arthur Fleck’s descent into the The Clown Prince of Crime, it does very little by way of actually dissecting the chasm between the rich and poor. Its one goal is to give the audience an easy way out. Wherever you land on the economic spectrum, all it does is stoke the fires of your anger. Whether you align with the rioters and the lavish shot of Joaquín Phoenix surrounded by them, or you abhor his actions against the Waynes and Murray Franklin, it doesn’t really matter. Joker offers no explanation or exploration of class, instead operating as a crowd-pleasing film masquerading itself as socially important.
Joker doesn’t have to be a film that is critical of society, but the issue is that the reaction audiences are having is one that indicates nothing other than their own political standings – which were already set before they witnessed the very first frame of the film. It doesn’t stand to question your political stance or even allow you to empathise with either side. It draws an obvious line between both, divides the audience, and achieves a mirrored reaction from either sect.
Within the space of a few days, however, Parasite slowly crept its way into theatres around the world. It came bearing a similar theme but presented in a wholly different way.
Bong Joon-ho frames class and financial disparity in a tangible manner that does not inflate any political view of the audience, rather encouraging the audience to engage with its subjects and understand who the real villain is.
Despite the bloodshed of the final act, with multiple murders committed by the poor, we are given such a succinct path into that moment that the actions are entirely vindicated.
Mr Kim (Song Kang-ho) is forced to eavesdrop on his wealthy boss, Mr Park (Sun-kyun Lee), as he and his wife joke about Mr Kim’s smell. They describe the pungent odor in vivid detail as the camera slowly pans down and focuses on Mr Kim’s empty expression as he hides underneath a table. His expression gives way to many thoughts, chiefly that this isn’t the first time he has been subject to mockery at the expense of his poverty as well as offering us an insight into what Mr Park’s wealthy family think of their less-fortunate workers.
We discover that a poor family lives in the passage directly below the mansion of the Parks. They live among the parasites and dust as they evade ‘debt collectors.’ A struggle for power breaks out between the Kims and this family; a fight between two groups of poor people. Both with former food business that went bankrupt. Bong Joon-ho highlights how we are only ever one mistake or injustice away from poverty. While the Parks spend their days living lavishly, two poor families battle each other instead of stepping back and trying to find a middle-ground to help each other. Like crabs in a barrel, they pick and prick at each other to no avail. There is no victor or power between either family. It is merely an illusion that works to keep them isolated while the wealthy grow in wealth.
Moments after that scene, Mr Kim discovers that his family’s apartment has flooded due to heavy rain. The little possessions they had were submerged and ruined. They end up having to scavenge clothes from a sanctuary where victims of the flooding have had to stay the night.
We cut to the sunny skies of Seoul and the lavish mansion of the Parks as they plan the birthday party of their son. Despite this being on a Sunday, they call upon Mr Kim and his family to work unsociable hours in exchange for “overtime” pay. Due to their newfound destitution, they accept the offer.
Mr Kim is never once asked why his mood is down or his emotions so hollow. Mr Park instead piles duty after duty on his shoulders before delivering the ultimate humiliation: Mr Kim was to dress up as a Native American as Mr Park’s son, playing “good Indian,” would kill him to save Mr Kim’s daughter – a damsel in distress. When Mr Park finally notices the eerie mood of Mr Kim, he utters “you are being paid extra. Think of this as part of your work.”
What is masterful about these little moments is that both men are referred to with the prefix ‘Mr.’ It is supposed to evoke the notion that they are on equal levels of power and respect, yet it is simply an illusion to keep the poor in line and the rich in shrouded power.
When Mr Kim kills Mr Park in one of 2019’s bloodiest scenes, the character’s decision feels earned. There is a clear progression from A to Z that isn’t muddled or one-sided. Mr Park gags at the dead body of Mr Kim’s daughter, screaming at Mr Kim to get him the car keys so that he can drive his family away from the madness. He cares only for the keys while a fellow human is literally bleeding to death. The kettle that is this society boils until it can no longer, eventually bursting and burning everyone within close proximity. The rich unknowingly prod the poor with their immense power and disregard of the hardships tied to a lack of money. All the kills in this scene are carried out by the poor as the rich gasp, cry and retreat to safety. They are vindicated in thinking that the poor are lowly, murderous scum; the poor are vindicated in thinking that the rich are self-absorbed and unwilling to help those in need. Parasite ponders that, because a conversation is never had, class will always remain a nasty barrier between humanity.
Mr Kim evades the police as he spends the rest of his existence living underground like the previous family as the mansion becomes inhabited by new wealthy owners. The cycle is doomed to repeat itself because neither rich nor poor are able to truly combat the barriers they themselves build. The film is textbook Bong Joon-ho; class sits atop the pyramid of themes that his movies revolve around, but Parasite feels like Bong Joon-ho at his angriest and most satirical.
Unlike Joker, Parasite analyses the root of the problem and offers a solution instead of throwing a glamorous pity party that merely inflates pre-existing political views on either end of the spectrum. It asks its characters – and audience – to look inward.