FILMS

Parasite: The International is Personal

 

Bong Joon-Ho stated in his speech when he won the Oscar for Best Director with his film Parasite (2019) that his favorite saying in college was Martin Scorsese’s phrase “the most personal is the most creative.”[1] Bong also created the story of Parasite with the inspiration of an experience he had in college. With his friend’s guidance, he started to give English lessons to the son of a richer family than his own.[2] In the same period, when he found out that one of his friends had a peach allergy, he could not believe it. But then he saw his friend turning red and having an allergic reaction to it, even though he did not even touch it. Director Bong says that the experience was quite traumatic but it was also very cinematic, so he used the peach allergy in his film. [3]

Bong Joon-Ho’s personal experiences have attracted international audiences with the film Parasite. In other words, we witness “the personal becoming international”. Bong said he wanted to pack this film with very South Korean details [4]. We do not only watch the director’s personal experiences, but we watch the cultural and social details in question, as well. We also witness how the international issues of the country are dealt with as a subject in the film and how they can be a part of people’s everyday life. Cynthia Enloe points out that international politics is not just about diplomatic correspondences between countries, governments, or military units. When Enloe states that “the international is personal”, she means that the roles that individuals play in the relations that countries establish with one another should be considered. Although Enloe underlines that the role of women in international relations should not be ignored [5], we can interpret “the international is personal” as something else, when we think of the meaning of it within the film Parasite.

Kim Ki-Woo lives in a basement with his family. With his friend’s advice, he starts tutoring English for the daughter of the wealthy Park family. When he finds out the family is looking for an art teacher for their young son, he introduces his sister as someone else and her sister gets the job.  Then, the sister who does “art therapy” under the name Jessica sets the chauffeur up and gets him fired. Her father becomes the new chauffeur of the family. The trio together manages to get the long-time housekeeper fired. The Park family hires Ki-Woo’s mother as the new housekeeper. Just like that, the Kim family partially settles in the house of a rich family.

Although his sister never went to a college, Ki-Woo introduces his sister to the rich family as someone who went to a good college in the USA. When he first brought her sister to the house, they go through a jingle they made about the fake background before ringing the bell: “Jessica, an only child, Illinois Chicago, classmate Kim-Jin-Mo, he’s your cousin.”

Later this becomes very popular with the name “Jessica Jingle”, so an audio file of this part was made available for free access via Parasite‘s official website. [6] Maybe the melody did the trick and attracted so much attention because the jingle itself does not have a certain meaning.

When you make a fast internet search, you can see that the melody belongs to a famous nursery rhyme in South Korea named ‘Dokdo is our land’. It is also stated that students often use this melody to memorize things. [7] Dokdo or Takeshima as in Japanese is the name of islands that mostly consist of cliffs. These islands are the cause of a territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan. In the current situation, the islands are administered by South Korea but Japan claims the islands. Both countries are trying to claim the islands with special brochures of their foreign ministries. [8]

 

The lyrics of ‘Dokdo is Our Land’ are like this: “Whoever says it belongs to them, Dokdo is our land. Hawaii is American land, Tsushima is Japanese land, but Dokdo is our land.” [9] It seems like the reason why the director chose a famous South Korean melody to use, is his desire to pack the film with Korean details. But what needs to be underlined is that a territorial dispute between two countries can become a nursery rhyme and its melody -apart from the lyrics- can be used by people in their daily lives.

Another part of Parasite that draws attention to the problems of South Korea is the scene where North Korea is mentioned a lot.  When the rich Park family goes camping, the Kims start to enjoy the house since the house is now empty. After a while, the former maid comes and says she has to get something from the house that she forgot earlier. This woman also does not know that the new employees are a family. So, everybody hides while Ki-Woo’s mother opens the door for the former maid and lets her in. The woman runs to the bunker, which is hidden behind a closet in the pantry, and gives food to her husband who hides there. Since the new maid saw her doing that, she asks for help saying that her husband escaped from the loan sharks and he has been hiding here ever since. She also mentions that the house owners do not know about this.

They are unaware of not only the man but also the bunker. According to her, the architect who built the house built this bunker -as many rich people did in that time- in case of any North Korean attack. But for some reason, he did not mention it to the family who bought the house, and the maid took advantage of it.

The former maid asks Kim-Woo’s mother to help her and her husband. Meanwhile, Kim-Woo, his father, and his sister find themselves in the bunker listening to this conversation. Realizing that these people are a family, the woman immediately takes a video of them and says if they do not help her, she will send it to Parks. She even likens the send button to North Korea’s missile launch button. Then, she does an impression of a North Korean news presenter who presents the missile launch news and praises the North Korean leader nonstop. Director Bong was asked about this scene when he won Palme D’or, he said it was more of a joke and less of pointed criticism. [10] But in another interview, he addressed the problem between the two countries while talking about the collective anxiety of South Koreans. He said war and separation of families affected the society for years and even his mother’s sister stayed in the North. [11]

On the other hand, while rich people have bunkers in their houses, the Kim family house was a bunker on its own. In the 1970s, when North Korean agents were infiltrating to South and carrying out terrorist attacks, the South Korean government updated its building codes, requiring all newly built low-rise apartment buildings to have basements to serve as bunkers in case of a national emergency. It was illegal to rent these basements at first. But during the housing crisis in the 1980s, with space running short in the capital, the government was compelled to legalize these underground spaces to live in [12]. Although the Park family does not know about the bunker in their home, we can understand that the North Korea situation affects everyone’s life no matter their financial situation.

