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Thursday, February 6, 2020

Morality in Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck

Parasite (2019)
By David Hsieh

Income inequality is often framed as a political and social issue in the United States. But can it be a moral issue? Two very different works—Bong Joon-Hos’ Parasite, currently screening in black and white at BAM Rose Cinemas, and Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, which BAM audiences can see on February 6 in The Met: Live in HD series—suggest so. [Editor's note: Spoilers follow]

Parasite’s plot revolves around two families in modern day Seoul—one rich (the Parks) and the other poor (the Kims). Although both are nuclear families with parents and two children (one boy, one girl), their lives are very different. The Parks’ patriarch is the head of an IT company; they live in a Philip Johnsonesque house located on a secluded hilltop. The Kims are unemployed adults ekeing out a living by folding pizza boxes. They live in a half-basement susceptible to street fumigation and flooding. But the two families’ fates become linked when the Kims’ son becomes the English tutor for the Parks’ daughter. Through deceit and subterfuge, all four Kims are employed by the Parks.

The film’s pivotal point is a weekend when the Parks take a camping trip to celebrate their son’s birthday. The four Kims gather in the temporarily vacated house and gorge on their employers’ fancy food and drinks. Their elation is short-lived though. First, the former housekeeper whom they contrived to get dismissed, returns with a shocking revelation. Then the Parks return from their canceled trip because of a flood. The Kims need to not only conceal their own misdeeds, but also the former housekeeper’s. This chain of developments lead to the film’s horrifying climax. Bong Joon-Ho expertly manipulates our reaction to the Kims’ behavior—from sympathy to disgust and back to sympathy—throughout the film. One exchange is particularly revealing. When Mrs. Kim comments that the Parks were really nice people despite their wealth, her husband retorts, “They’re nice because they’re rich!” If you’re poor, he’s saying, you do anything you can to get ahead—even if it means putting other people’s lives in danger, as the Kims are forced to.


The same sentiment is uttered by the eponymous character in Wozzeck, a 1925 opera based on the 19th-century German playwright Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck. It tells the story of a low-ranking soldier driven to kill his common-law wife (and mother of their child), Marie, who has an affair with a drum major.

Wozzeck, as created by Berg, is constantly berated by everyone around him—the captain he runs errands for, the doctor who uses him as a lab rat, and Marie, who cuckolds him. But no matter what he is accused of, his dejected response is always, “I’m poor, and the poor can’t afford morality.”

Mainstream Hollywood may be too wary of victim-blaming to explore this question, but these two foreign works, separated by 100 years and a continent, uncannily express the same sentiment: Are morality and common decency traits only the rich can afford? However, this may be a trick; the rich are hardly angels in these works (nor would you have to look very hard to find virtue in lower economic classes depicted elsewhere). In Parasite, Mr. Park complains of Mr. Kim’s “poor man smell” all the time (although he does have the “decency” not to say it to his face). Moreover, the corruptive codependency between the South Korean government and big corporations, like the one Mr. Park runs, is a major contributor to the economic woe suffered by the Kims.

The captain and the doctor in Wozzeck don’t even bother to hide their contempt. In their condescension, they fail to recognize their own contribution to Wozzeck’s immorality—especially the doctor, who conducts bizarre medical experiments on him with no hesitation. In the Met production by William Kentridge (a BAM artist), the emphasis is on the First World War (Kentridge’s paintings pay tribute to Otto Dix), for which Berg was drafted by the Austro-Hungarian Army. But war alone cannot account for the general moral vacuum in that world.

Tellingly, when the Kims and Wozzeck seize control, they turn not on the rich, but on people even lower on the societal ladder—the former housekeeper and Marie. In a world that measures our value by economic achievement, Joon-Ho and Berg ask, is morality available to anyone, rich or poor?

David Hsieh is a publicity manager at BAM.

© 2020, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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