Bong Joon-ho has gone on record to say that during his years of studying cinema, he was exposed to a lot of Asian films, and among the movies he watched and studied were those of legendary Filipino director Lino Brocka. He was “a strong master,” said the Korean Oscar-winner. “He made such powerful films.”
Such a shout-out is not just a reason to invoke Pinoy pride. Bong's acknowledgment of Brocka's influence invites us to consider how two extremely skilled auteurs attack class issues, and a good place to begin would be to hold side by side the Oscar-sweeping Parasite (2019) and Brocka's magnum opus Maynila, sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), one of the greatest Filipino films of all time. Because why not? Both movies present the plight of the proletariat in very interesting ways, are mindful of the mechanisms that keep the working class oppressed, and have made third world narratives difficult for the West to ignore.
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Don't get us wrong, these films are their own distinct masterpieces. Parasite has the pulse-quickening pace of a heist flick, while Maynila is tonally dry and despiriting. Both films come from very specific cultural contexts—as tempting as it may be for some misguided critics to bunch all Asian cinema into one monolithic thing; Bong's artistry is easy to tell apart from Brocka's creative thumbprint. If anything, this exercise points to the refractory relationship between art, real life, and influence, and allows us to look at the tropes or conventions that make cinema a powerful tool for awakening class consciousness.
In Parasite, the house of the rich family, the Parks, is so significant that it is considered its own character. (The Guardian has even gone as far as to call it "the real star" of the film.) This is not a hyperbolic statement to make—the painstakingly designed set is not merely a passive setting on which the characters enact their dramas, but an active agent that illustrates the divide between the rich and the poor, the Parks and the Kims.
You remember what it was like in the movie theater, when your heart stopped along with everyone else's as the basement cupboard slid open like a leviathan's jaw unhinging, to reveal a dark staircase winding into a dark bunker, the belly of the beast. Quite literally the character of the house changed, from a glossy upscale home to a blatant representation of the class divide. A beast.
The beginning of Maynila emphasizes the brutality of the city as we see Madiaga apply for a construction job with meager pay, to help build a skyscraper for a Spanish millionaire. (Related note: both films deserve deep postcolonial readings. Here’s one for Parasite!) Very early on in Maynila we see how such structures can enact literal violence on the working class, when Benny, the construction worker who dreams of becoming a professional singer, is killed by a terrible fall. He is hoisted off to the hospital unceremoniously as the foreman barks at the onlooking laborers to get back to work.
In both movies, structures enact a kind of unraveling. Parasite peels away the sheen of an upper class home to reveal its insidiously hidden subterranea. But in Maynila, the more complete the building becomes, the more undone the workers are by their conditions. When we talk about power structures, sometimes it helps to take the word "structure" quite literally and look to edifices, which betray the character of a space that seeks to divide the haves and the have-nots.
Solidarity between classes
In the pivotal Parasite scene where the Kim family discovers the house's underground bunker, it's revealed that the old housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang has been keeping her husband Park Myung-hoon alive in its dank quarters for years to elude loan sharks. As Moon-gwang appeals to new housekeeper Park Chung-sook of the Kims, she invokes the commonality of their status as laborers, only to be rejected. After all, the Kims are comfortable and above Moon-gwang's problems, having secured a solid source of family cash flow through a chain of underhanded referrals. But when the jig is up, Moon-gwang holds proof of the Kim family's trickery hostage, threatening to expose them to the Parks while impersonating North Korean news anchors.
If a different director or writer were at the helm, the Park family, Moon-gwang and Myung-hoon might team up and march towards a revolution with nothing to lose but their chains. But in Parasite, there's no working class solidarity. There is instead an obsequious, almost sycophantic dependence on the upper class. The Park family perpetuates this, whether they mean to or not, simply through their position on top of the pyramid. This is most demonstrated through Myung-hoon who, despite having spent four years in a fucking basement away from sunlight, worships the Park family patriarch Nathan, who unknowingly houses him.
A director like Brocka wouldn't be ignorant of these kinds of relationships between working class people, but this isn't an aspect of the proletarian condition that he seemed interested in portraying in Maynila. If anything, it's quite the opposite. While the city is hostile to Madiaga, his fellow workers show him hospitality in any way they can, from letting him in on corrupt "taiwan" practices to forgiving small debts. Hell, even the call boy Bobby, who gets Madiaga a brief prostitution gig, informs him of his rights as a call boy, such as refusing to do certain tricks for clients.
In Parasite, there's no working class solidarity. There is instead an obsequious, almost sycophantic dependence on the upper class.
There was that one scene where Madiaga stops and punches a holdaper on the street, but even in that scene he seems shocked by his own actions and judgment, as if betraying a bond that united them both in their poverty. It's a different relationship displayed between workers in this movie, and it's the kind that says "We're all in this together," even if the "this" is suffering and not revolution.
Revolution does make a small cameo however in the form of a march in Maynila, smartly preceding the film's climax. Which brings us to...
The killing blow
Both Parasite and Maynila end in a stabbing. This is probably how both films most clearly come together in portraying the frustrations and resentments that bubble up inside us under capitalism, as their respective murders spring from snapped psyches.
What Kim Ki-taek of the Kim family and Julio Madiaga have in common is that they are both otherwise patient men, pushed to their limits. In the beginning of Parasite, Ki-taek generously judges the Park family as nice people and attempts to connect to Nathan on a personal level. For that, he is met with ridicule and disrespect — with Nathan constantly remarking on Ki-taek’s semi-basement smell — not to mention being called to work overtime after his home was ravaged by a flood the night before. The last straw is when, witnessing his very own daughter bleed out on the Park family’s garden, Ki-taek is barked at by Nathan to drive the family to the nearest hospital or just throw the keys. In this critical moment, Ki-taek witnesses Nathan one last time recoil at his smell, and sees the wealthy for how truly self-interested and self-important they are.
What makes Ki-taek and Madiaga different is that Madiaga is more of an everyman or a symbol, meant to represent the working class’ predisposition to longsuffering, which Brocka shows us is a predisposition that has a breaking point. Over the course of Maynila, Madiaga has to deal with constant grief, from the death of his fellow workers to the death of Ligaya, who was basically sold by human trafficker Mrs. Cruz to Ah-Tek, the man who effectively kept Ligaya as a sex slave. Perhaps it was the protest he saw on the street that landed the last decisive fracture on his psyche. Perhaps that protest was the last thing to pile on the compost heap of Madiaga’s suffering.
Photographs from IMDB