We can also focus on the instructions that the rich mother gave to the maid about the table arrangement in the garden for her son’s birthday. She wants to arrange the guest tables in the form of a crane wing. She tells everything she wants to the maid in detail. She mentions the battleship formation that was used by Admiral Yi during the Battle of Hansan Island. She shows the tent in the garden and asks her to picture it as a Japanese warship. She says the tables should be placed in a semicircular crane wing order around the tent.

The admiral in question is Admiral Yi Sunshin. He fought against the Japanese forces that attacked Korea in 1592 and managed to repel the Japanese Navy with a war strategy called crane wing formation. However, the Japanese occupation continued until 1598 and the war continued for six more years. This rocky road led to hundreds of thousands of Koreans being killed and captured. The cultural heritage in Korea such as temples and palaces were destroyed [13]. Because of that, the Koreans who suffered terribly within that period developed feelings of hatred towards the Japanese [14]. Admiral Yi is still considered one of the prominent war heroes of Korea. There are many statues of him in various cities, including the capital, Seoul [15]. We can say that Admiral Yi and the ruins of war continue to be a part of South Koreans’ daily lives. It is so entrenched in everyday life, even a mother chooses to use this hero’s warfare tactics as an example for her child’s birthday party table settings, let it be fiction.

Bong Joon-Ho discusses the international relations of his country while telling a personal and national story in his film. He uses the melody of a children’s song about his country’s territorial issues for a simple jingle. He makes someone who got the upper hand in a conflict refer to North Korea and its ballistic missiles while threatening others. He uses a successful battle tactic of one of his country’s war heroes as an example to explain a little child’s birthday party table setting. Bong is not doing all these to teach us international relations. But we witness that “the international is personal” with Parasite. A movie that Bong wrote and directed started with his own personal and national experiences.

[1] Bong Joon Ho Wins Best Director, 2020, Erişim 24 Temmuz 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekMl5VHBH4I.

[2] Rose, Steve. “Parasite Director Bong Joon-Ho: ‘Korea Seems Glamorous, but the Young Are in Despair.’” The Guardian, 31 Ocak 2020, Erişim 24 Temmuz 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/jan/31/parasite-director-bong-joon-ho-korea-seems-glamorous-but-the-young-are-in-despair.

[3] Han, Karen. “Bong Joon-Ho on Weaving His Personal Memories into Parasite.” Polygon, 14 Ekim 2019, Erişim 15 Ağustos 2020. https://www.polygon.com/2019/10/14/20906430/parasite-bong-joon-ho-interview-rock-peach-spoilers.

[4] Rose. “Parasite Director Bong Joon-Ho: ‘Korea Seems Glamorous, but the Young Are in Despair.’”

[5] Enloe, Cynthia. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. University of California Press, 2014, s. 350-1.

[6] “Parasite | NEON”. Erişim 30 Haziran 2020. https://www.parasite-movie.com/jessica/.

[7] The Korea Herald. “Doorbell Song from ‘Parasite’ Hits Internet”, 18 Kasım 2019, Erişim 30 Haziran 2020. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20191118000515.

[8] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Republic of Korea. “MOFA Dokdo.”, Erişim 13 Kasım 2016. http://dokdo.mofa.go.kr/eng/pds/pdf.jsp. ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. “10 Points To Understand the Takeshima Dispute.”, Erişim 13 Kasım 2016. http://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000092147.pdf.

[9] The Original Song of Jessica Jingle “Dokdo is our land” (with English CC). MBC World, 2019, Erişim 30 Haziran 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgtYinVy44Q.

[10] Sharf, Zack. “Bong Joon-Ho Reacts to Historic Palme D’or Win, Denies ‘Parasite’ Mocks North Korea.” IndieWire (blog), 25 Mayıs 2019, Erişim 29 Haziran 2020. https://www.indiewire.com/2019/05/bong-joon-ho-reacts-palme-dor-win-denies-parasite-mocks-north-korea-1202144877/.

[11] Rose, “Parasite Director Bong Joon-Ho: ‘Korea Seems Glamorous, but the Young Are in Despair.’”

[12] “The Real People Living in a ‘Parasite’ Basement.” BBC News, 10 Şubat 2020, Erişim 15 Ağustos 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51321661.

[13] Kim, Djun Kil. The History of Korea. Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood, 2005, s. 80-3.

[14] Beasley, William G. The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999, s. 144.

[15] “Statue of Yi Sunsin – Sejongro Seoul.” In Wikipedia, 14 Aralık 2006, Erişim 17 Ağustos 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_of_Yi_Sunsin_-_Sejongro_Seoul.JPG.

Zülal ZENGİN

Zülal was born, raised, and educated in Istanbul. After her undergraduate studies in English Language and Literature, she went on to get an MA and a PhD in International Relations. Her interest in foreign languages and different cultures has shifted to East Asia after Europe, and her academic studies also focus on this region. She is interested especially in Japanese and South Korean cinema and tries to review films from a historical and political perspective.

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