Barbara Nitke/STXfilms; Courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment; Eric Zachanowich/Fox Searchlight

From Parasite to Hustlers: How 2019 became the year of cinematic class conflict

October 15, 2019 at 03:13 PM EDT

WARNING: Minor spoilers for Parasite are discussed below. Proceed with caution. 

Just a few days after opening in limited theaters in coastal U.S. cities, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is already being hailed as one of the year’s best movies. A common refrain in the glowing reviews is that Parasite succeeds by openly depicting class warfare; EW’s own Leah Greenblatt calls it “a serrating, brilliantly stylized portrait of class and fate and family in modern-day Korea.” Though the title hints at sci-fi or horror (perhaps a spiritual sequel to Bong’s 2006 monster movie The Host? You might think at first glance), Parasite is in fact laser-focused on the down-to-Earth struggle between the poor Kim family and the wealthy Parks, whose mansion they begin to infiltrate, one servant position at a time. 

“In terms of labor, the rich can be considered parasites,” Bong tells EW. “They have to leech off other people’s labor for everything from driving to housekeeping. Although they pay money, they live off the labor of others. But when I was first coming up with this narrative, when I first got the idea, I did focus more on the poor family as the parasites, because it all starts with them infiltrating the rich house, sort of like parasites entering the host.”

Parasite is far from the first time Bong has used a genre film to explore class tensions on screen. His 2013 sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer depicted a post-apocalyptic human society living inside of a single, perpetually-moving train. There, class was delineated by which section of the train one lived in: The poor and working-class rabble were stuffed into the industrial “tail” cars while the inhabitants of the “front” sections lived in opulent luxury. Another way this hierarchy manifested was in the all-important water supply, which flowed from the front cars — where the nose of the train breaks up surrounding snow to create water in the first place — all the way back to the tail. (As Tilda Swinton’s upper-class authoritarian told Chris Evans’ soot-covered revolutionary: “The water comes in the mouth, not in the bum, Curtis!”) Though Parasite is more firmly rooted in our real-life present moment than a far-flung dystopia, water also provides an important visualization of its class hierarchy. 

Since the Kims live in a semi-basement apartment, the toilet is one of the most elevated things in their home — towards the beginning of the movie, when they’re desperately trying to mooch off a neighbor’s wi-fi signal, they can only get reception by climbing on top of it. Another way of measuring their poverty is the drunk man who consistently comes to urinate right in front of their window. Later in the movie, a great rainstorm hits the area. For the rich Parks, the rain mostly amounts to an annoying cancellation of their young son’s birthday camping trip, but for the Kims, it means a devastating flood. 

“In this film, water (including urine) represents misfortune and disaster,” Bong says. “Unfortunately water always flows from top to bottom, never the other way around. Water flows from the rich neighborhood to the poor neighborhood. That’s a really tragic element of this film, and I tried to represent that visually through the rain sequence.”

The rain, and the different ways it is felt by Parasite’s various characters, is a turning point in the film. After that, the simmering class tensions boil over until they erupt in a devastating climax of violence. Many of Bong’s films end in destruction: Think of the Snowpiercer rebels overturning the whole train, or Okja’s animal activists getting rounded up by fascist mercenaries. 

“Those different tensions exist on various levels in reality as well, but you rarely see explosive events that face those tensions head-on. Usually they’re very ambiguous and sticky and they just continue in that way,” Bong says. “But through film and a three-act structure, you’re able to deal with those explosive moments when the tension finally comes to the forefront. I always consider myself a genre filmmaker. Sometimes they’re more directly based on genre like Snowpiercer, and sometimes relatively less so like Parasite, but by using genre conventions I can really let those tensions explode through the narrative. That allows us to really show the tension even more clearly, rather than letting it ambiguously carry on. There are films that really manage to show that ambiguous tension, but as a genre filmmaker, I always take the approach of genre to tackle those issues, and that’s why my films are always a mix of black comedy and tragedy.”

Courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment

2019 has been a good year for genre films unafraid to explosively confront class conflict. Jordan Peele’s Us, for one, used horror movie tropes to depict a life-or-death struggle between a comfortable, surface-dwelling middle class and the oppressed underclass suffering in the dark to make their lifestyle possible. When mass class warfare fails, some of Us’ Tethered take a similar approach to betterment as Parasite’s protagonists: Infiltrating the rich surface world by replacing one person at a time.

Even Joker, this fall’s much-discussed comic book movie, has class struggle on the brain. Contrary to previous interpretations of the Joker, Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is a mentally ill abuse survivor whose few remaining connections to society are slowly ground down by ‘70s austerity politics and the uncaring abandonment of billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). But the class tension goes beyond Arthur himself; throughout the movie Gotham City is being wracked by a sanitation workers’ strike, causing garbage to pile on the streets in proportion to Arthur’s own deteriorating mental state. The last straw comes when Arthur gets mocked and beaten on the subway by a group of well-dressed young businessmen; when Arthur opens fire on them in a burst of desperate violence, it ignites a city-wide protest movement against the rich. 

Then there’s Ready Or Not, the horror thriller about a young woman named Grace (Samara Weaving) who tries to marry into a rich family. For her trouble, she spends her wedding night hiding from her wealthy in-laws, who are hunting her with crossbows and sharp blades. The film’s backstory sheds light on why we might be seeing such films these days.

“The themes of class and the 1 percent were present from the very first draft we read, but Fox Searchlight got on board the day after the 2016 election,” co-director Matt Bettinelli-Olpin tells EW. “We literally went in there the next morning and it was like walking into a morgue, lots of gallows humor. Prior to that, the script had been a lot darker at the end, serving more as a warning of the 1 percent, but then after Trump’s election we all collectively agreed (us, the studio, the producers), ‘let’s have more fun with this and make it more cathartic and less of warning flag.’ She originally died in the end.” 

