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February 25,2020

by Efren Poveda Garcia

Losers

And the Oscar goes to Parasite!

Parasite?

Yes, Parasite

Oh, another paint job by and for the Academy. And this time it seems to please more people than ever.

Or am I wrong? Am I mistaken in my perception that Parasite
is not as uncomfortable and meaningful as it is supposed to be?
Am I
mistaken in my perception that, despite being good, it is not so good? Ok, let’s search for some sign in my favour, something to support my view. Oh!
There is something indeed! And it is a strong point! Here it comes: This movie
won the Best Picture Academy Award!

Promotional poster of Parasite

Simply looking at the list of Best Picture winners in the last two decades can be rather bewildering. Shakespeare in Love? Really? No Country for Old Men? Really? The Departed? Titanic? The Artist? The King’s Speech? The King’s Speech! And these are just the movies underserving on their own merits of a Best Picture award.

With every year, the number of articles about the Oscars’ historical mistakes and unfairness grows. And, damn, aren’t most of them right?
There are differences among critics, of course, but there are also many coincidences ─ even social consensus, we could say (Pulp Fiction, I’m looking at you and your defeat by Forrest Gump).

An example I particularly (dis)like is The King’s Speech (The King’s Speech!). It was nominated along with the skilfully crafted and much more bold, original and meaningful The Social Network, Black Swan, Inception and Toy Story 3! On top of that (and this is
my addition), it was the year of Shutter Island and the “international” In
a Better World
, Incendies, Dogtooth, Heartbeats and Black Bread, which introduced practically unknown directors to a wider audience and were even more bold, original and meaningful than the foregoing.

And let’s be honest: Who would intentionally watch The King’s Speech a second time?

There is no reason to consider the Oscars’ choices as the ultimate mapping of quality in film or as the last word on anything. There is no reason to consider the Oscars the most relevant cinema awards.

Still from Joker 1. Warner Bros. Pictures

Any kind of awards selection is made from a particular point of view, that is, according to a set of explicit, tacit or unconscious criteria with which we can have discrepancies. Does this mean that quality in film (or art) is subjective? NO WAY! It means, instead, that, in seriously measuring quality, there is always some room for disagreement. But it also means that, sometimes, those who are supposed to be the ultimate judges are dominated by
biases of such importance that their credibility can be easily challenged
. That’s
been the case through the years with the Oscars’ gender and racial discrimination, as well as with the Academy’s preference for politically comfortable (sometimes disguised as transgressive) films
; to which I’ll add their discrimination between genres.

And, as said above, this year’s absolute winner is not, in my view, as unquestionable as the widely shared opinion seems to reflect.

I very much appreciate the depiction, in the film’s initial thirty minutes, of the differences in opportunities between children of different classes. While the Kim children (the Kims are the poor, unemployed family in the story) prove to possess great intelligence and
abilities, they have not been able to attend university. Unlike them, the Park children (in a wealthy family) have private tutors from a very young age and, even if they are not especially brilliant (which, apparently happens with Da-hye, the daughter), it is easy to see how their pathway to academic and economic success is being set up.

Still from Parasite 1

In the case of Da-song, the youngest of the Parks, he has a great talent, but also an incontrollable personality. His mother makes sure to promote his healthy expansion as an individual and as an artist, hiring an arts tutor and artistic therapist (or so she thinks). And this expansion has a physical dimension in the movie, because he can run and play around in the vast empty surfaces inside the Parks’ house as well as in their private garden, a
situation that contrasts with the fact that the Kims live in a small place where mutual physical contact is almost unavoidable.

