Food for the Soul: Parasite and Farewell

In today’s capitalistic society there are ranks and castes that are invisible to the eye. We keep them disguised and out of sight and superficially look down on class hierarchies as a relic of the past, but the reality is that there are class lines that cannot be crossed.”
Boon Jong Ho, director of Parasite

By Nina Heyn – Your Culture Scout

Movies filmed in distant lands are the best way to learn about the world at large, and Academy Awards season is the best time to access such movies. Here are two such gems of international filmmaking, both connected to Asia but also both commenting on universal social issues.

The same way that peasants’ dirty feet in Caravaggio’s paintings are artistically more interesting than silk court gowns, in movies, showing an underbelly of a society can garner more attention of festivals and critics than a glossy drama about rich people’s problems. In 2018 a Japanese movie Shoplifters won the main prize at Cannes because this tale of street hustlers who created a family out of societal misfits was such an unorthodox and moving look at an orderly Japanese society. Parasite, the 2019 winner of the same prize of Palme D’Or in Cannes, provides a similar look at the social and economic class differences.

Until the fall of the Joseon dynasty at the very end of the 19th century, Korea was officially a multi-class society, with “untouchables” and slaves at the very bottom. Many political, economic, and social transformations later, South Korea is now a world player and an economic powerhouse. However, like in any society, the “haves” and the “have nots” remained, except that these days it is more about money and influence rather than a social class acquired at birth. Director Bong Joon Ho is examining that neatly divided world of money and the lack of it in his merciless satire on a squatter family worming into a household of nouveau-riches. They soon make themselves indispensable to their filthy rich but clueless employers, only to discover that they are not the only parasites around. Ironically, according to the Marxist ideology, the rich people were defined as “social parasites” that communist revolutions were supposed to target and destroy. We all know how that dream played out, and the irony has surely not escaped the director. Bong deftly mixes genres, from thriller to comedy, in this universal tale of mutual contempt and mistrust between the rich and the poor, employers and employees, the aspiring and the ones who already arrived.

Bong’s social conscience and a vivid imagination already came to surface in his earlier dystopian sci-fi vision in Snowpiercer (which is his adaptation of a French graphic novel and an inspiration for an upcoming TV series). He is clearly interested in modern class struggles, and he chooses unusual genres and ways to comment on them. Parasite is now on a triumphant roll through numerous festivals and critics’ awards worldwide (the most recent is the Golden Globe in the Best Foreign Film category), and on a path to Academy Awards honors. It is clearly resonating as an ironic and very entertaining commentary on the clash of rich and poor. Such clashes have led to countless revolts in centuries past all over the world but in post-war Asia, a huge economic disparity is a new societal phenomenon.

Farewell is a movie that surpasses many Oscar contenders this year but because it slots at the crossroads of what audiences consider a foreign or a U.S. movie, it will probably get lost in the shuffle. The movie is directed by Lulu Wang, who was born in Beijing but grew up in the U.S., it was filmed on locations in both the U.S. and China, and both languages are spoken throughout the movie.

Wang was inspired by her own family experience when she constructed a tale of a twenty-something Billi (played by a rising star, a rapper-actress Awkwafina who just won a historic first Golden Globe for an Asian actor in the film category). Billi is a second-generation immigrant who is not making much headway in her New York life—she is broke, lonely, and she just failed to get into a post-graduate scholarship program, when one day her parents admit that her beloved grandma is dying. Her parents brought her from China to the U.S. in search of better opportunities when she was a young child. Billi is now a huáqíao (华侨), an “overseas Chinese,” which is a term to describe over 50 million people of Chinese origin currently dispersed all over the world. As most immigrants from any country, huaqiao are on the crossroads of cultures and languages, pulled in both directions. Billi’s parents emigrated to give her a better education and job opportunities but all she sees are these lost years she could have had with her grandma to whom she has always been much closer than to her distant mother.

The main theme of the story is the titular farewell. Billi and her parents travel to their hometown, ostensibly for a cousin’s wedding, but mainly to see for the last time their sick grandmother (played by a veteran Chinese actress Zhao Shuzhen). Grandma is totally unaware that their visit is related to her health problems because the entire multi-generational family is hiding from her the severity of her illness. For Billi, who was brought up in the American culture, this compassionate Chinese custom is an alien one, and she is trying to rebel against it. Different members of her family, some of them already immersed in a foreign culture and some representing the new Chinese generation, try to cope with this subterfuge.

Even if immigration is not a firsthand experience for everyone, we all can relate to an issue of ailing relatives and friends. This is what Farewell examines in such a subtle way—is it better to have a complete transparency in familial relations or does the harmony and happiness in the family depend on some sins of omission? Is this Chinese custom of sheltering the elderly from a scary knowledge better than a Western quest for truth and transparency? Young people want to be direct and uncompromising since bitter life experiences have not yet marred their actions. Older people avoid an emotional pain at any cost. Which one is better? These and other questions arise from this very delicate and accessible tale.

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