by Padraig Shea
Photo by LaToya Crittenden
This essay contains spoilers for the film Parasite (2019), by Bong Joon-Ho.
Han is often described as an untranslatable yet quintessentially Korean emotion, which is about half true. When King Sejong invented the Korean alphabet in the 16th century, the inscrutable syllable had a cognate: “Koreanness.” A century of colonization and partition has twisted han to mean a blood-deep Korean emotion of beautiful sorrow, which is still only partly true.
Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” expresses the exquisite sorrow of han with such clarity it becomes understandable; with such particularity it becomes universal as the struggle against injustice. He teaches us to better understand han as a political idea; to understand han is to better understand “Parasite.”
The century-old han story is romantic: King Sejong used the word as the Korean language’s etymological building block. It is the apparent foundation upon which the words for “one” (hana), “a Korean person (hankookin) and, literally, “the Korean language” (hangeul) are built. The Seine of Seoul is the Han River, as well as the setting of Bong’s third film, “The Host”, about a mutant fish eating hankookin along the Han.
Han is a building block of Korean culture. “Pansori,” a 15th century dramatic form featuring female storyteller and drummers, manifests han, as does the unofficial national anthem “arirang.” To die by han overdose is known as hwabyong, according to Elaine H. Kim, professor in Asian American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2012 I first tried to define it: “Han is a repressed despair buttressed by helplessness; one suffers han when one lacks agency to keep the cruel world at bay. It’s knowing that, in the end, the world will break your heart.”
My first viewing of “Parasite” inspired me to dig deeper. Han, I discovered, is not merely an emotion; it is an idea of political resistance. Korea has since 1910 been either occupied by Japan, partitioned, or at war. Perversely, the word was coined in 1920 during the occupation by a Japanese writer named Yanagi Sōetsu. He imagined han was a distinctly Korean ethos, a blood-deep quality that imbues all Korean art with “the beauty of sorrow,” similar to the four humors thought to control human emotion in Shakespeare’s day. (Bardologists might equate han to cold, dry, earthy melancholy.)
Rather than a mysterious mythology, we are left with a mistranslation. To King Sejong, han meant “Korean,” hence hankookin is a Korean person and hangeul the Korean language (Hana doesn’t include the han syllable, it’s ha-na.) We are tempted to dismiss han as a colonizer’s rationalization, a destructive stereotype. Yet generations of Korean artists and critics have reclaimed han, which “became popular in the 1970s, as Koreans advocated for a kind of cultural authenticity,” wrote Thessaly La Force in a New York Times review of “Parasite.”
On the bright side, knowing han’s colonial history frees us to reckon with its universality. As we have dismissed the four-blood-humors theory of human behavior, so should we reject han as a uniquely Korean idea. This is the transgressive power of “Parasite”: Viewers the world over have connected with the sadness of alienation in the face of undeserving oppressors. Han appears as beautiful sorrow to one’s oppressor; for its object, han is a statement of Korean dignity; subtler than a raised fist, it holds a big hope, even if they’re always going to win.
“Rather than dismissing han as nothing more than a social construct,” wrote Sandra So Hee Chi Kim in 2017, “I instead define han as an affect that encapsulates the grief of historical memory—the memory of past collective trauma—and that renders itself racialized/ethnicized and attached to the nation.”
Han’s expression in “Parasite” begins in the opening line: “We’re screwed.”
The Kim family lives in a stink-bug-infested Seoul “semi-basement.” They dispense with pizza-box-folding poverty after an unexpected visit from Min, friend of son Kim Ki-woo. Min interrupts the Kims’ dinner–beers and a bag of chips–to offer the family a lucky landscape rock, or suseok. “Some food would have been better,” mutters mother Kim Chung-sook.
Min also gifts Ki-woo a job tutoring a rich girl, Park Da-hye, because Ki-woo is a loser who won’t seduce her. Ki-woo protests he lacks the required college diploma; Min suggests his sister Ki-jung forge one. As Ki-woo leaves to snooker the Parks into giving him a job, father Kim Ki-taek reveals an ongoing obsession: “Oh, so you have a plan, my son?”
The plan gives Ki-taek hope. After Ki-woo lands the tutor gig, the Kims exploit his foothold and the naivete of the Parks, especially Americophile mother Yeon-kyo. They insinuate themselves into the Parks stable of workers by deceit and framing innocent peons. Bong signals Korean caste stations through food. With three Kims leeching off the Parks, the Kims eat pizza at the shop that paid them pittances to fold delivery boxes. They conspire to get the Kims’ house-keeper Moon-gwang fired and replaced by Chung-sook; once all the Kims have Park jobs, they eat the rich folks’ food. The Kims take son Da-Song camping for his birthday, so the Parks move in for the weekend just as a storm rolls in. “Look at us,” gloats Ki-taek, “The rain falling on our lawn as we sip whiskey.”