Spaces are a fundamental filmic resource in Parasite. They are constantly used to represent living conditions and class differences. In fact, the main symbolic element in the movie are height levels that mark social levels. To begin with, the Parks live in an elevated spot in the city which receives lots of sunlight, while the Kims live in a lower-ground floor with deficient ventilation and lack of light, below a ground surface separated from the Parks’ neighbourhood by thousands of stairs. This resource, despite being one of the most valued aspects of the film, is too easy and obvious if you ask me. Perhaps, the most ingenious use of the symbol can be found in the following images:

Still from Parasite 2Still from Parasite 3

Anyway, with all its flaws, Us, by Jordan Peele (a film absolutely ignored by the Oscars this year even in the category of best actress, where Lupita Nyong’o’s multi-layered embodiment of two tortured and morally ambivalent characters seems unbeatable), offers a representation of class difference through a much richer and complex above-below symbology. (You can read about it in “American Shadows”, August 8, this blog).

But there is another moment in Parasite where this symbolism is displayed with originality and density of meaning. I’m talking of the scene where some of the Kims hide below the furniture of the Parks’ house, mixing with dirt “as if they were cockroaches.” The moment, however, doesn’t reach its potential because the entire situation is forced and stupid, just like most situations in the film. The fact itself that the Kims complete their plan of “parasitisation” so easily throughout the first act is another example.

Still from Parasite 4

Then there’s the predictability of its narrative structure. Except for one (the flood), it is clear when a plot twist is coming and that (SPOILER ALERT) the last one will be, to say the least, bloody. This has to do, in fact, with the employment of overused formulas. When the
Kims are making a mess and getting drunk in the Park house you know for sure
that they’re going to get caught because you’ve seen it a thousand times.

Yet, for me, the greatest problem in this work is that it seems to betray the intentions with which it’s been made. Regardless of the creators’ aspirations, the result is a story of poor and immoral people who take advantage of a rich family of mainly innocent people. Even Mr. Park, who doesn’t seem so in the beginning, turns out to be “good.” He shows respect and attention to his son and "really loves" his wife, as Mr. Kim points out shortly before (SPOILER ALERT) killing him.

It is true that the film attempts to justify the Kims’ lack of empathy, even when it shows with those of their own class. In the beginning, the subtext of the film seems to be that, in situations of extreme poverty, every man for himself is the only rule one can follow. Or, rephrasing it, that the poor cannot afford morality. Interesting ideas, of course. But this is not exactly what happens in the film. The Kims do not change once money is coming in. They continue to be selfish and ruthless to extremes. So maybe, and this is what I repeated to myself while watching, the idea the film is offering is that poverty turns hearts into stone, as Victor Hugo put it. And this is true to a certain extent (for instance, poverty favours the appearance of mafias). But life is much more complex than such a generalisation, and the wretched, regardless of what they have to do to survive, are not necessarily evil, selfish or lacking in empathy as our protagonists. Victor Hugo himself designed miserable characters with good hearts and misérables who would have been bad independently of their economic condition.

In any case, none of this would be problematic if it wasn’t for the contrast with the image of rich people we’re given. “Rich people are naive. No resentments. No creases on them,” says Mr. Kim. “If I had all this money, I would also be nice. Even nicer,” says Mrs. Kim. Perhaps these lines were intended to point at the fact that most problems are less
problematic when one has money. The truth is, however, that all the rich people we get to know in the movie are naive and nice, even though despiteful of some markers of lower classes such as the smell (great metaphor). But the smell doesn’t make them fire or mistreat anybody.

Viewers could be led to think they’re watching a nuanced display of relational dynamics related to poverty and class difference with all their complexities. But the fact that it is the privileged who win morally if compared with all the things the Kims do smells really bad. At least to me.

By the end (SPOILER ALERT), the villains of the film are the disadvantaged, the Kims, and the wealthy Parks have played the role of victims. In fact, it is Mr. Kim who ends up condemned to a life of penance and remorse. He even seems to feel sorrier for Mr. Park’s destiny than for his own daughter, and his location in relation with the ground level can be read now as a symbol of his moral status.

Still from Parasite 5

But perhaps the story can be saved if we take into consideration that the mechanisms of neoliberalism foster individualism and self-centredness. Our system’s goal is a society formed by the accumulation of selfish individuals, instead of one with a strong civic realm formed by ties of mutual help, solidarity and shared critical awareness. The characters would then symbolise this, and the Parks could be telling us that those of their class live in a bubble from which they can’t see, they can’t be aware of, those below them, as usually happens with humans and ants (or cockroaches…). Yet, the
moral non-equivalence between the Kims and the Parks remains.

