An essay on post-truth, Plato, and decorative rocks.
Bong Joon-ho is lying to you. The South Korean writer-director has made a career out of satirising class struggle and social stratification under modern capitalism. His films certainly champion the voices of the economically disenfranchised and yet Bong himself is a member of the intelligentsia. His life is anything but one of socio-economic struggle. Bong earns a living making movies and they have made him millions.
His latest project is a film that levies a scathing indictment on the disparity of South Korean society. The reception of the film is somehow ignorant of this — it poses yet another lie. Parasite has become a cultural emblem of the very same society it critiques, celebrated as the movie that put South Korean cinema on the world map. Bong is hailed as a hero of the very nation he so angrily attacked. A vision of economic injustice has been mutated into something far more sinister.
Indeed, one cannot help but note the irony of the 2020 Academy Award Ceremony responsible. Parasite receives standing ovation after standing ovation as Bong jokes about getting blind drunk and the Hollywood socialites swoon. In doing so, they fail to realise that it is they who are the target of Bong’s jokes. This gathering of Hollywood elites is part of the problem Bong’s movie is about, a symptom of a socio-economic structure that has allowed thousands to spend a night dressed up drinking champagne and talking movies while people in the same country die of preventable diseases whose treatment they could not afford.
Much like in South Korea, the irony of singing the praises of Parasite is lost amongst Hollywood. The only political acknowledgement the film receives in the West is from a leader who uses it to illustrate his own pseudo-nationalist narrative. Somehow, the conversation surrounding Parasite is about culture and diversity, not economic justice.
Perhaps Bong’s greatest lie is his film’s rock. Gifted early in the film to one of the main characters, this rock becomes a mysterious symbol that many viewers have puzzled over. These theorists would be surprised to hear that Bong is just as clueless as to the rock’s purpose as they are. Bong admits that the rock’s inclusion is deliberately vague, a sort of meta-symbol to poke fun at those who try to dissect every little detail in his films. Bong thought it would be funny to include a symbol in the movie that the characters themselves claim is “metaphorical”.
Parasite’s rock might just be the key to understanding the film, regardless of the intent of its director. I do not mean just its content but the various paradoxes that surround the film’s reception too — from the elites of the Hollywood Academy to Bong’s newfound position as cultural icon of Korea. The lie of the rock reveals how a film that is so deliberately pointed in its critique of socio-economic inequity can be praised by socio-economic elites; how a film that is so visceral in its depiction of material injustice can spark a conversation that has nothing to do with materialism at all.
Yes, Bong Joon-ho is lying to you. But that lie might be indicative of a larger truth, that those who challenge the powerful end up becoming their mouthpiece. This is the story of how hegemony neutralises and subjugates the forces of political change. It is a story that Bong Joon-ho has hidden right under our noses, a story wrapped up and hidden amongst carefully constructed lies.
The truth about lying
Before we begin it is useful to briefly consider the philosophy of lying. Plato’s Republic fictionalises the attempt of Socrates and other members of the Athenian elite to imagine the perfect society. Lying is to play an important role in this utopia. Plato argues that philosophers are uniquely disposed to govern. They spend their lives contemplating truth and so possess an extraordinary amount of knowledge and expertise on the matter of structuring society, knowledge that the masses evidently lack. And so Plato suggests that the philosophers will need to craft a lie to justify the structure of this society. In Plato’s utopia, no one need possess knowledge that is above their station. They only need to know enough to keep them happy and the society healthy.
Scholars refer to this as a noble lie. A noble lie has far reaching ambition. Its goal is to convince citizens to love one another and the society. Often, the lie is told to help justify hierarchy and inequality. This is the case for Plato, whose noble lie justifies the division of his imagined republic into three social castes. But this is not to say the noble lie is simple — something like a mistaken belief in the equity of the free market or in the possibility of a ‘fair go’. A noble lie is deeper than that. It relates to the society, the city, the nation as a whole and harmonious entity. It does not deal in specifics. It is both a society’s vision and its mythology.
