by Vritee Muni
The South Korean society creates the perfect atmosphere for typically dystopian narratives in popular culture to flourish, owing to its historically embedded social inequality. Two typically dystopian South Korean narratives Squid Game (2021) and Parasite (2018), clearly portray the social inequality that exists in South Korea, nevertheless, what makes these texts worth commenting on, is their ability to be placed in two extreme conditions – Utopia and Dystopia. Utopia refers to a perfect imaginary
state while Dystopia is an imaginary, unfair and post-apocalyptic state. Over time, narratives have been built around thematic elements of a Utopian or Dystopian state but a narrative that is centred around both becomes an interesting distinction. The unusual coexistence of both elements (Utopian and Dystopian) in the texts therefore creates an inherent ambiguity about what the texts and therefore its filmmakers are trying to achieve. These texts portray an unhappiness about the social inequality but simultaneously celebrate the factors that perpetuate social inequality. Therefore, one might question whether the texts aim to critique the social inequality or perpetuate it.
This ambiguity becomes problematic and allows scope for the article to introduce a new concept to overcome this problem. I argue that the two South Korean narratives create an ambiguity in understanding the nature and portrayal of the texts as truly Utopian or Dystopian. Given the nebulous portrayal of social inequality, I use the concept of ‘Ustopia’ (a blending of Utopian and Dystopian elements), explained in detail much further on in the article, to suggest how it allows the texts to overcome this ambiguity. As a result, I expand on this idea by comparing the two texts and borrowing from them to draw relations to the overarching theme of inequality in Asian apocalyptic films.
Ambiguity in Art
The ambiguous nature of the portrayal of social inequality in the two works of art, Squid Game and Parasite, is what truly creates a lasting impression for the audience who may be trapped in a dilemma. Judith Farr Tormey and Alan Tormey argue that such powerful yet ambiguous works of art, challenge ‘the traditional theories concerning the identity of artworks’. Therefore, the traditionalist view of placing texts in either a Utopian or Dystopian category is rejected, and the ambiguity becomes important to the aesthetic evaluation. Furthermore, they suggest that it is only through the ‘participation of the perceiver’, that an alternative ambiguity exists. Therefore, in the two texts, the viewer’s perception of social inequality determines the ambiguity of the texts.
Squid Game, an original Netflix drama series, encapsulates the narrative of indebted individuals who participate in common children’s games with dire consequences. It is argued that the games are essentially ‘metaphors for life experiences’ that portray one’s ‘struggle for possession’ (Lee “Social”). Squid Game allows for ‘post-apocalyptic musing’ (VanArendonk) and outlines how people act in extreme apocalyptic situations. Nevertheless, the players voluntarily participate in these games in the hope for a Utopian future, where they can repay their mounting debts and live an opulent life. The antithesis of Utopian and Dystopian elements in the Squid Game create an enigmatic atmosphere for the audience who may be intrigued by the mysteries of the subsequent outcomes for each player.
Similarly, in Parasite, Bong Joon-Ho’s Academy Award-winning black comedy thriller, the stark contrast in the Utopian-Dystopian setting is portrayed by juxtaposing the wealthy and elitist Park Family and the poor and basement-dwelling Kim family at opposite ends of the social spectrum (McCurry and Kim). The film therefore exposes the social paradox and inequality that exists in modern day South Korea. The Kims act in extreme manners, by impersonation, hyperviolence and murder, in order to live the Utopian life and escape poverty. The direction of the film revolves around visual tropes that hyperbolize harsh truths about social disparity in South Korea. The dark and dystopian nature of the text is well overshadowed by the utopian idea of living an opulent lifestyle, and a conglomerate of these elements in the text allows readers to acknowledge the social message as
well as be entertained.
The Dystopia of Social Inequality
The trickling effect of social inequality has been embodied in South Korean culture, owing to the institution of the feudal system and the Japanese colonisation. Therefore, both texts wish to portray social inequality in a negative lens and aim to critique it using satirical dialogue and visual tropes.
Parasite was highly successful in portraying social inequality in a negative lens and resonating with its South Korean audience, especially the ones who identify themselves as the ‘dirt spoons’ (Greene). The dystopian nature of the text is very evident in the portrayal of the Kims’ household, dressing, upbringing, etc, creating a rather realistic picture of modern-day South Korea. There is a stark contrast in the living conditions of the Kims who struggle to accommodate their entire family in one small room, while the wealthy Parks lavishly thrive in a mansion. The Parks are portrayed to be rather elitist, especially outlined by their ignorance and unknowingness of the existence of a secret basement and the fact that there is an entire family living there. Bierwiaczonek and Pyka outline the multidimensional phenomenon of inequality portrayed in Parasite, and terms it the ‘parasite syndrome’. This idea is extended to explain how ‘social inequality affects living conditions, possessions, educational and employment opportunities’ (Bierwiaczonek and Pyka), as portrayed in the film.