Frankly, and with due respect, I don’t find the ethos of the Parks representative of their class. It doesn’t seem to me that those "above" are generally ingenuous, respectful or sympathetic; “nice because they’re rich” as said in the film. Equally, I can’t find the Kims representative of their class either.

I’ll have to conclude, then, that the filmmakers’ probably unconscious classism has made its way into their work through the back door. The poor are parasites and the moral of the story is “Don’t try to reach the place where you don’t belong.” It can’t be a coincidence that the Kim kid is almost killed with the rock that is supposed to bring prosperity…

And no, I don’t think the movie is telling us that the-Kims-should-have-tried-to-improve-their-conditions-in-an-ethically-acceptable-manner-and-that-it-is-the-fact-that-they-haven’t-done-so-why-they-must-pay-in-the-end. Both in the beginning and the ending of the film we are confronted with the absence of an “honourable” way to ascend for the Kims.

Still from Joker 2. Warner Bros. Pictures

I haven’t been able to watch all the other interesting 2019 films (the list is very long). But, by now, the best one for me is Joker. Amongst other things because of its raw depiction of poverty and the circular relations between poverty and bad health, especially bad mental health. Also, because it is not morally simplistic. And finally because, contrary to what happens in Parasite, its lead questions the system. He doesn’t want to climb the ladder of wealthiness: he realises that the ladder must be destroyed.

On one hand, we have a comedy about arrivistes that create a cruel and undesirable situation with their clumsiness but leave social order intact, which makes the message ambiguous. On the other, we have a decadent drama where not only the consequences, but also the causes and originators of inequality are crudely portrayed and the message is clear: “Why should all those harmed and abandoned by the system’s rules, the losers of neoliberalism, abide by those rules?” Obviously, this is a dangerous question
for those above. Obviously, this couldn’t be the choice of the Academy.

February 25,2020

by Efren Poveda Garcia

Losers

And the Oscar goes to Parasite!

Parasite?

Yes, Parasite

Oh, another paint job by and for the Academy. And this time it seems to please more people than ever.

Or am I wrong? Am I mistaken in my perception that Parasite
is not as uncomfortable and meaningful as it is supposed to be?
Am I
mistaken in my perception that, despite being good, it is not so good? Ok, let’s search for some sign in my favour, something to support my view. Oh!
There is something indeed! And it is a strong point! Here it comes: This movie
won the Best Picture Academy Award!

Promotional poster of Parasite

Simply looking at the list of Best Picture winners in the last two decades can be rather bewildering. Shakespeare in Love? Really? No Country for Old Men? Really? The Departed? Titanic? The Artist? The King’s Speech? The King’s Speech! And these are just the movies underserving on their own merits of a Best Picture award.

With every year, the number of articles about the Oscars’ historical mistakes and unfairness grows. And, damn, aren’t most of them right?
There are differences among critics, of course, but there are also many coincidences ─ even social consensus, we could say (Pulp Fiction, I’m looking at you and your defeat by Forrest Gump).

An example I particularly (dis)like is The King’s Speech (The King’s Speech!). It was nominated along with the skilfully crafted and much more bold, original and meaningful The Social Network, Black Swan, Inception and Toy Story 3! On top of that (and this is
my addition), it was the year of Shutter Island and the “international” In
a Better World
, Incendies, Dogtooth, Heartbeats and Black Bread, which introduced practically unknown directors to a wider audience and were even more bold, original and meaningful than the foregoing.

And let’s be honest: Who would intentionally watch The King’s Speech a second time?

There is no reason to consider the Oscars’ choices as the ultimate mapping of quality in film or as the last word on anything. There is no reason to consider the Oscars the most relevant cinema awards.

