For Asian women of the past, present and future.
*Contains spoilers for some of Bong Joon-ho’s films.
“Stop!” shouts Officer Kwon Kwi-ok (Ko Seo-hie) with all her might to get her male colleagues to focus on the radio playing Sad Letter, a song the killer would request to be played on the radio station when he is out hunting. It is a big dramatic and character moment in Bong Joon-ho’s 2003 truth-based thriller Memories of Murder: Officer Kwon holds the lowest rank and is the only woman in the investigating team, yet had she not raised her voice, the men would still be busy bruising each other instead of doing police work. (Note: They’d still fail, but at least a call for backup was made.)
Officer Kwon is someone you have probably seen or known at some point in the workplace. She is the junior staffer, the go-to person for menial, intern-esque tasks like cutting photos, serving tea, passing packages, and making calls. The one who has to heed every letter of the dress code, by default being in a uniform. She is someone whose looks, not abilities, are the source of her male co-workers’ appreciation: shamanistic Det. Park (Song Kang-ho) responds to her suggestion with sarcastic feedback, like-to-kick Det. Cho (Kim Roe-ha) objectifies her when she dons a red dress to bait the killer, and a checkpoint guard (Baek Jin-chul) only stops ogling her when the scientific Det. Seo (Kim Sang-kyung) makes small talk.
In Asian cultures, diasporic or at-homeland — or any cultures really, on screen and real life — Officer Kwon is representative of the regrettably lowly perception of women. She’d be related to the wives who are doing way more tasks than their husbands in domestic sequences of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films, such as Cure and Creepy, women who evoke images of overworking Japanese mothers and the macabre concept of karoshi. She’d be the women in misogynistic Vietnamese adages like “Chồng chúa vợ tôi” (“Husband’s the lord, wife’s the servant”), or those branding women-driven films “trend chasers” who are packing the locally popular film-reviewing page Phê Phim. Critics recently called out the page, its creators, and followers for repeated episodes of misogyny — on top of anti-Black, anti-LGBTQ and other incendiary attitudes — prompting a lengthy apology paired with a frame of The Dark Knight’s Harvey Dent during his “die a hero…” speech. These are just a few examples of the many already out there.
But however you slice it, without Officer Kwon, Memories of Murder can’t progress. The killer-baiting red dress? No one else can wear it. The crying woman on the hill (Seo Young-hwa), the one who manages to escape the killer? No one else can talk to her. The latter is crucial — not just because it reveals one groundbreaking detail about the suspect (“His hands were very soft”), but it shows how justice and the pursuit of it, fictional and real, can over-focus on the grave inhumanities committed the more human aspects are lost. Officer Kwon taking the step to reassure the survivor before asking her what happened renders the eventual manhunt a move toward closure and not another trauma to bear. Officer Kwon’s action can also be seen as a form of de-escalation: treating who you talk to as a human being first rather than merely an eyewitness or suspect. Today’s headlines prove that the world is in dire need of de-escalation; if one has to use examples close to Officer Kwon’s job, then there’s Officer Krystle Smith’s wise benching of her aggro male colleague — or all that ace data suggesting more women on the force can curb forcefulness in policing.
If you’ve noticed, Bong’s ensembles would always have a character like her: a woman who is underappreciated, may have limited dialogue or screen time, and yet is one of the most influential players. Three years after Memories of Murder, Officer Kwon returns (sort of) in the monster-hunting feature The Host as Park Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na, also in Bong’s debut Barking Dogs Never Bite). For most of the film, the Parks’ only adult woman is regularly chided for her tortoise-like momentum and bronze medal in archery, but she is the first to physically make it to the lair of the abomination that has snatched the family’s youngest. Her archery skills also bring about the penultimate blow to the creature, setting it on fire after her brother and most frequent bully, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), failed to with a bullseye in the fish’s left eye. Other than a cool “walking away from a fiery object” visual featuring Bae instead of insert-leading-man, and Bae alone instead of in the arms of insert-leading-man, there might also be a shout-out to South Korea’s Olympics-level archery greatness here.
Parasite also brings Officer Kwon back, though in subtler, outline-leaning fashion, as two women, each aptly a resident of a different floor in the building called society. The first is Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), the original housekeeper of the wealthy Parks. Though fan-favourite “Jessica” Ki-jung (Park So-dam) deems her an easily removable obstacle despite being a fox in sheep’s clothing, she is the sleight-of-hand that gives the film its reverence. No one else besides her is aware of the basement. She, or more specifically her last word (“Chung-sook…”), is the foundation for the sobering conclusion.
The second is Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong), the Madame of the household who thinks the world of the underprivileged Kims — until they no longer smell like ripe fuzzy peaches, that is. Although a character with great power, in line with her “young and simple” character trait she is fully unaware of it. She may be a dandelion of a mark, yet she is the first person “Jessica” and “Kevin” Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) must impress to get the gigs, a process Moon-gwang and Driver Yoon (Park Keun-rok) are also implied to have gone through. Like Officer Kwon, the patriarchy, as seen in certain backseat chats between Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) and Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, again!), doesn’t regard her highly, but she is the flesh-and-bone embodiment of the line Mr. Park says a person of another class shouldn’t cross. The comment about Ki-taek’s odour goes from a childish remark to the ultimate — ahem — stab to the heart after she deadly seriously talks about it with her husband. In retrospect, most of Parasite’s best moments come from the breaching of said line — the ram-don rush, the cheery calls about the rain, and the chaotic birthday party. Facilitating those moments is none other than Mrs. Park.
Of the two Officer Kwon shadows in this Oscar-winning film, Mrs. Park bears greater resemblance, in the sense that she’s forgotten by the male-oriented world of film discourse. You had every right to believe there was only one acting FYC campaign that year, for Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. Said forgetfulness of Cho and her performance was severe enough the actress was entirely left out of awards talk. One is thankful this year’s Minari doesn’t follow the same tracks, with Steven Yeun and, especially, Youn Yuh-jung in the running for Hollywood’s top acting awards, plus Alan S. Kim and, again especially, Han Ye-ri earning much praise from viewers everywhere.
In fact, all the women in Bong’s films bear some significance. Turning points for the leads of Barking Dogs come from a little girl and a female shopkeeper. Okja is built upon one country girl’s love for her motherly super-pig. In Snowpiercer, the revolution is partly powered by a Black mother’s search for her son, and the possibility of life outside the train is gauged by the yearly sight of a frozen Inuit maid (and mother to Yona). To name a few. Women with bit parts in Bong’s films don’t have bit parts, and this is the result of the filmmaker’s wholesome and thoughtful creativity. Besides making the world alive and approachable, this feature declares to us that Bong’s denizens, especially women — lead or supporting or in just one scene, have value. Officer Kwon, then, is valuable. She doesn’t have to say it, she simply is.
And it’s self-care to realise this, in a way. For the past years, the U.S. has too often been the male-dominated precinct in Memories of Murder and the Asian community has been treated like Officer Kwi-ok. Thing is, in the face of madcap rhetoric, general inaction, waves of fear like Seadrift and horrors akin to Atlanta, we still have value, especially our women. Let’s know this. Let’s not mind knowing this. It would be nice to have much less drama that tests our character from here onward, but should there be one, our character will be promptly visible.
We should be able to scream our own audible “Stop!”s even if we are taught, and systematically “advised,” to limit them.
Please visit, and consider donating, to these Anti-Asian Violence resources. #StopAAPIHate.