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Why Does Rage Define ‘Parasite’ and Other Popular East Asian Movies?

CONFUCIANISM ORIGINATED IN ancient China with the scholar and philosopher Confucius, who was born in 551 B.C. After being formally adopted as a political ideology during the Han dynasty (from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220), a golden age of learning and law whose influence lasted for nearly two millenniums, it traveled east, first to Korea and then Japan, by means of its own popularity but also the dominance of the Chinese Empire. Confucianism proposes the idea that people are fundamentally good, that we are capable of improving ourselves through education and self-cultivation. It emphasizes loyalty, sacrificing one’s own goals and satisfaction in order to maintain traditional hierarchies and the status quo: A citizen is faithful to his country, the son to the father, the wife to her husband, the younger brother to his older brother. In more contemporary times, the philosophy has re-emerged as a political ideology: In 2013, President Xi Jinping of China made a pilgrimage to Qufu, Confucius’s hometown, and promised to make “the past serve the present.” But it has also occasionally been used — much in the way democratic ideals are employed to promote a neoliberal, Western agenda — to justify the larger mechanics of political maneuvering. On the one hand, it’s surprising that these East Asian societies that so value obedience should have perfected the revenge narrative in popular culture, though on the other, it isn’t at all: When the idea of obedience is used to justify authoritarian governments and socially rigid hierarchies, rebellion is never far-off.

But why is cinema, in particular, such a powerful tool for telling stories of rage and revenge? The contemporary literature of East and Southeast Asia also touches on these topics: The 2007 South Korean novel “The Vegetarian,” by Han Kang, tells of a wife’s revulsion to meat that upends her place in society; the short stories of the Japanese writer Taeko Kono, whose violent fantasies of disemboweling toddlers can be difficult to read, speak to a deep-seated rage of being an independent woman in 1960s Japan. But fear is more easily manufactured with movies, a visual medium that lends itself well to making the gruesome and ridiculous seem possible.

Movies are also easier to export. Martial arts films of the ’60s and ’70s required little in the way of dialogue — the plot was advanced by a well-choreographed fight. Similarly, these revenge films rely on a lexicon of violence: Nearly every culture understands the danger of a hidden gun, of looking into dark corners during the middle of the night. And as disparate as these films can be, they’ve also created visual tropes of their own: Eyeballs and ears are gouged with blunt objects, people are shot point blank, people fling themselves from buildings. Women — thin and unsparing, tough and uninterested in sex — often take center stage. Sex, incidentally, is rarely a focal point, but when it is, it is in service of character development or humor — “Buy me drugs,” Mrs. Park coos to her husband in “Parasite” in the middle of the act, in a scene that is as bizarre as it is pathetic. By contrast, in American horrors and thrillers, a woman who has been sexualized onscreen is usually the first to die.