Comparably, Squid Game employs a Battle Royale and Hunger Games-Style narrative, where the only way to win is for the opponents to die, thus roping in its dystopian nature. The direction of the series revolves around visual tropes such as masked guards and the black suited Front Man, to create an overcast atmosphere, with a clear power difference between the powerful and the powerless. The VIPs (wealthy urbanears and billionaires who watch the games and bet on players while enjoying the death of those who lose) perpetuate this inequality by immorally placing a value on the lives on the players’ lives.
The Utopia of Social Inequality
The idea of Utopianism becomes clearer when the concept is narrowed down to personal Utopias within the larger social Utopia. A personal Utopia might seem to be an oxymoron fixating a self- interested idea in a larger societal concept. Nevertheless, Steinbock (borrowing from Tufte’s work) argues that societal utopias may be ‘unattainable’ and therefore one can ‘approximate an ideal life’ for themselves by establishing their personal utopias, which allows for ‘clarity of purpose, courage to act on that purpose, and, most importantly, doing what you love’. Therefore, we can understand how the poor in both texts may aspire to achieve their personal utopias, by chasing wealth and status, since they believe it gives them a sense of ‘purpose’. The texts therefore explore a cultural utopia for their target audience who may aspire the same.
In Squid Game and Parasite, the poor and struggling become the primary focus of commentary for the texts whereas the rich and elite become ‘The Other’. By looking at the two texts through the Utopian lens one might discover that the theme of social inequality does persist, but the texts do not necessarily wish to portray the rich and elite as antagonists. In fact, the existence of ‘The Other’ is what truly results in creating opportunities for the poor to escape their suffocating lives and achieve their personal utopias. It is the Parks and the VIPs in the two texts who are creating opportunities for the poor to achieve their personal utopias through their own wealth.
In Parasite, the wealth of the Parks allows for creating work opportunities for the less fortunate in society and increase their income and standard of living. Social inequality therefore redistributes wealth through the trickle-down effect of wealth. Similarly, in Squid Game, the poor and indebted are given an opportunity to turn their lives around, but at a cost and risk to their lives. Even though the VIPs are not morally correct in placing bets on the players success throughout the series, the truth is that it is their wealth that will create a utopian future for the players.
While it would be impractical to ignore the perils of social inequality portrayed in both texts, one is bound to think about how social inequality has led to the achievement of personal utopias. Therefore, the texts are trapped within a vicious cycle of critiquing social inequality and simultaneously celebrating the idea of chasing wealth and status, thus perpetuating social inequality. The texts portray social inequality in a negative lens, nevertheless, they also suggest that greater wealth will bring greater happiness, and the chance for a utopian future.
The ‘Ustopia’ of Social Inequality
Margaret Atwood was the first to coin the term ‘Ustopia’ – ‘a state combining utopia and dystopia – the imagined perfect society and its opposite.’ The ‘Ustopian’ genre juxtaposes utopian and dystopian narratives to analyse their entanglement in different scenarios and therefore becomes helpful in overcoming the ambiguity. The texts bring to light the ‘Hell Chosun’1 nature that persists in South Korean society. The Hell Chosun discourse that began in 2015, now serves as a means of social commentary and allegory for modern society and its intensive competition that widens the social gap (Piroshkova). Both texts, even though fictional, create an atmosphere of realism by fixating narratives around people, their lives, and the value of their lives depending on their social backgrounds.
The Hell Chosun discourse allows for the portrayal of personal dystopias (alike personal utopias) in the two texts. Both texts suggest that dystopias may not need to be surreal or based on ‘imaginary futures’. What may seem to be one person’s dystopia, may in fact be another’s reality (Riedel). According to Riedel, Squid Game and Parasite are very ‘reality close’ and resonate with the majority of the low and middle class South Korean audience and their beliefs about the Hell Chosun discourse. Therefore, even though the Hell Chosun narrative is socially constructed and held, it is more personal to an individual’s own class and status and thus becomes a fragment of their own personal dystopia. Riedel also suggests that the texts 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’ (Riedel), thus juxtaposing the characters personal utopia of a chasing wealth and their personal dystopia of struggling to survive in an unfair society.
