Dystopia is a highly entertaining type of narrative in literature, film but also video games. When being used the content often discusses an imagined future in which a political, environmental or technological disaster is taking over the world’s society. While they are very entertaining to those consuming them, especially literature and cinematic content often comes with a message or a certain viewpoint the director or author wants to share with the audience. Furthermore, they can also teach the consumer different things or make them think about what they have just seen or read more deeply. Recently a South Korean movie, as well as television series which are based on a capitalistic dystopia, gained popularity all across the world, which while highly entertaining also teach a lot about contemporary South Korean issues.
This paper will discuss Parasite and Squid Game as examples of cinematic dystopian narratives with a focus on capitalist dystopia. This topic is relevant as the two cinematic contents chosen teach a lot about classism and capitalism from the viewpoint of the directors and criticise the concepts while being highly entertaining.
What are dystopian narratives?
Dystopian narratives are mostly based on an imagined future in which ‚societies in cataclysmic decline, with characters who battle environmental ruin, technological control, and government oppression‘ (What is Dystopian Fiction? Learn About the 5 Characteristics of Dystopian Fiction With Examples, 2021). It is furthermore always based on a frightening and dehumanizing environment, so the opposite of the utopian, perfect one. They have the aim to make the reader or viewer think about a contemporary social or political issue. This means that while dystopian narratives are entertaining, they also often come with a message. In the article ‘What is Dystopian Fiction? Learn About the 5 Characteristics of Dystopian Fiction With Examples’ (2021), five central themes of dystopian narratives are listed which are Governmental control, environmental destruction, technological control, survival and loss of individualism. Furthermore, the article explains how the dystopian narrative can teach and in some way warn humankind about the portrayed social and political issues. These political and social issues can be portrayed in an abstract or satirical way though and hence sometimes need a deeper look into it in order to understand the author’s message, criticism or viewpoint about a certain issue.
The dystopia portrayed in Squid Game and Parasite deals with the one of survival and is based on capitalism and classism and how based on this, life for some turns out to be a utopia and for others a dystopia. This is portrayed through the class differences in the two contents in which we have two parties, one being from low-income and the other from a high-income. Both do not necessarily play in an imagined future as capitalism is a real life, everyday occurrence everywhere around the world. Hence, the environment of Squid Game and Parasite is very reality close. Even though capitalism and classism are existing phenomena, they are still a dystopia that is feared by many in form of the sheer anxiety of being on the brink of existence. While this is a dystopia for many, it is an actual reality for others in our world, which connects to the viewpoint of the directors on this topic and hence the message they want to bring across.
Squid Game (Korean: 오징어 게임) is a South Korean Drama written by Hwang Donghyuk, which aired on Netflix in September 2021. The show is based on a contest in South Korea in which 456 individuals have the chance to win 45.6 billion South Korean won. The contest is based on the individuals needing to play different children’s games with and against each other. The twist is that those that lose any of the games die and hence only those that survive until the end have the chance to win the money. What connects all the individuals with different life stories to each other is that they are very deeply in financial dept and hence need the money to stop being on the brink of existence. The show starts by introducing the main character of the show, Seong Gihun, who is being chased by loan sharks due to getting deeply in debt after suddenly having lost his job. Going from a middle-income class man to one of low-income, he needed to take out loans in order to survive. While waiting for the underground, a man starts talking to Seong, asking him to play a game of Ddakji with him and if he wins, he would pay him 10,000 Korean Won but if he loses he gets to hit him. Seong loses multiple times but plays until he wins once. Ending the game, the stranger hands Seong a card, telling him to call the number on it in case he would like to play more games for bigger prize money. After deciding to participate, Seong gets unconsciously taken to a secret location and wakes up in a room with the other 455 individuals who decided to take place in the contest as well. After waking up, staff members, who wear facemasks to not be able to be identified, come into the room and explain the contest and the first game, Red Light, Green Light, during which more than half of the participants die. Finding out that the contest is one of life and death, the individuals together opt to stop the game and return home, which gets granted to them by the staff. In the end, most of them return to playing the game though as they have nothing to live for and no money. For the rest of the show, the returned players keep on playing games until everyone died in the end except for the main character. Winning the money, it is then shown that he is still not happy upon returning to his now changed normal life (Hwang, 2021).