“What if Mrs. Park returns right now?” replies Chung-sook. “You’d all scatter like cockroaches.”
Their reverie is shattered instead by maid Moon-gwang, mid-deluge, looking haggard after her dismissal. She married an unlucky man, Geun-se, who lost it all on a failed cake shop, and her lot was to toil for the Park family and keep him secretly alive in their bomb shelter. Geun-se embodies han. For 4 years, 3 months, and 17 days, he starved in a bomb shelter built, like those in many expensive South Korean homes, to protect the owners from “North Korea or the creditors.” Reunited, Moon-gwang grabs his bald, infantile head and shoves a bottle in his mouth. He is lack-of-agency embodied, but he specifies the sociopolitical origins of han. “I am not eligible for the public pension,” he explains. “In my old age, love will comfort me.”
Han implies betrayal in which you may never face your betrayer. Geun-se has such a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome he worships Mr. Park, a man he will not meet until his dying day. For generations, han spread through colonization and war. In “Parasite” and a growing number of contemporary Korean films, the monsters have moved into the house. Income inequality recurs in Korean cinema, mostly to rave reviews and handsome box office purses. “Parasite” speaks to Korean frustrations as the country’s income gap widens and similarly hit American screens at the right time. In 2015, 10 percent of South Koreans held 66 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the poorer half of the population held 2 percent, writes Kyung Hyun Kim, professor of East Asian studies at the University of California, Irvine.
Many of South Korea’s elite inherited their wealth. President Moon Jae-in has pledged to “democratize” the economy, by which he means reduce the dominance of the chaebol, huge corporations that dominate Korea’s economy and government. Despite much such talk from past governments, however, the assets of the five biggest have grown from the equivalent of 41 percent of GDP in 2001 to 60 percent last year, according to Park Sangin of Seoul National University. In other words, they are growing much faster than the economy as a whole.
In “Parasite,” the oppressors are no longer imperialists or communists, but leeching capitalists. Poor Geun-se is an obviously parasitic character, but every character in the film is leeching wealth and happiness. When Ki-woo wins the tutoring role, Mrs. Park tells him she’s paying him better than his friend Min, but we’ve seen her halve his stack of won. Ki-taek displays perfunctory concern for the driver’s well-being, but the fight for scraps is ruthless. The lesson: Han rolls downhill.
Geun-se, who lights Mr. Park’s path every day as he returns from work, is pathetically helpless. “Subject to, and at the mercy of, the will of powerful others, to whom they are invisible,” wrote Danielle Allen in The Atlantic recently. “There’s a word we can use to describe a condition when people feel helpless, whipsawed, and disconnected from the levers of personal and economic autonomy; when people feel trapped in a particular place and circumstance; when decisions about one’s life and work and mode of cultural existence seem to rest in the hands of others; when even personal property seems to be evanescent, or nonexistent, or on loan. It’s an extreme word, but let’s put it on the table.”
Spoiler alert: She was not writing about han, but serfdom. Consider the source of han, and it’s plain to see why Sōetsu would have avoided describing han, or Koreanness, as serfdom. Han is a building block for “Parasite.” Consider perhaps the most famous line from Bong and his collaborator Han Jin-won’s script, which is uttered by Ki-Taek, after their subterranean home has been flooded by the deluge. “The best plan is no plan,” he whispers to his son Ki-woo.
This sense of riding the wave of chaos is hopeful yet harmful, and it is echoed in other historically oppressed communities. “[Poor people] don’t plan long term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken,” writes Linda Tirado in her book on poverty. “It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.”
When I first defined han, I cribbed from another small country with a history of being colonized: “There’s no point in being Irish,” said Senator Patrick Moynihan after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, “if you don’t know the world is going to break your heart eventually.”
When you watch or rewatch “Parasite,” know the melancholy and hopeful helplessness is not unique to Koreanness. That sensation, coined in Korean by a Japanese colonizer, is common to victims of war, colonization, and inequity. It’s easy to spot if you know where to look: Blues music; postcolonial literature; Bong Joon-ho’s films.
Listen: Han is protest. It is not repressed but it is dignified powerlessness. It is not blood-deep but it is potentially bloody. It is indomitable soul power resisting generational trauma. It is more courageous than beautiful; it is to know the world will break your heart, and to carry on.
Padraig Shea writes in Brooklyn and teaches English in the South Bronx. He was the editor-in-chief of Infusion in 2012 and taught at Gwangju Boys High School.