The ‘Ustopian’ texts centre their narrative around thematic elements of power and social inequality in South Korea. Nevertheless, it is worth commenting on the creation of the texts and their successes in the real world. While the typically dystopian narratives revolve around an anti-capitalist framework, ironically enough, Parasite and Squid Game profited immensely off capitalism in the US (Lee “Squid”) by streaming their services on US-based OTT platforms such as Netflix for the majority American audience to be entertained. While for many South-Koreans, the texts become representations of their realities, for the international audience, Squid Game and Parasite become a part of their entertainment culture, furthering the notions of hypercapitalism in South Korea. Both texts allude to the Western culture of capitalism, imperialism, and economic success.
South Korea then becomes subject to soft power with the expansion of their culture to the global audience, through the success of these texts. As a result, the typically dystopian texts become relevant even in a utopian context since South Korea becomes a more powerful entity in the entertainment culture across the globe which is highly dominated by the US. Therefore, the texts call global attention to the idea of social inequality and universalize it, to make important political arguments and drive global thought towards social inequality, bringing into context the ‘Ustopia’ of social inequality.
In essence, this article aims to overcome the ambiguous nature of the texts and attempts to place them in a Ustopian context, while drawing references to the overarching theme of inequality in Asian apocalyptic films. I argue that typically dystopian narratives presented by Squid Game and Parasite, allow for the existence of a ‘Ustopian’ state thus overcoming the ambiguity about their nature. I find that underneath the portrayal of the typically dystopian narrative of social inequality, there can be a utopian undertone reaped from this depiction of social inequality as a means of personal, societal, or economic progress. Eventually, both Squid Game and Parasite suggest that social inequality is ironically subject to the agency of the people in power. Nevertheless, power and inequality are social and universal evils that need to be overcome with a Ustopian outlook, allowing the elimination of ‘The Other’ and creating opportunities for mutually beneficial outcomes from societal and global cooperation.
1Satirical South Korean term that is used to criticise the socioeconomic situation in South Korea.
Atwood, Margaret. “Margaret Atwood: the road to Ustopia.” The Guardian Oct. 14, 2011. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/oct/14/margaret-atwood-road-to-ustopia>
Bierwiaczonek, Krzysztof and Robert Pyka. “The parasite syndrome : urban and metropolitan social inequality – a global, European and Polish outlook.” Social Space 2 (2021). <http://socialspacejournal.eu/22%20numer/The%20parasite%20syndrome.%20Urban%20and%20metropolitan%20social%20inequality%20%E2%80%93%20a%20global,%20European%20and%20Polish%20outlook%20-%20Krzysztof%20Bierwiaczonek,%20Robert%20Pyka.pdf>
Cullen, John B and Shelly M Novick. “The Davis-Moore Theory of Stratification: A Further Examination and Extension.” American Journal of Sociology 84.6 (1979): 1424-1437.
Greene, Lane. “Why it’s cool to be a dirt spoon in Korea.” The Economist 4 May 2019. <https://www.economist.com/1843/2019/03/04/why-its-cool-to-be-a-dirt-spoon-in-korea>.
Lee, Ruth. “Squid Game: Not so Dystopian.” Yale News 4 Nov 2021. <https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2021/11/04/squid-game-not-so-dystopian/>
Lee, Sung-Ae. “Social inequality and hyper violence: why the bleak world of Netflix’s Squid Game is a streaming phenomenon.” The Conversation 30 Sept. 2021. <https://theconversation.com/social-inequality-and-hyper-violence-why-the-bleak-world-of-netflixs-squid-game-is-a-streaming-phenomenon-168934>.
McCurry, Justin and Nemo Kim. “Parasite: how Oscar triumph has exposed South Korea’s social divide.” The Guardian 16 Feb 2020. <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/feb/16/parasite-film-oscars-bong-joon-ho-seoul-rich-poor-south-korea>
Piroshkova, Moria (Masha). ‘Squid Game’ Brings the Horrifying Reality of Class Inequality to Our Screens. Arts Help n.d. <https://www.artshelp.com/squid-game-class-inequality/>.
Riedel, Luna-Anastasia. Dystopian Narratives: Squid Game and Parasite. digit blog 7 May 2022. <https://www.diggitmagazine.com/blog/dystopian-narratives-squid-game-and-parasite>.
Steinbock, Daniel. “Personal Utopia.” n.d. <https://www.steinbock.org/writings/personal-utopia/>.
Tormey, Judith Farr and Alan Tormey. “Art and Ambiguity.” Leonardo 16.3 (1983): 183-187.
VanArendonk, Kathryn. “Squid Game’s Apocalypse Is Now.” Vulture 8 Oct 2021. <https://www.vulture.com/article/squid-game-netflix-series-review.html>.