Asian Approaches to Apocalyptic Inequality


What does the word ‘apocalypse‘ bring to mind? We usually assume of the apocalypse as embodying death and destruction, bringing momentous change to the world. As for its perpetrators, we call to mind unnatural invaders such as aliens, zombies, or disease. We might even raise the idea of natural phenomena, in humanity being struck down by its own hubris. However, what we must consider when thinking about these topics are their cultural implications. Apocalyptic thought is not a monolith, and different societies have always had different approaches to the topic. These approaches can range from a pre-occupation with the who of the apocalypse (who did it? And who suffers because of it?) to the what of the apocalypse (how does it happen?). The where might also present new reflections, such as which places and locales in society we might conceive of as being the focal points of apocalypses. The choices of which of these questions to ask, and how we answer them, are naturally informed by our own assumptions. These assumptions differ from society to society, and we must continue to ask them when we broach this topic. This is especially relevant given that American- and Euro-centric portrayals of the apocalypse through popular media have become increasingly ubiquitous.

This is why we consider it highly relevant to investigate Asian approaches to the apocalypse. The Asian region is an outsized producer of film and popular media for its own consumption, by virtue of its rapid growth in population and trend towards economic development. If we consider what alternative assumptions might exist to American- and Euro-centric portrayals of the apocalypse, Asia would be a relevant choice. Moreover, with population and economic growth comes unique concerns which inform these assumptions. Inequality is core to these concerns, especially in a region where development has exacerbated existing power differentials in class, race, or gender. At the same time, financial and political power has created new concerns of its own where some in-groups in society have been privileged above others. Exploring how these existing and new concerns have been explored in Asian apocalyptic fiction, will tell us something about the assumptions which differentiate it from hegemonic Western narratives.

Here, our articles explore this very question in distinct areas of Asian apocalyptic fiction.

1: National Service and the ‘Chao Keng Virus’

Brennan Kau

In ‘National Service and the “Chao Keng Virus” ‘, Brennan Kau reflects on how Zombiepura (2018) reveals some Singaporean conceptions of inequality through its apocalyptic theme. This involves the intertwining of foreign and domestic conceptions of inequality in one coherent text. Here, both the global zombie apocalypse genre and the local portrayal of NS shares similar critiques of inequality concealed in bureaucratic conformity. However, they also diverge from global zombie apocalyptic texts which are usually pre-occupied with post-colonial capitalism. For a local Singaporean audience, Zombiepura instead sympathises with those in society that feel neglected by the prevailing meritocratic order.

3: Capitalism and Class Inequality in Netflix’s Squid Game

Darren Ang

In ‘Capitalism and Class Inequality in Netflix’s Squid Game‘, Darren Ang shows how these common concerns adopt different dimensions in a South Korean context. Squid Game (2021) hyperbolises capitalist society, and especially that of a South Korean type. The television series revolves around an obscene power differential significantly altered from how global texts on inequality might view the failings of capitalism. The monetisation and commodification of life, which might recall Marxist ideology, thus takes centre stage.

2: Portrayal of Female Infanticide in Bollywood

Cavan Tay

In ‘Portrayal of Female Infanticide in Bollywood’, Cavan Tay explores how Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women (2003) highlights other societal concerns within India. The film’s portrayal of a dystopian village wracked with female infanticide is deeply demographical in nature. This provides a platform from which gender as a demographical value might criticise societal values rooted in the patriarchy. This line of critique continues throughout the film, where the patriarchy amidst the apocalypse presents itself as contradictory and self-sabotaging. Sexist tropes in modern-day India remain incongruent with the fictional background Matrubhoomi provides.

4: The ‘Ustopia’ of Social Inequality in Squid Game and Parasite

Vritee Muni

Finally, in ‘The “Ustopia” of Social Inequality in Squid Game and Parasite‘, Vritee Muni focuses on investigating the South Korean approach even further. We may conceptualise utopia and dystopia as being ambiguous through what she calls an ‘Ustopia’. This allows us to approach apocalyptic themes in Asian films from a unique perspective, addressing the omnipresent idea of the ‘Other’ in the end of the world.