Every culture has its monsters, figuratively and literally, if one was to delve into their mythical and historical contexts. In Hollywood thrillers, monsters often serve as typical scary creatures with an insatiable appetite for human flesh, which creates fear for apparent reasons for the main characters. Reasons for their appearance are usually unexplained or unimportant concerning the “victims.” In its evolved form, common in transnational cinema, the monsters “are difference made flesh” in that “they appear in times of crisis, and often political or ideological difference. (Fischer 3)”. Films like Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019) and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) show how filmmakers can indigenize monsters like the zombie, allowing culturally different filmmakers to explore global exploitation issues in their respective national contexts, i.e., Senegal and South Korea. Both films have monsters that uniquely embody a group of people exploited on the margins of society due to capitalism. This transnational aspect of the film genre explores familiar tropes and social themes like diaspora, class exploitation, and capitalism; while defamiliarizing them as well. It is also a tool that assists filmmakers in fine-tuning their stories, making them palpable to one's culture. In addition, they both incorporate the theme of water as a common element to express class division and disparities.
Both films are considered a mix of monster/thriller genre and ghost stories in their context. The suspense and fear these films produce are not due to literal monstrous creatures but the realities of events that conceptualize the circumstances of lower-class citizens in these countries. The transnational character of the monster genre allowed Diop and Bong to use figurative ghosts and zombies to communicate and relate the emotionally complex realities of the working class in a capitalist society to global audiences. The unconventional use of the monster genre makes these stories compelling and explicit. Atlantics (2019) is a transnational love/ghost story that produces the figurative zombie as a vengeful vessel to tell the story of a lost generation from their perspective pre and post-mortem in Dakar, Senegal. Bong Joon-ho utilizes the ghost and vampire genre in Parasite (2019) and other metaphors to reference the blatant inequitable relationship between the upper and lower classes in Seoul, South Korea. The lower class is portrayed as shells of themselves, ghostly figures forever in the shadows of the rich. Atlantics and Parasite express sentiments of failure to thrive and a chance to live respectable lives because they have been failed by higher society, leading them to resort to extreme measures in an attempt to achieve the unachievable.
Based on the lives of Senegalese people, Atlantics is the dramatization of young men in a desperate attempt to migrate from the coast of Senegal to Spain in hopes of finding better opportunities to provide for themselves and their loved ones. The need and inability to provide overshadow the importance of their presence, driving the will of this dangerous journey. Their departure leaves the women to carry the burden of their absence. This tragic event refers to 2006, “when 30,000 migrants managed to reach the Canary Islands — some 7,000 people died trying to make the crossing” (McAllister and Prentice). These men, among others, are considered a lost generation. They would take small wooden boats called pirogues carrying dozens of migrants across the Atlantic Ocean with slim chances of reaching their destination. Knowingly, they entered these boats despite “the dangers of the open ocean, including mountainous waves, blistering heat, and starvation” (McAllister and Prentice). Atlantics illuminates this tragic event by “incorporating elements of both African spirituality and the zombie genre” (Enzerink 2) as a tragic love story.
Diop sets the stage with a dream-like essence of what will ultimately drive these men to sea and their demise. Chilling sounds of the wind, ocean, and modernization are heard, yet the silence is deafening. Soon, voices break the silence with the shouts of angry men demanding four months’ compensation for construction work on a new modern tower in the center of Dakar, Senegal. Diop utilizes the building to foreshadow events and frame the existential thoughts that haunt these young men. The tower and the Atlantic Ocean are connected as they are rooted in pragmatic and rational reasons the boys used to make irrational and life-threatening decisions to seek better lives for themselves and their families. Diop captures the essence of their desperation, a consequence of colonialism and classism. The extensive wealth gap created and sustained by capitalism produced the figurative ghost representing lower-class citizens. Upper-class citizens have no regard for the working class just so long as someone less significant, invisible, and replaceable does the work. The rich remain rich, and the poor remain poor while growing resentful and desperate. Desperate enough to leave everything and everyone behind through waters that signify death more than new life. Between this feature film and her documentaryAtlantiques (2009), she contextualizes and humanizes the people seen as ghosts concerning labor, migration, and statistics in death by the media and high society.