Parasite’s rock is a noble lie — and in more ways than one. In the film, it is a lie that motivates Ki-woo and his family to more and more inventive schemes to pursue financial riches. It convinces Ki-woo to continue to believe in his economic aspirations even when all hope is lost — he clutches it during the night of the flood, insisting that it is attached to him. It blinds him of the obvious injustices of the hierarchy around him — that a night of rain means his family loses their home, while the wealthy upper-class Parks only miss the luxury of a camping trip. Yet this lie is not simply the false possibility of class mobility. This is a reading that is too literal, too focused on socio-economic mechanics and not enough on mythology. A noble lie is bigger than that. It is the stuff entire nations are built on, after all.
This rock has an immediate connection with Korean tradition. It is a scholar’s rock, a type of decorative stone collected by many older Koreans. Indeed, Bong’s own father used to collect them. But that tradition is dead. Bong says that even in his middle age he knows no one who collects the stones. Why it might be the gift of a young university student to a similarly aged friend is puzzling. What we can know for certain is that for Ki-woo and the rest of his family, such a stone has mysterious connotations of Korea’s past. To understand it and the lie it represents we need to turn to Korea’s history as a nation-state.
The miracle on the river Han
At the end of civil war in 1953, South Korea was a middling agricultural economy with appalling living standards. More than half its population were in absolute poverty and half were illiterate. This was to do with a model of colonial development under the Japanese, which saw most of Korea’s wealth into the hands of the nation’s subjugators. The situation was only made more severe by the war and the schism of Korea into two states.
Over the next fifty years the impossible happened. South Korea transformed itself into a developed nation. It joined the ‘rich man’s club’ that other developed nations had established for themselves in the new post-war international order. It exerted itself on the world stage as powerful economy, a process that was completed as it was acceded into the G20 in 2010. A complete and self-sufficient nation state, Korea was no longer a people to be subordinated by the Japanese or the Americans. It had completed its nation building project.
This extraordinary development was described by observers as ‘the Miracle on the River Han’. For outsiders there was simply no other explanation. It really was a miracle. South Korea had explicitly ignored the advice offered by their liberator, the Americans. The United States insisted that Korea walk the path of capitalist development. It was told to invest in small business and trust in the free market to do the rest. Korea did the opposite. The government took the enormous funding it received from other states and funnelled it into chaebols. These were business conglomerates run and owned by a Korean family. Chaebols would become the driving force of Korea’s development.
This reliance on chaebols was not without its costs. While the conglomerates drove business and employment, most of the wealth generated would end up in the hands of the chaebol owners. This gave the small group of chaebol owners a significant amount of legal and political power. Its consequences are still felt today. Given the control the chaebols exercised over development, it suddenly became clear that Korea was not building a society that served its people, but a society that catered toward an elite.
Korea could not afford to distance itself from the masses, however. Any great project of economic development could not rely on an elite alone. It was the people that would constitute the brunt of the labour force that would sustain growth. Korea found itself facing a contradiction: the need to unify its people in support of vision that would be inherently and ultimately divisive. It was the kind of contradiction that could only be surmounted by a lie of the depth and significance that Plato wrote about — a noble lie.
This lie became the story of the ‘Miracle on the Han River’. Korean leaders drew upon the example of the post-war rebirth of West-Germany, encouraging citizens to bear difficulties in the pursuit of their economic revival. The devotion of the labour force to this end was deemed necessary and Korean workers were praised for the way they took up the task. This patriotism signalled the beginning of the myth of Korea as a people who could lift themselves out of even the most appalling of circumstances and ability to endure untold hardship to get there.
This mythologicalisation of the Korean people disguised an uncomfortable reality: that South Korea was dependent upon foreign aid and the ever-increasing power of their extra-legal chaebol elite. Nonetheless, this insistence on the miracle continued to earn the public’s support in the nation building project. It convinced citizens to love one another and the nation. In turn, it would justify the hardship and economic injustices the people had to suffer on the road to economic rebirth. It was Korea’s noble lie. And it was glorious.
The doctor who looked nothing like a doctor
In 1997, this myth was challenged. Thailand floated its currency and its value quickly collapsed. There was an enormous flight of foreign capital from South-East Asia and it could not be contained. South Korea’s economy crashed. Its prosperous middle class contracted as thousands lost their jobs. Soon, economic inequality was rampant. Crises are often regarded as inherent to a capitalist system and Koreans were waking up to this reality. It suddenly seemed as if the South Korea citizens had laboured so hard to bring to power was not a nation that was going to work for everyone.