Still from Joker 1. Warner Bros. Pictures

Any kind of awards selection is made from a particular point of view, that is, according to a set of explicit, tacit or unconscious criteria with which we can have discrepancies. Does this mean that quality in film (or art) is subjective? NO WAY! It means, instead, that, in seriously measuring quality, there is always some room for disagreement. But it also means that, sometimes, those who are supposed to be the ultimate judges are dominated by
biases of such importance that their credibility can be easily challenged
. That’s
been the case through the years with the Oscars’ gender and racial discrimination, as well as with the Academy’s preference for politically comfortable (sometimes disguised as transgressive) films
; to which I’ll add their discrimination between genres.

And, as said above, this year’s absolute winner is not, in my view, as unquestionable as the widely shared opinion seems to reflect.

I very much appreciate the depiction, in the film’s initial thirty minutes, of the differences in opportunities between children of different classes. While the Kim children (the Kims are the poor, unemployed family in the story) prove to possess great intelligence and
abilities, they have not been able to attend university. Unlike them, the Park children (in a wealthy family) have private tutors from a very young age and, even if they are not especially brilliant (which, apparently happens with Da-hye, the daughter), it is easy to see how their pathway to academic and economic success is being set up.

Still from Parasite 1

In the case of Da-song, the youngest of the Parks, he has a great talent, but also an incontrollable personality. His mother makes sure to promote his healthy expansion as an individual and as an artist, hiring an arts tutor and artistic therapist (or so she thinks). And this expansion has a physical dimension in the movie, because he can run and play around in the vast empty surfaces inside the Parks’ house as well as in their private garden, a
situation that contrasts with the fact that the Kims live in a small place where mutual physical contact is almost unavoidable.

Spaces are a fundamental filmic resource in Parasite. They are constantly used to represent living conditions and class differences. In fact, the main symbolic element in the movie are height levels that mark social levels. To begin with, the Parks live in an elevated spot in the city which receives lots of sunlight, while the Kims live in a lower-ground floor with deficient ventilation and lack of light, below a ground surface separated from the Parks’ neighbourhood by thousands of stairs. This resource, despite being one of the most valued aspects of the film, is too easy and obvious if you ask me. Perhaps, the most ingenious use of the symbol can be found in the following images:

Still from Parasite 2Still from Parasite 3

Anyway, with all its flaws, Us, by Jordan Peele (a film absolutely ignored by the Oscars this year even in the category of best actress, where Lupita Nyong’o’s multi-layered embodiment of two tortured and morally ambivalent characters seems unbeatable), offers a representation of class difference through a much richer and complex above-below symbology. (You can read about it in “American Shadows”, August 8, this blog).

But there is another moment in Parasite where this symbolism is displayed with originality and density of meaning. I’m talking of the scene where some of the Kims hide below the furniture of the Parks’ house, mixing with dirt “as if they were cockroaches.” The moment, however, doesn’t reach its potential because the entire situation is forced and stupid, just like most situations in the film. The fact itself that the Kims complete their plan of “parasitisation” so easily throughout the first act is another example.

Still from Parasite 4

Then there’s the predictability of its narrative structure. Except for one (the flood), it is clear when a plot twist is coming and that (SPOILER ALERT) the last one will be, to say the least, bloody. This has to do, in fact, with the employment of overused formulas. When the
Kims are making a mess and getting drunk in the Park house you know for sure
that they’re going to get caught because you’ve seen it a thousand times.

Yet, for me, the greatest problem in this work is that it seems to betray the intentions with which it’s been made. Regardless of the creators’ aspirations, the result is a story of poor and immoral people who take advantage of a rich family of mainly innocent people. Even Mr. Park, who doesn’t seem so in the beginning, turns out to be “good.” He shows respect and attention to his son and "really loves" his wife, as Mr. Kim points out shortly before (SPOILER ALERT) killing him.