The idea of “giving the floor back to those affected by migration and those left behind” (Enzerink 61) through an illicit love story is how Diop restored life to a lost generation. Ironically, to humanize the boys and vocalize the women, the boys had to return from the dead as ghosts in the bodies of the loved ones they left behind, morphing them into zombies. The boys did not return from their watery graves, so Diop related to Haitian zombie folklore to set the premise for their reappearance and used mirrors throughout the film to reflect their true selves.
Zombie folklore originates in Haiti: "traditionally the will-less zombie is the prototypical victim. In contrast, present-day media zombies are often portrayed as aggressors, as people-eating ghouls” (Fischer-Hornung 3). Significant changes to the traditional zombie happened “in the decade after US occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934” (4), which led to a whitewashed zombie and zombie master. The original Haitian zombie is summoned to perform acts against their will to ultimately become a slave of “a bokor or zombie master” (2). Culturally, West African people do not identify with present-day zombies, so Diop indigenized the zombie in a way that made sense to Senegalese natives. Lead actress Ada (Mame Binet Sane) and Detective Issa (Amadou Mbow) soon realize that “it is their (the boys') spirits (djinn) that have returned to demand justice” (Enzerink 54) in the bodies of the women. Diop skillfully employed social and magical realism to represent the spirits of people who struggled with existing in Senegal due to neocolonialism.
Politically, the modernization of the zombie was ideal for this story and “particularly scary because they speak to an array of human fears” (4) and further represented the class divide in relation to Mr. Ndiaye (Diankou Sembene). Mr. Ndiaye is a wealthy businessman in charge of the building the men worked on for months before their deaths. He served as a US conduit equatable to the success unattainable to the boys, and the mise en scene of his spacious lux home also screamed wealth. The uninvited girls in his home with chalk-white eyes and demanding body language are not the root of his fear. However, realizing who they are and what they came for was justifiably terrifying for Mr. Ndiaye. Diop indigenized the zombie as more than a vessel for vengeance but also to embody the fears of the upper class in the presence of disenfranchised laborers from whom they make their living. As a representation of higher society, Mr. Ndiaye faced the mythical consequences of his actions, which directly related to the crimes and injustices against Africa from the US.
Africa and the US have an entangled history which Diop constantly alludes to throughout the film. Part of what makes this film transnational is that its “production and distribution replicate colonial networks in their trajectories; the funding and crew were predominantly French and Belgian, whereas the international distribution rights to the film were purchased by Netflix for all Anglophone markets” (Enzerink 54). There are traces of US influence seen throughout the film. The western appeal is glorified as the Senegal market exemplifies a US economic dumping ground, and the more affluent homes reflect western decor and design. There is also constant alluding to iPhones, clothes with US logos, and materials, not to mention the large metal tower that opened the film. The products of the US and globalization are the same things causing societal death and destruction. US products and materials make their way there through the route of the Atlantic Ocean, another way to dip into the haunted past of the Atlantic, which evokes a reckoning with US imperial power.
These boys and many like them felt like life beyond the Atlantic ocean was worth the risk, even though the journey was a suicide mission. It was as if the ocean pulled them in like a magnetic force. The Atlantic Ocean was omnipresent in the film and served many purposes that added layers of horror, history, suspense, intimacy, the unknown, hope, and despair. Initially, the first scenes of the ocean are narratively familiar to the Hollywood horror genre. Long shots of the sea and a score create an ominous feeling for the audience. It added texture to the unknown essence that the sea captures in conjunction with the fog always looming and draping over the sea.