This is where we return to the story of Parasite and the Kim family. Bong alludes to the history of the family as owners of a fried chicken business and then a castella shop. These businesses are emblematic of Korea’s once thriving middle class. All of them failed. The noble lie would seem to suggest that such middle class attempts at financial prosperity are possible. The reality — that Korea’s economic environment is one controlled by the chaebol — would indicate otherwise.
This is a reality that Parasite’s Kim family have lived through. They are victims of Korea’s failed middle class. From botched business to botched business they find themselves unemployed, resigned to a life of folding pizza boxes in their semi-basement home. They have grown disillusioned with Korea’s noble lie. When Ki-woo receives the scholar’s rock from his friend something changes. The gift — along with its mysterious ties to an older Korea, the mythical nation that existed before the financial crisis of 1997 — reignites the family’s forgotten middle-class ambitions. A life of financial prosperity and socio-economic status suddenly seems plausible. The Korean noble lie is alive again. Ki-woo’s possession of the scholar’s rock will chart his relationship with that lie as the film progresses.
The Kim’s hatch a bold and increasingly audacious plan to con the wealthy Park household into employing them. As an audience familiar with Korea’s noble lie, we know this plan will be a failure. Korea’s economic terrain is not one that allows inequality to be overcome. Bong knows this too. He illustrates the fact through the smell of the Kim family. The Kim’s can change almost every aspect of their appearance to trick the Park’s. Ki-woo appears an English prodigy and Ki-jung, his sister, convincingly adopts the persona of a radical art therapist. The one thing the Kim’s cannot rid themselves of is the smell of their semi-basement home. It is the smell of a life of poverty, the scent of those destined to remain amongst the dredges of society.
This smell spells doom for the family. It ultimately inspires Ki-taek’s cataclysmic act of violent revenge as he drives a knife into the chest of the Park family patriarch, exposing the Kim’s cover and returning them once again to the destituteness of their semi-basement life. Ki-woo’s rock, once thought the symbolic return of the Korean noble lie and a metaphorical promise of middle-class prosperity, becomes nothing but a blunt instrument used to bash his skull in. He is literally hit in the face with his economic ambitions.
Through these violent events Ki-woo comes to realise the truth behind Korea’s lie. He regains consciousness and immediately encounters a “doctor who looked nothing like a doctor” and a “detective who looked nothing like a detective”. This mocking remark entails his realisation that the socio-economic hierarchy of Korea is anything but just and purposeful. The doctor and the detective possess no qualities that make them deserve the privileges of their profession. The rich are not special, the poor are not lacking, and Korea is no economic miracle: a rock is just a rock.
Something strange happens to Ki-woo at Parasite’s conclusion, however. Ki-woo might realise Korea’s noble lie for what it is, but he makes a choice to believe it anyway. The film ends with another of his middle-class fantasies. He writes to his father, explaining that he has made a plan to get rich and free him from the confines of their classism. Everything about Ki-woo’s experience in this film would suggests this is impossible, however. Ki-woo knows it and choses to believe it anywat. He has made an active decision to internalise the lie of social mobility, a lie the myth of Korea as the ‘Miracle on the Han River’ almost made possible.
At first glance it seems as if Parasite has ended back where it began with the poor continuing to believe in the lie of South Korea, continuing the strive for economic security even when we know this is not possible. Part of the tragedy of this moment is that Ki-woo internalises a fantasy that he knows will not come true. This is the important factor. The scenes Bong closes with are glimpses of Ki-woo’s personal myth, not that of an entire nation. The ultimate tragedy of Parasite is that a myth which was once used to bind a nation-state together has been divided into a lie of personal significance and necessity. Ki-woo was gone from a young and naïve character who wholeheartedly believed in the Korean myth to someone who continues to perpetuate that myth as a matter of individual necessity. It is hard to think he could continue to live in Korea without it.
The story of Parasite then is one of transformation without fundamental change. It explores the transmutation of political myths into individual lies: from a rock steeped in history and tradition to a self-constructed fiction told out of psychological need. The Korean myth is dead, but Bong’s film is not exceptional because it recognises this — anyone since 1997 has known it true. Instead, his film offers a revelation that this myth did not ever go away. It has merely found its resting place in individual psyche, rather than a cultural one.
