Translations are sacred. In Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, the Korean director buried an in-joke not just by way of filmmaking and dialogue, but also through its English subtitles.
It’s when the Korean American ‘K’, played by Steven Yeun, mistranslates (as the ALF or Animal Liberation Front’s translator) something that Mija says in Korean, and then has a goodbye message for her which the subtitles record differently. Bong’s intention was to wink at people who can understand both the languages. It is also a joke on the Korean American who straddles both the worlds. The subtitle reads, “Mija, try learning English. It opens new doors.” What he really says is his name, which is also part gibberish, apparent only to those who speak Korean. In the end, when other ALF members discover K’s nefarious deed, he returns with a tattoo that reads, “translations are sacred.” It’s an in-joke on an in-joke.
And behind it all is Bong Joon-ho’s almost career-long crusade against capitalism and bringing class politics to the forefront. His commentary on the idea of having to learn English to survive — something familiar to multiple generations of Asians — and the aerobics of balancing different cultural spaces, forever unsure of where one truly belongs, speak to one and all.
The politics and emotional pull of cinema translating with such elegance across the world once again came up with Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 Palme d’Or winner, and four-Oscar bagger Parasite. That it is immensely entertaining, funny and poignant every second of its runtime is one thing, but it also touches something familiar inside us all. According to Bong, it is the fact that we are all living in this country called capitalism.
Parasite begins with a rock heralding change in fortunes of the Kim family, the son Ki-woo referring to it as a metaphor. He is loose with that word. Bong Joon-ho builds the film’s disproportionate world clearly and elaborately, with point-of-view shots opening to the luxurious home of the Park family, taking in its labyrinthian excesses in physical, mental and financial terms. They live literally higher than the rest, with the entrance a few steps over the road, and Ki-woo must climb a flight of stairs that looks over a huge lawn.
We’ve already been with the Kim family at their shack, a basement dwelling in constant danger of being used as latrine by inebriated men. What has Ki-woo arrived here for? It echoes Okja‘s mistranslated subtitle. To teach the Parks’ eldest daughter, Da-hye, English. It opens doors, remember? Even for a girl born with everything in the world. But the Kims get the Parks to open their doors for every member of their family, their parasitic nature foraging the oceanic class divide, one Park at a time.
Ki-woo’s sister teaches art, and she is approved by the westernised Park family, particularly the housewife Yeon-gyo, as soon as she learns that the sister has a degree from an American university. The American stamp still matters in today, even if it holds no intrinsic value. The Kims wedge themselves deep inside the Park household only to find a secret cabinet with a long-buried, distressing secret.
Last year, there was another South Korean film in which a character literally opens and peers into the secrets of a mysterious, rich acquaintance. In Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, Jong-su opens Ben’s bathroom cabinet and discovers suspicious-looking keepsakes. He’s stunned by Ben’s — Steven Yeun again — opulence, at his age.
The provenance of his status confounds the Faulkner reading Jong-su, a struggling writer trying to juggle his career with caring for a hare-brained father. In his modest home in the countryside (in contrast, Ben lives in posh Gangnam), close to the border with North Korea, we hear that Donald Trump is fulfilling promises by repealing Obamacare. The promise translates to increased income inequality by providing tax cuts to the rich.
Income inequality is at the centre of the class struggle in both Parasite and Burning. Burning shares further parallels with Parasite. As Ben yawns at his own friends who bore him, Jong-su is unable to get at what really makes Ben tick, and why nothing really affects him, his invisible suit of armour called privilege preventing him from everything political. He calls him Gatsby and says there are many such Gatsbys in Korea. The Park family in Parasite is a Gatsby.
Here too, Ben talks of a stone while playing with their friend Hae-mi. The stone prevents you from enjoying things, it is why you don’t like tasty food, Ben claims, while showboating a bit of magic. Is Ben berating them for being poor, Jong-su wonders. He says he’ll do anything for fun, he can make anything the way he wants and that’ll be his offering. What does he call it? He calls it a metaphor. Metaphors are stretched in Burning. When Ben admits to burning useless, unpleasant, filthy looking greenhouses, you know what he really means. It is unlike Parasite in that the screenplay doesn’t humour you while you peel its layers whereas Bong’s film is so rambunctious that everything dawns on you a minute late.
Repealing medical care was a minor seeming major subplot in another recent blockbuster. Leslie Lee wrote how Todd Phillips’s Joker is really about neoliberalism as the true villain and the machinery of capitalism revoking the little pleasures of a struggling working-class man with mental illness like Arthur Fleck, causing his transition to Joker, redrawn as a symbol of revolt against the rich (in the film, the ultra-wealthy Thomas Wayne is entering politics, in a bid to control the economy).
The class-war genre is thematically rich and rewarding and speaks to all societies alike. Mati Diop’s directorial debut Atlantics — set in Senegal — deals with oppressed lower-class wage labourers having to flee their country, only to drown in the sea.
Grand Prix winner at Cannes, Diop weaves a fantastical love story around this theme. It even appears closer home, mainly the south. Accessible, entertaining films like Rathna Kumar’s Meyaadha Maan and Aadai examine romance and feminism from the perspective of class politics. The former is a gem and the latter, a misfire, but both the films focus on a kind of inter-class struggle. The inter-class romance of Murali and Madhu is juxtaposed with the resoundingly natural chemistry of Vinod and Sudar, the latter negotiating their relationship freely. The film carefully unpacks why someone like Murali struggles to deal with the possibility of an upper class (and caste) woman like Madhu requiting his feelings, while Vinod and Sudar have conversations that flow devoid of inhibitions.
In Meyaadha Maan too, there is a scene with Murali entering Madhu’s posh household and struggling to assimilate, he is happy playing with the children, them not taking him seriously is the forgivable option for him. In Aadai, a superbly filmed mishmash of ideas from the same director, Brahminical (upper class/caste) feminism is shown a mirror, and its follies are highlighted strongly, by juxtaposing the privileged Kamini with Nangeli, a girl from the society’s edges trying to lift herself up, only to see her dreams quashed by an insouciant Kamini.
Even the Tamil masala hero has been revamped. He is not the moustache-twirling upper-caste man espousing feudal values. He is more like Rajinikanth’s Kaala, with Pa. Ranjith at the helm of this movement. He doesn’t need to be explicitly political. Arivu takes on the capitalist Aadi in Velaikkaran and Raghuvaran in Velaiiila Pattadhaari spars an “Amul baby”, the icon of privilege and nepotism. No coincidence that both the films have velai (work in Tamil) in their titles, denoting the working class.
The class war cinema is now a genre unto itself, enjoying a more benevolent presence in world cinema, particularly in Asia, where, with lived experience under the parasitical influence of capitalism, filmmakers can make powerful statements with more artistic independence. Their familiarity with the West, thanks to colonialism among several things, the ability to straddle cultures and speak English, opens doors into many hearts, to misquote K. The films from around here translate better, stronger. And translations are indeed sacred.
(Aditya Srikrishna is an independent film critic based in Chennai)
(This article was first published in December 2019. It has been updated after Parasite won the Oscars)