Watching awards shows is all about having the right expectations going in: you know already that it’s going to be an orgy of self-congratulation. You know that people are going to use their acceptance speeches to highlight or push (depending on your perspective) their favorite causes—although I can’t say I was expecting someone to use the slogan “workers of the world unite.” And you know that no one is going to say anything that the people in the room will not applaud (unless you’re Ricky Gervais, and there’s only one of him). Unless you want to watch it unfold in real time, it’s easy to see who won and watch online the speeches that interest you.
So it’s only a minor annoyance to me when people say exactly the things I expect them to say. But what’s been bothering me is the lengths to which people will go to propagandize (and weaponize) movies for their pet causes. Like the guy who tweeted this after Joker won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. Either the score is good or it’s not. I assume many women working in Hollywood can give their own personal evidence of explicit prejudice or discrimination. But we are in the habit of over-correcting and actually reinforcing the problem from the other side. Instead of correcting the problem, it’s the artistic equivalent of “you throw pretty well—for a girl.” Isn’t that the sort of backhanded compliment that damages the chances of talented women? It’s just another way of saying “female filmmaker,” instead of just filmmaker. Correct and rectify the abuses. Don’t fall into the other ditch.
And it happens not only with sex, but with nationality, too. Witness the great achievement of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite winning—the first film to do it—the Academy Awards for both Best International Feature and Best Picture. To say it should win because it would broaden the “diversity” of the Academy Awards is to fall into the same trap that’s kept great international pictures from winning Best Picture in prior years. It’s to say, “This is a pretty good film—for South Korea.” Which is garbage. It’s a good film for anywhere. After watching it, I go back and forth about which film I think should have won, but Parasite winning is not an upset (though I don’t know how many people predicted it would win.)
No doubt the Academy has had blind spots when it comes to great international films (I think Bong said the Academy Awards were a “local” film festival!). But awards should be given to great films, neither discriminating against nor elevating films because of the sex or national origin of the people who make them. I say this, knowing that sentiments like that have been used at times to preserve the status quo of those who have power. And if that’s the case, and you actually have some pull as an actor or director, boycott those awards shows until they start to recognize true artistic merit.
I’ve got no pull, except in a small way at a film festival. And Newport Beach is a great festival for diverse voices. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to figure out a filmmaker’s sex or nationality before deciding whether I like the film. And yet, I think the number of filmmakers whose films I’ve programmed have been roughly evenly distributed between the sexes, for example. A film festival is obviously going to be more representatively democratic than the Academy Awards, which is part of what makes festivals more fun.
With Parasite (which you should see knowing as little as possible about the plot), good luck fitting it into some kind of narrative or social box. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. But that’s exactly what people don’t want to do. Instead, something compels them to try and make it fit their political persuasions and complaints (including the North Koreans!). It’s described regularly as “anti-capitalist,” although, in the interviews I’ve seen, Bong has only gone as far as to say it’s about class and capitalism. He also said, “I’m not making a documentary or propaganda here. It’s not about telling you how to change the world or how you should act because something is bad, but rather showing you the terrible, explosive weight of reality. That’s what I believe is the beauty of cinema.”
There’s a thin line there that is sometimes hard to trace out: the line between portraying a problem, a tragedy, or an existential struggle—the “terrible weight of reality”—and making a film in order to cause people to act in a certain way. Bong’s earlier film, Snowpiercer, is much more clearly a film about the “rich” preventing the “poor” from having anything; there is an obvious source of injustice.
In Parasite, though, the source of the problem is opaque. The rich Park family, at least by what’s shown in the film, hasn’t made its fortune on the backs of poorly paid workers. They haven’t oppressed anyone, or created more injustice as a result of their wealth. And the poor(er) Kim family are not virtuous and innocent, subject to a series of misfortunes at the hands of the wealthy. They are intelligent and shrewd grifters.
But that’s only the more conventional half of the film. In the same way that people move backward and forward on the train in Snowpiercer, unfolding layers of lies and power structures, people move downward and upward in the house at the center of Parasite. The contrast between the quiet, edenic calm of the Parks’ walled-off yard and the street-level chaos of the Kims’ half-basement (which is subject to disastrous consequences later in the film) is pronounced. That chaos infects the Parks’ sheltered life as the Kims fantasize about acquiring their wealth.
Bong himself pointed to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s recent film Shoplifters as a parallel in terms of class and an unforgiving and unyielding system. But as far as coming up against the seeming impossibility of undoing class differences, the themes of Kore-eda’s film Like Father, Like Son fit more closely. The exploration of class and conflict themes, without offering any particular solution or answer, is part of what makes these good movies, as well as what makes people want to use them to push agendas.
I have no particular dog in the economic fight. I can see problems that exist within capitalistic systems (mainly that it seems to support unchecked greed and consumerism); I can see issues with socialistic proposals, at least in a country as large as the United States; and, at least in execution (pun intended), communistic forms have historically not been successful in causing everyone to contribute according to their ability, and receive according to their need.
But the problem with any of these is not inherent in the system, as if they were good or evil in themselves, but in those who implement the system (excluding Marxist forms of communism and all its atheistic forms, none of which have proven to be morally neutral.) And the difference between those who think one system is inherently oppressive and another is not seems to align with the difference between those who think that people are basically good and those who think we’re basically evil.
Is the problem the system, which keeps basically good people from living humanely? Or is it people, who will utilize any system to pursue selfish and authoritarian goals? I’m generally in favor of free enterprise, with limited government interference. But, as we all know when we encounter seemingly stupid restrictions, the rules in place exist because people have tried to take advantage of a given system, often to the detriment of other people.
And that leaves the conundrum at the heart of Parasite‘s fantastically humorous and horrific narrative: a wholesale inversion of the social order isn’t going to change what’s in the hearts of people. People are parasitic on other people, and the economic systems we create are parasitic on those people, and vice-versa. And around it goes. Does that mean despair? Or does it mean there is always work to do? Parasite doesn’t give that answer; it only exposes the complicated web of envy, comfort, violence, and willful ignorance in which we all are caught.