Wednesday 01 December 2021

When cinema explores universal social issues

This column first appears in Malta Today

This year’s line up for the Academy Awards has possibly the best two examples of how cinema can effectively explore social issues, forcing us to pause and reflect on what is going on around us.

Just as the film Joker was a profound and disturbing look at how mental health can be shaped or warped by childhood abuse, Parasite is a deep dive into the lives of the haves and have nots in society. Set in South Korea (the film is with subtitles), Parasite could easily have been set anywhere in the world. 

In fact, an analysis of the film by the YouTube channel, The Take  (which is. supported by Creative Europe – MEDIA Programme of the European Union) compared it to countless dramas which juxtapose the lives of those who have so much money they barely know what to do with it, to the lives of those who are merely eking out a miserable existence. The former cannot exist without the latter who ensure that the former’s lifestyle is kept running smoothly and, as pointed out, the symbolism of stairs and living literally underground can be found as a running theme throughout many of these films and TV series.  From Upstairs, Downstairs (1971) to Downton Abbey (2010); from Metropolis (1927) to High Rise (2015).   Director Bong Joon-ho has, in fact, described Parasite as his ’stairway film”.

The concept of the class divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is something we can all instinctively recognise because it crosses all cultural barriers.  As The Take illustrated, cinema releases have sometimes taken this to its literal conclusion where the two widely convergent social classes are portrayed as having morphed into two separate species; two examples are The Time Machine (2002) and Us (2019).  It is not so much a case of the higher class vs the lower class, as the upper class and the UNDERclass which is out for revenge. 

The parallels between the world depicted in South Korean society where neo-liberalism has created such stark contrasts, and the social changes we are experiencing here in Malta, cannot be overlooked.  The issue of smell was one I found particularly significant and relevant.  In Parasite there is repeated reference to how the poor have a particular smell (“it’s like a wet rag, you smell it on those who ride the subway”) and the little rich boy immediately notices that all the members who have suddenly appeared in their lives in the form of the new ‘help’ all carry the same smell.  There is a poignant scene where the poor family discusses using different detergents to avoid getting caught, but the daughter  immediately points out that the smell cannot be washed away because it comes from living in a musty, semi-basement apartment.   Drunks regularly urinate outside their window and the apartment is easily flooded by torrential rain. The rich couple physically hold their nose on more than one occasion, and it is this small innocuous gesture which eventually pushes the driver (the father of the poor family) over the edge.

There is also constant reference to ‘crossing the line’; the need for those who are poor to keep their place in the social hierarchy so that they do not spill over into the rarified air of the very wealthy.  It is a way of keeping the underclass down, both in the literal and figurative sense, so that they remain grateful and obliging; so that they do not get airs above their station. The few crumbs which are thrown their way by the capitalist rich should keep them satisfied, but they should never forget who has given them the job in the first place.  It is the type of ice-cold arrogance I have often heard voiced on this island towards low-paid foreign nationals and refugees who are desperate for any kind of work: a stripping away of their dignity as human beings. “Be quiet, don’t cause trouble and just be grateful.”

But just like some people in Malta cannot understand why there is an underclass which lives in abject poverty, claiming they bring it on themselves, this lack of empathy and compassion exists around the world.  An insightful review by Max Balhorn in The Wire entitled Parasite: a Window Into South Korean Neoliberalism gives a succinct explanation: 

“Geun-sae (who is found living underground in a bunker) explains that the predicament is all his fault. He had borrowed money from a loan shark to open a “king castella” cake shop—a pastry craze that began in Taiwan and exploded across South Korea in 2017. Due to low start-up costs, king castella shops were relatively cheap to open and a number of South Koreans staked their life savings on getting rich from the fad. The market soon grew oversaturated and the king castella bubble burst, leaving hundreds if not thousands of people with massive debts and no way to repay them.”

The other jobs available for the poor in South Korea is underpaid contract work, such as folding pizza boxes and working as Daeri drivers who wait on standby to drive drunk people home in their own cars late at night. 

Exploitation of desperate workers, the need to juggle more than one low-paying precarious job in order to survive,  exorbitant rents for sub-standard housing – these and many other issues are bound to ring a bell. If they don’t, then I suggest you take a walk through some of Malta’s most socially deprived areas to see how some people are living. 

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