Parasite poses a question. The rapid and often instantaneous availability of media and education has meant that so many of us have been exposed to all the various failures of our societies, even if indirectly. Like Ki-woo, most of us have recognised the noble lies — the political myths of the great nation building projects — for the lies they are. The proliferation of democratic institutions and the increasing openness to dissenting views in media provides those of us who have glimpsed the truth with an avenue to pursue progress despite this, a way to mobilise political visions for a better world without the need for binding lies. Bong has observed the very opposite: culture has retreated inward.
Bong is angry at this and demands to know why. The answer is finally given to us in Ki-woo’s fantasy. Like Ki-woo, so many have accepted the failings of our societies, of their noble lies, and done nothing with the truth. It is not that nobody cares but that we are content to live out our lives within our own personal realities regardless of it. A revelation of truth does not prompt people to ask what they can do with it, rather, how they can cope with it.
The end of politics
One does not have to watch Parasite to understand the transformation of these noble lies into personal fiction. All we must do is look around us. All around the world elections are won not on the promise of a better future but on the insistence that nothing will change. When our politicians do offer the promise of policy reform it always centres on a technicality — to reduce the debt, to cut tax — or to prevent something — immigration, terrorism, the impending climate threat.
We do not expect anything more from our politicians, who return the favour by reducing us to merely another part of an increasingly complex industrial society. We are nothing but ‘workers’, ‘consumers’, ‘voters’, mere instruments in a mechanical civilization. The line between these three categories is increasingly blurred. We find ourselves working so we can consume; voting so we can work more and spend bigger.
Visions of change are confined to the sphere of personal life. Self-help literature consistently tops bookseller charts. We are so enamoured by the idea that we can change ourselves, that the roots of an unsatisfactory life lie within, not without. Social media facilitates the rise of wellness culture. To feel happy all we need to do is walk, breathe, drink water, write a journal. The performative aspect of these platforms places us in the position of author of our own life. We can control the veil of perception; everything is customisable and our entire lives open to reform however we desire. Yet those desires are often out of our control. Algorithms determine advertising and suggest more content based upon what we already like. Possible ranges of behaviour are chosen for us by models that insist we are rational, that our next move can be determined with the right information. Freedom and self-expression disguise conformity.
In such an environment, the great mythmakers of society have nothing to do with politics at all. The fact that a filmmaker is one of the most significant voices to comment on this change is of no small significance. This is the kind of society that Plato would be horrified with. In his republic, poets and playwrights are banned because they challenge the grand and all-encompassing scope of the noble lie with individual and alternate truths. These days, everyone is a poet or a playwright. Our political truths come from blogs, podcasters and internet memes.
Many people have referred to this phenomenon as post-truth. I think this term does not do justice to the form of our new politics. We do not live in a post-truth age but the very opposite: a post-myth society. A fetishization of expertise and the spread of positivism amongst the social sciences — fields which are inherently qualitative — has created a cultural terrain inhospitable for political mythmaking. People worry that reality has been made subservient to politics. This has always been the case, only now reality is subservient to politics in a different form: personal politics.
The kinds of activities we associate with politics now have nothing to do with political change at all. Writing Twitter posts, arguing over diverse representation in Hollywood blockbusters — this is the new politics. This blog post is the perfect example. I consider myself to be a politically minded person, but all I do is read a lot and write things like this. I do nothing to feed a collective political vision. Politics has become a solipsistic endeavour, only practiced in a way that is completely impotent to change.
Consider environmentalism and the climate movement. This is one of the few remaining political myths and yet the conversation surrounding it no longer has anything to do with politics. Environmentalism has taken a new form of student-led protests under the leadership of Greta Thunberg. The discussion these protests have sparked is one that has nothing to do with political change. Instead, commentators discuss the validity of children as leaders of the climate movement. There is more debate about the efficacy of protest than there is about the need for urgent energy reform.
This is because the myth at the heart of environmentalism is weak. It is a movement that has founded itself on the promise not to construct a future but to prevent one. The thesis at its centre is neutralised. Irrelevant talking points and identity politics feed the personal myths of those who do or do not partake in the movement, all the while the political myth at the centre remains impotent.