Parasite is a South Korean movie written and directed by Bong Joonho and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019. It tells the story of a low-income family of four who all get hired by a high-class family by lying about their qualifications and relationship with each other. The movie starts by showing Kim family, containing of the parents (Kitaek and Chungsook) an older daughter (Kijung) and younger son (Kiwoo), who all live in a very poor looking basement together. It is shown that they do not have any money due to their parents’ unemployment and they get by with whatever money they can somehow earn. Then one day, Kiwoo’s friend offers him to take over his job as an English tutor for a rich family while he is studying abroad. Through faking his qualifications, he gets to replace his friend as the tutor and starts working for the Parks, who are also a four-headed family with the same family dynamics. On one of his visits, the mother of the Parks mentions how the son used to have art-therapy but that no one they hired stayed for long and Kiwoo recommends his sister for the position under a false name and qualification. Getting hired as well, Kijung lies to the mother about her youngest child’s mental condition in order to get paid way more than usual. Coming up with a plan the Kim family then decides to replace all the staff members of the Park family with themselves. While getting driven home one day by the family’s driver, Kijung hides her underwear in the car for him to be fired due to being seen as a ‘pervert’ and he gets replaced by their father. The Kim’s mother replaces the housekeeper in the end after the family together stages the previous one’s peach allergy as tuberculosis. After all of them are employed by the Park family, the Kims all live in their house while they are on a camping trip. The previous housekeeper suddenly appears, and it is shown that she hid her husband in a bunker below the house as he is being followed by loan sharks due to them being deeply in debt. It’s shown how both families are in similar situations financial wise and a fight between the two parties start. When the Park family suddenly returns home due to bad weather everyone tries to not be discovered by them during which the previous housekeeper dies. They all escape and due to the bad weather find their home flooded and destroyed. After a day the Parks celebrate their son’s birthday during which the disaster of the fight between the two families continues. The housekeeper’s husband escapes from the bunker he got locked in and starts attacking members of the Kim family for killing his wife until Kitaek kills him as well as the Park’s father. Afterwards, the movie ends with Kijung having died and Kiwoo recovering from his injuries, Kiwoo discovers through watching the Park's house, now with new owners, that his father is now hiding in the bunker below the house and he makes a promise to make a good career and buy the house to be able to reunite with his father (Bong, 2019).
The meaning of the dystopian narrative
In an article written by Yoon (2021) it is mentioned how Hwang Donghyuk created Seong Gihun as the main character of Squid Game to show how fast the life of an individual can turn from a personal utopia to a dystopia one. The series showed how Seong used to live a normal middle-class life but fell to the bottom after being unfairly fired. While for the 456 players the world is shown as a dystopia in which they fight for their lives, the opposite of them is also shown in form of the VIP’s. The VIP’s are a group of individuals who appear towards the end of the show, they are portrayed as rich western men, whose identity is hidden behind golden masks. Later, it is revealed that they, among side Player 001, are the makers of the game, and it gets explained how they are being so wealthy that they simply got bored of their life and created the game for their own entertainment purposes. This shows how those who fight for their own survival on a daily basis are dependent on those who are rich, but also that to the rich they are just random numbers like the number of the tracksuit every player is wearing. It shows criticism towards our capitalistic world and the parting of humankind into the rich and the poor and hence classism.
For Parasite the class difference is also clearly portrayed through the two families, who economical wise could not be more different. It shows how the Kims are basically dependent on the Parks for their survival but also how the Kims need to fight for this survival with others, who are in the same situation as them. The movie implicates how working-class individuals are forced to compete against each other in order to survive while high-class individuals ‘like the Parks live a comfortable life, fueled by the labor of the many individuals working beneath them’ (Di Placido, 2020). This especially shows during their camping trip from which they return due to the bad weather. While the Parks are unbothered by it and celebrate their child’s birthday the next day, the Kim’s whole house gets flooded and all their belongings are damaged, showing the contrast between the two life situations. Bong himself stated like in Di Placido’s article (2020) said that connected to the title, both families can be seen as the parasites. While the poor family creeps their way into the rich one’s house to live off of them, the rich family is also a parasite connected to labour as they do not even know how to do tasks like cooking or cleaning, being dependent on others for simple daily activities (Di Placido, 2020).
While Squid Game and Parasite are highly entertaining contents which won many awards and are very much known all around the world, they also come with a deep implication and teach a lot about contemporary issues. As already mentioned, both contents are based on a capitalist dystopia, which is very reality-close and heavily criticises classism and capitalism. It shows why dystopian narratives are prevalent as social phenomena as they are often scenarios that society is scared about. Squid Game and Parasite both show individuals that are fighting for their survival on a daily basis due to being in a financial ruin, which is a life situation that is feared by many. Especially Parasite can be financially seen as a utopia and dystopia, due to the two families being the very opposite of each other. So, while some individuals watch these entertainment contents and see their personal dystopia, it is actually one other’s reality due to the heavy gap between rich and poor that exists in our world. This is then what from my perspective makes them prevalent as social phenomena as they make individuals think about where in society they stand and for me personally it made me think out of my own bubble and realise that the dystopia shown in the movie and television show that I watch as entertainment is actual reality for some people in the world and that I can be grateful of where I financially am in the world right now.
In conclusion, it can be said that dystopian narratives give authors and directors a way to bring across political and societal issues and their viewpoints about them in an entertaining yet informative way. Squid Game and Parasite are shown to be prevalent as social phenomena as they show that dystopias do not always need to be based on imaginary futures but that one’s personal dystopia might actually be someone else’s reality. They demonstrate that as fast as one’s life can go in a good direction it can also change and one ends at the bottom real quick. Both cinematic contents show a capitalist dystopia and hence criticise capitalism but also classism through different storylines based on reality.
Overall, both Squid Game and Parasite are very entertaining comments that hold deep meaning when thought about more and actually teach a lot about contemporary political and societal issues, not just the ones of South Korea, but every country's one.
Bong, J. (Writer). (2019). Parasite [Film]. Seoul, South Korea: CJ Entertainment.
Di Placido, D. (2020). What Is ‘Parasite’ Really About?. Forbes. Retrieved December 15, 2021.
Hwang, D. (Writer). (2021). Squid Game [Television series]. Seoul, South Korea: Netflix. Retrieved December 13, 2021.