Diop’s use of the sea and monsters gives a fantasy feel as she can mix magical realism with social realism. She captured the conditions of the social-political climate by recruiting first-time actors whose roles in the film directly reflected their lives offset. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) is a construction worker in real life, and Ada’s friend Dior (Nicole Sougou) works in a bar on the coast. In recruiting this cast with nonprofessional actors, Diop effectively captured a dimension to the characters that truly reflected the lives of the Senegalese people.Parasite
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) similarly captures the socio-political climate and global inequalities in South Korea. It is one of South Korea’s famous films, “exploring capitalism’s unsavory effects,” as it “explicitly invokes trajectories of US colonialism and imperialism readily legible to US audiences” (Enzerink 62). The film explores social stratification in South Korea and society's role in maintaining the toxic dynamics in capitalist societies that deceitfully promise a chance to obtain the American dream. In his films, Bong artistically captures and articulates these themes globally using Hollywood conventions. It is not rare for Bong’s films to resemble Hollywood-style thrillers, unlike Atlantics, it follows its “high production values (realistic acting style, tight script, polished visuals) and adheres to similar conventions of cinematography, editing, and pacing” (Klein 876). These film characteristics are only a few examples of why global audiences easily receive his films.
Parasite reflects transnational cinema based on Bong’s mixing of genre-bending with Korean culture. Like Atlantics, Parasite unconventionally plays on the monster genre and uses water to highlight the extreme class divisions throughout the film. The monster is never at the forefront of the film but is intricately intertwined with the characters and the roles they play in society. As the title suggests, parasitic relationships develop between two families on opposite ends of a capitalist spectrum. At first, it seems obvious who is surviving off whom, but as the plot develops, viewers begin to “observe how the main characters are personifications of economic relations” (Farahbakhsh 93). In this capitalist society in Seoul, South Korea, the destitute Kim family schemes their way into employment, while the wealthy and oblivious Park family maintains a lux lifestyle by leeching off the desperation of the working class. Both families depict parasites in a variety of ways.
The Kim family is viewed and compared to actual insects. They live underground in filth, are fumigated at the film’s beginning, and creep around the wealthy Park family hidden and in plain sight. Bong also transcends the original ghost trope and reveals it in the flesh. Instead of an invisible ghoul haunting the Park family, the lower class embodies the essence of this spirit by living in their basements and residing in the shadows, seemingly not even on the same plane as the upper class. Close yet far to achieving the life of those they inhabit. Their existence and will is but a mere formality, as their goals are next to impossible due to their economic circumstances. As Klein stated in his analysis of the film, “the Kims live in the underground of Seoul, under the shadow of capitalism, and they are eternally doomed to be the underdogs, struggling for subsistence” (96). The analogy of the Kims as insects is a recurring theme throughout the film.
Conversely, the Park family is also parasitic, which was the filmmaker’s intention. The definition of a parasite is, in fact, an organism that thrives off the existence of another living being. The Park family, though financially secure, cannot survive without the help of additional labor. The husband does not drive; the wife cannot cook or clean; without help, they would panic, and their home would be chaotic. Therefore, “the rich are parasites in that they wallow in wealth, have high-ranking jobs, and lead a life of luxury and comfort, while members of the lower class, who might be, and sometimes are more intelligent, have to struggle for their basic needs” (101). The Kim clan is competent and full of potential, but their status in society deems them less than human, leaves them fighting for wafts of wealth, and robs them of economic equality.
The Parks as parasites leads to Bong’s interpretation of the vampire trope as “contemporary vampires can be both perpetrators and, more recently, victims” (Fischer-Hornung 4). The Park family is a figurative vampire as they tend to suck the life of their employees and discard them at will with no justifiable reason when they are no longer satisfied with them. Within the same paper, another definition of the vampire is “a social or political tyrant who sucks the life from the people [and] an irresistible lover who sucks away energy, ambition, or even life for selfish reasons” (p 4). The Park family feeds on the desperation of the Kims’ and reduces their existence down to a smell that even the youngest son acknowledges. Towards the end of the film leading up to the climax, the father of the Kim family, Ki-taek (Kang ho Song), mood shifts as he realizes how the Parks really see him -- poor and replaceable. His newfound self-awareness, which only appears when the two classes are near each other, causes his joy and motivation to escape him. Once motivated by dreams of becoming wealthy, Ki-taek becomes more cynical as “he can now see where he stands in the society. As mentioned earlier, it is only through relationships with the members of different classes that class identities are constructed” (Farahbakhsh 98). Bong materializes class identity distinction through various artistic concepts.