It is true that the film attempts to justify the Kims’ lack of empathy, even when it shows with those of their own class. In the beginning, the subtext of the film seems to be that, in situations of extreme poverty, every man for himself is the only rule one can follow. Or, rephrasing it, that the poor cannot afford morality. Interesting ideas, of course. But this is not exactly what happens in the film. The Kims do not change once money is coming in. They continue to be selfish and ruthless to extremes. So maybe, and this is what I repeated to myself while watching, the idea the film is offering is that poverty turns hearts into stone, as Victor Hugo put it. And this is true to a certain extent (for instance, poverty favours the appearance of mafias). But life is much more complex than such a generalisation, and the wretched, regardless of what they have to do to survive, are not necessarily evil, selfish or lacking in empathy as our protagonists. Victor Hugo himself designed miserable characters with good hearts and misérables who would have been bad independently of their economic condition.

In any case, none of this would be problematic if it wasn’t for the contrast with the image of rich people we’re given. “Rich people are naive. No resentments. No creases on them,” says Mr. Kim. “If I had all this money, I would also be nice. Even nicer,” says Mrs. Kim. Perhaps these lines were intended to point at the fact that most problems are less
problematic when one has money. The truth is, however, that all the rich people we get to know in the movie are naive and nice, even though despiteful of some markers of lower classes such as the smell (great metaphor). But the smell doesn’t make them fire or mistreat anybody.

Viewers could be led to think they’re watching a nuanced display of relational dynamics related to poverty and class difference with all their complexities. But the fact that it is the privileged who win morally if compared with all the things the Kims do smells really bad. At least to me.

By the end (SPOILER ALERT), the villains of the film are the disadvantaged, the Kims, and the wealthy Parks have played the role of victims. In fact, it is Mr. Kim who ends up condemned to a life of penance and remorse. He even seems to feel sorrier for Mr. Park’s destiny than for his own daughter, and his location in relation with the ground level can be read now as a symbol of his moral status.

Still from Parasite 5

But perhaps the story can be saved if we take into consideration that the mechanisms of neoliberalism foster individualism and self-centredness. Our system’s goal is a society formed by the accumulation of selfish individuals, instead of one with a strong civic realm formed by ties of mutual help, solidarity and shared critical awareness. The characters would then symbolise this, and the Parks could be telling us that those of their class live in a bubble from which they can’t see, they can’t be aware of, those below them, as usually happens with humans and ants (or cockroaches…). Yet, the
moral non-equivalence between the Kims and the Parks remains.

Frankly, and with due respect, I don’t find the ethos of the Parks representative of their class. It doesn’t seem to me that those "above" are generally ingenuous, respectful or sympathetic; “nice because they’re rich” as said in the film. Equally, I can’t find the Kims representative of their class either.

I’ll have to conclude, then, that the filmmakers’ probably unconscious classism has made its way into their work through the back door. The poor are parasites and the moral of the story is “Don’t try to reach the place where you don’t belong.” It can’t be a coincidence that the Kim kid is almost killed with the rock that is supposed to bring prosperity…

And no, I don’t think the movie is telling us that the-Kims-should-have-tried-to-improve-their-conditions-in-an-ethically-acceptable-manner-and-that-it-is-the-fact-that-they-haven’t-done-so-why-they-must-pay-in-the-end. Both in the beginning and the ending of the film we are confronted with the absence of an “honourable” way to ascend for the Kims.

Still from Joker 2. Warner Bros. Pictures

I haven’t been able to watch all the other interesting 2019 films (the list is very long). But, by now, the best one for me is Joker. Amongst other things because of its raw depiction of poverty and the circular relations between poverty and bad health, especially bad mental health. Also, because it is not morally simplistic. And finally because, contrary to what happens in Parasite, its lead questions the system. He doesn’t want to climb the ladder of wealthiness: he realises that the ladder must be destroyed.

On one hand, we have a comedy about arrivistes that create a cruel and undesirable situation with their clumsiness but leave social order intact, which makes the message ambiguous. On the other, we have a decadent drama where not only the consequences, but also the causes and originators of inequality are crudely portrayed and the message is clear: “Why should all those harmed and abandoned by the system’s rules, the losers of neoliberalism, abide by those rules?” Obviously, this is a dangerous question
for those above. Obviously, this couldn’t be the choice of the Academy.