Eric Zachanowich/Fox Searchlight

Instead (spoiler warning), Grace does not die at the end of Ready Or Not; everyone else does. Despite being greatly outnumbered by her rich enemies, Grace has one advantage going for her: She just needs to survive until morning. If the members of the Le Domas dynasty fail to kill her before dawn, they’ll have to pay the ultimate price to their demonic benefactor Mr. Le Bail, per the terms of the Faustian bargain their ancestor made years ago to generate their family’s wealth in the first place. But the modern-day scions of the Le Domas family are so far removed from the original source of their fortunes that they are unfit to the task of doing the necessary work to preserve it. Instead of efficiently hunting down Grace in time for their deadline, these hapless rich people bumble through their own house, shooting and poisoning each other until Mr. Le Bail arrives with the sunrise to collect his collateral. 

“Our country is basically run by people who got their money from somebody who’s dead,” co-director Tyler Gillett says. “To us there’s just this intrinsic wrong there, when you pass this money down and these families get more and more powerful and continue to run the world. We’re seeing that with Trump now in a very real way. The questioning of it goes, at what point will you break from that tradition and step up and say, ‘okay it’s on me as someone in power to do something different,’ which is what the Adam Brody character ultimately embodies. And then you have the father figure Tony (Henry Czerny) who, up until he’s literally exploding, is still demanding that he’s in control and deserves it all.”

The contrast between people who have fortunes handed to them and people who have to work for a living is central to Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, this fall’s feel-good film about strippers who steal from rich Wall Street men and give to, well, themselves (based on a true story originally reported by New York magazine). 

Unlike most movies and TV shows that depict strippers, Hustlers tells its story from their point of view. As a result, audiences see the hard work that goes into the job, the various fees and obstacles and bosses the strippers have to put up with, and the inconsistent nature of the work. But even viewers who have never even set foot in a strip club can relate to the way the dancers’ lives are completely upended by the 2008 financial crisis, which decimates their ability to earn a living while making their Wall Street clients even richer. 

“There’s a misconception that strippers make thousands of dollars every night and the sky is raining money,” Scafaria tells EW. “In a way, when we were all living in 2007, we were under some false pretenses about the lives we were living. We were all standing on a rug that was about to be whipped out. There was definitely a before and after for all of us, much less the global economy, but certainly for these dancers with Wall Street in their backyard and the specific nature of their job. A lot of jobs have different versions of that, so there was something incredibly relatable about it to me. I wanted to highlight the pros and cons: The value of the freedom of it, the kind of money it can deliver on. There’s definitely an allure there that tonight could be a good night — tonight could pay the rent, could pay hospital bills and student loans and all kinds of things that are also part of the broken system. It was always a part of it, to show the day-to-day of it, and show how relatable it is to a lot of people.”

STXfilms

As Ramona, Jennifer Lopez plays the big sister to Hustlers’ other strippers like Destiny (Constance Wu). Lopez’s most talked-about scenes from the film are her initial performance, raking in countless bills while dancing to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” and her later tutorial to Destiny on the art of the pole dance. But in the wake of the financial crisis, Ramona is also the one who concocts the plan to get back at the bankers who crashed the economy by seducing, drugging, and conning them out of their money. 

Eventually, as in most great crime dramas, Ramona’s gang goes too far. They start taking from people who don’t have that much money to spare, and eventually bring the police down on their heads. Ramona stands by her philosophy, though. She delivers the film’s closing line: “It’s all a strip club. You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” It’s as succinct a description of how capitalism works in 2019 — where a handful of people have more money than they literally know what to do with, while others string together temp work and freelance gigs to make ends meet, or perform their life stories on GoFundMe to beg for help with medical expenses — as you could want.

“I think people have been on a journey with the movie. They watched it start as a movie about strippers and turn into a crime drama about our times. And so I think for me that summary of it was to honestly bring it back to everyone’s reality, which is that there is this struggle and you are kind of on one side or another in this class war,” Scafaria says. “Gender may have something to do with it. There are other factors that have a lot to do it: The house you grew up in, the opportunities you were given, the cards you were dealt. For me that was a very relatable way of bringing it back to the audience and asking them that question: Which one are you? I’ve certainly done the dance in my own job, which is why I very much find these women relatable. I just think we’ve all done the dance…unless you’re one of the people tossing them money.”

Hustlers is thus a searing portrait of America before and after the financial crisis — the kind that needed a few years of retrospect to fully grasp how little has changed in the years since. The 2008 crash swept President Barack Obama into office on a message of “change,” but most data agrees that the top 1 percent of Americans are actually even wealthier now than they were before the crisis. The poor, working, and middle classes? Not so much

And so here we are, in 2019, living in the age of Parasite. The financial crisis was international, of course, and the result is a world where poorer people have to fight for every scrap while the rich carry on in luxury. At the time of this writing, popular revolts have engulfed both Hong Kong (“the world’s most unequal place to live,” according to the New York Times) and Ecuador. Any piece of cinema hoping to depict our current moment would be remiss not to consider class conflict when it’s increasingly a fact of life. 

“As time passes, I hope people remember this film as portraying an honest portrayal of the times we live in,” Bong says. “I want people to look back on this film and say that’s how life actually was, and remember it as a sharp portrayal.”

Parasite is currently screening in limited release in New York and Los Angeles, and is set to expand to more theaters and cities next weekend. 

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