Progressivism is an inherently nihilistic endeavour. What should be a vision of change is a negative vision defined in terms of what it opposes: inequality, climate disaster, patriarchy, racism. The promise of political change is so difficult to grasp because no one understands our society well enough to recognise what form that change might take. Industrial civilisation is one without dialectics. Master-slave relations are disguised in the workplace through the apparatus of managerial bureaucracy. Our subservience to the means of production is hidden by consumption time masking itself as free time. We cannot call for effective reform when fail to understand what it is we want to change in the first place.
Our society is now so complex that it cannot be sustained through myth alone. The hegemonic powers that construct our lives no longer need noble lies to control us. Hegemons rule through tacit consent. Power makes concessions: progressives are given liberal identity politics, workers unions and the middle-class tax cuts. It is always enough to satiate us, enough to sustain the illusion that power works for you. It allows films like Parasite to be made, but in a cruel twist of irony ascribes a popular narrative to them that the artist never intended. Bong has been made to inadvertently support the same self-sustaining lies he is trying to expose.
Parasite is given an enormous platform at the Academy Awards and somehow, almost paradoxically, that platform works against the film. The political myths of Bong’s film are made into personal ones. The success of the film no longer tells the story of the contempt people everywhere harbour for capitalist power, the anger they feel at the failures of our societies to address the collapse of their noble lies. It is made to tell a more personal story about the validity of Korean cinema on the world stage. The recognition of Parasite is not a recognition of the ills plaguing certain societies but a recognition of the legitimacy of Koreans as global storytellers.
Hollywood insists it is giving a voice to Korean filmmakers and yet in doing so it explicitly ignores what the most popular amongst them has to say. In one night, the award ceremony transforms Parasite into an object of culture to be admired, recognised not on a level that engages with the film’s substance but in a way that maintains a cautious distance between it and the symbolic significance hegemonic power has intended the story to adopt.
The powerful dictate the terms of any discussion. You might not care for the Oscars, but you cannot ignore the way the event sets the tone for cultural discourse. In the aftermath of Parasite’s Oscar win it is near impossible to find a major news outlet that discusses the relationship between economic injustice and mythmaking present in the film. Take this op-ed in Variety, which talks about the “message” the victory sends. A vote for Parasite is a vote for a particular “future” — not a future that has anything to do with blatant and preventable economic suffering but one “where storytellers … come from fresh places”. The word “classicism” is only used in the article to refer to the Academy Award’s hostility toward diverse storytelling, not the content of the actual film.
This is a reception of the film that is woefully ignorant of what it is actually about. It is a discourse that comes so close to getting it — referring to the win as ‘historic’, ‘symbolic’ and ‘powerful’ — only to subvert the outcome of that narrative at the very last minute. Parasite’s win tells us things about Koreans and the nature of the whitewashed Hollywood elite, all things which feed the personal myths we craft for ourselves: things about identity and self-expression.
The potential for Parasite to contribute to a political discussion — one that is open, honest and constructive– is effectively neutralised. Yes, Parasite is feeding the narrative of certain political subgroups, but these discussions occur in isolation, signifying things that are unintelligible to members of the outgroup. As far as contributing to a more pervasive discourse goes, Parasite’s greatest mythmaking accomplishment is to get more people to watch Oldboy.
The end of the twentieth century has marked the end of political mythology and the death of Plato’s noble lie. This is not a good thing. While it might mean we no longer live out our lives confined to a carefully constructed fiction designed to control us, it also means that we do not have the power to construct myths of our own to challenge and liberate. It is not that people are disillusioned with the process of politics — its institutions and codes of conduct. What contempt there is for these matters merely hides a disillusionment with the very notion of political mythmaking itself. The grand narrative and visions of change that once mobilised political activity have been proved false and in the wake we have abandoned any hope of their replacement.
We know our politicians and financial systems do not serve our best interests. We know there is unjust and preventable inequality. We know we are inevitably hurtling towards environmental catastrophe. And we do nothing. We live out our own political realities in an internal world of self-constructed fantasy. The line between politics and the personal, between reality and myth, is unrecognisable. The only way we can voice dissent is through lies of our own. Through art and protest that is subverted and reconstructed until it takes on a form that has nothing to do with the vision of change we intended in the first place.
Yes, Bong Joon-ho is lying to us. No one seems to care.