Mise-en-scene strategically showcased Bong’s artistic perpetuation of class division between the two families. He solidified their place in society by how he portrayed their homes. The Park family lived in cramped tiny quarters underground. Their space was minimal, which reflected their lack of opportunities. Their neighborhood was predominately concrete alleyways and trash that one had to enter on a downward slope. In comparison, the Park family’s home was the complete opposite. A steeply inclined paved driveway preceded the entrance. Bong used long shots of their front lawn, which was plush and green, symbolic of purity and health. When inside their homes, Bong used deep-space film technique to highlight the space and opportunities of the Parks in contrast to the shallow space that could only be used in the Kim household.
Additionally, as seen in Atlantics, Parasite made many references to water, another way class division was exemplified. Water serves many purposes in Hollywood films, and Parasite did not shy away from its use as a socio-political metaphor. The storm towards the middle end of the film is “nothing to fret over; it can be enjoyable, like the son’s camping in the yard while the parents have an intimate moment on the sofa (Farahbakhsh 108). Rain storms in the presence of wealth are not considered a threat because they are protected under the blanket of security and lack of awareness and empathy. Even the son’s tent (imported from the US) can withstand the storm throughout the night. The storm that leaves the Parks ready for an impromptu day party is the same storm that floods the Kims’ home with sewer water and forces them into a shelter. Differences between the two families are stark; for the Parks, “the only inconvenience it brings is the cancellation of their camping trip, which is easily remedied. Their house remains intact while the life of the lower class falls to pieces (109). Bong Joon-ho masterfully articulates class division and the effects of capitalism by bending the same water element in many ways, from rainfall to flooding, from pure white snow to dirty slush.
Bong intertwined Hollywood genres, conventions, and visual language with Korean socio-political issues to create a twisted-dark comedy horror film. This way of filmmaking appeals to a broader audience without needing contextual information and simultaneously appeals to Korean sensibilities. Mati Diop’s Atlantics is not only a conglomerate of several countries, but its central story is based on the haunted intermingled history of Senegal, Europe, and the US. Diop mixed language, indigenization of the zombie genre, globalization, magical/social realism, and many more elements that transcend nations to tell a story commonly disenfranchised by the media. Both filmmakers uniquely address social issues and implications of class exploitation and capitalism in ways legible to global audiences yet specific to Korean and Senegalese culture by defamiliarizing familiar tropes. Reconstructing the narrative of the Haitian zombie, Translavayinan vampire, or the role of ghosts creates opportunities of bending genres in ways that articulate important messages in the language of a nation. Incorporating figurative monsters allowed both films to reference influences of US neocolonialism and similar societal issues in ways that perpetuate economic inequality. Diop and Bong successfully created globally legible yet cinematic cultural think pieces that will surely inspire others and provoke change.
Enzerink, S. C. (2021). Black Atlantic Currents: Mati Diop’s Atlantique and the Field of Transnational American Studies. Journal of Transnational American Studies, 12(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.5070/T812147127
Farahbakhsh, Alireza, & Ramtin Ebrahimi. "The Social Implications of Metaphor in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite." CINEJ Cinema Journal [Online], 9.1 (2021): 87-116. Web. 5 Dec. 2022.
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McAllister, Edward, and Alessandra Prentice. “African Migrants Turn to Deadly Ocean Route as Options Narrow.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 3 Dec. 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-africa/african-migrants-turn-to-deadl y-ocean-route-as-options-narrow-idUSKBN1O210J.
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Born and raised in small-town New Bern, North Carolina, Amanda Franks is an MMC B.S. Biology ‘23 graduate, completed directly after serving five years in the United States Navy. She is a first-time author, jiu-jitsu student, dog mom, and self-care lover. Her favorite pastime has always been watching movies, especially those that reflected her culture and left lasting impressions on her psyche. In the fall of ‘22, Amanda had the opportunity to take a Contemporary Cinema class which widened her horizon of films and the impact they can have worldwide. In Reimaging Monsters, she explores how two of her favorite films, Mati Diop’s Atlantics and Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, use monsters and ghosts as mediums to tackle the facade of the American Dream and migratory implications due to capitalism and global inequality.