by Valerie Morales
A year before social distancing ruined us, audiences flocked to a Korean film named Parasite. It was a witty story with a moral question: what do the wealthy deserve? An affluent family and a scheming family provided more than enough wit and contemplation. Because what was slick and funny in the very beginning wasn’t funny at the end. Inequities hardly are.
Honored with a Best Picture award and standing ovations during the Oscar ceremony, Parasite’s message about wealth and loathing crossed cultural lines. We were introduced to the impoverished Kim’s who cobble together an insane scheme to sidle up to wealth. Without considering the consequences or even a way out, the Kim’s are energized by their own deceit but then get lost in mesmeric distortions and delusions, fantasizing about their son Ki-woo marrying the affluent Park daughter and one day living in the Park’s house high on a hill, windows of glass. Their dramatization tightened a social truth about how the poor are the dreamers of the world, hostages to what will never be, their wounded psyches damaged by what they can never become.
The scheme that began when Ki-woo was hired to tutor Da-hye was doomed to fail, but in the infancy of the trick, the Park’s bratty young son Da-song noticed something peculiar. The elder Kim had the same smell as the new housekeeper, who had the same smell as Da-song’s art therapist. While he didn’t understand adult manipulation, Da-song innately knew the Kim’s didn’t belong. If dogs can smell fear, he could smell poverty, desperation, and weariness.
Parasite was a pre-pandemic film, so the absurdity of the Kim family worked. Depending on how you view wealth and the people who think they deserve it, the Kim’s horrified. Or, they were amusing. A much harder ask is the reality tv show Bling Empire whose commonality with Parasite is pared down to Asian characters and wealth. Because Bling Empire entered homes during lockdowns, social distancing, and political anxiety, it was always going to have a difficult calculus.
For starters. Bling Empire is 8-episodes of rich Asians who accommodate one another. The premise hardly breaks new ground and during coronavirus feels tone-deaf regardless of when Bling Empire was filmed. On its merits, the Netflix green light was simple. If you possess the money to waste on cars, diamonds, trips to Paris, and the like you are exceptional.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote an entire novel about the filthy rich and like Jay Gatsby, Bling Empire exists to document the 1% of the 1%. But the majority of those who have obscene wealth, here or abroad, have their parents to thank and that’s the disconnect of Bling Empire, the not knowing: One generation plants the trees, the other gets the shade.
In Bling Empire the audience is introduced to an Asian clique of mostly 30-somethings by a very normal outsider, a Korean named Kevin. Kevin was adopted by a white family and reeks middle-class normalcy albeit with a beautiful set of abs. In a white family, being Asian was watered down. But being Korean isn’t defined by insane wealth either, that’s a trope. Willingly, Kevin travels from cultural famine to exuberant excess and drags his very middle-class values behind him. Stunned by access, privilege, and commodities, Kevin is the reflection point, the one we think is most like us.
Kevin’s new L.A. friends lack prose, live in poetry. Kane is supported by his father, a real estate billionaire from Singapore. Jaime benefits from her Silicone Valley parents but spends her spare time as a fashionista. Christine is married to a plastic surgeon with a dynastic lineage; they are parents to Baby G. She’s done having kids, her husband is not. Kim is a DJ superstar from Malibu, the tough girl grieving for her biological father who is out there in the world somewhere. In Instagram circles, she is often referred to as the Asian Kim Kardashian. Cherie was a pop star before coming to the states. Wealthy boyfriend Jessey is hesitant to marry her even though she bore him two kids; she’s grieving her mother. Kelly has chosen an abusive man and can’t see the forest for the trees. Anna is the maternal figure for this hedonistic group, the daughter of a billionaire, the wise heiress.
The countries of origin are Vietnam, Singapore, China, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States.
A foreign film with subtitles, there was a scene in Parasite that felt normal. The affluent Park’s go on a camping trip because it’s Da-song’s birthday. They leave the house with instructions to their housekeeper, Mrs. Kim, about the three dogs they left behind. Mrs. Kim ignores that directive and moves her family in while the Park’s are gone. One night while drinking the Park’s expensive liquor, “rain falling on the lawn as we sip whiskey”, Ki-woo imagines he and Da-hye will have a wedding but to pull it off his “real” parents will have to disappear. He will have to hire actors to play his parents and the idea of it isn’t strange. These are the small things that must be done when you pretend a life you don’t own is the life you have.
Because Bling Empire is less about ownership and more about decadence, emotions lack the cold strategies of a Parasite where maneuvering and manipulation are its intimacies. For example, the treatment of sadness in Bling Empire is agonizing. Heir to a denim fortune, Cherie struggles with the death of her mother. Her mourning is heartbreaking and familiar to those who have lost a parent they cherished. She searches for her mother’s reincarnation in the face of her newborn; its equivalence is like measuring with a dixie cup how much water is in the ocean.
In Parasite, the mothers were grifters or stupidly gullible or users, while in Bling Empire they are the westernized myth: repositories of love, support, and generous empathy.
A month before Bling Empire premiered, I finished poet Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays “Minor Feelings.” Hong is a Los Angeles native raised in Koreatown, miles away from the glittery excesses that Bling Empire fetishizes. Her parents toiled in difficult circumstances that for most of us are expected. There is a passage in her book that I texted friends. “Patiently educating a white person about race is draining. It takes all your powers of persuasion. Because it’s more than a chat about race. It’s ontological. It’s like explaining to a person why you exist, or why you feel pain, or why your reality is distinct from their reality. Except, it’s even trickier than that. Because the person has all of Western history, politics, literature, and mass culture on their side, proving that you don’t exist.”
Tangentially, the Asians that Hong writes about don’t exist in Bling Empire. This gossipy self-absorbed bunch never contemplates racial consequences. As a world view, Bling Empire is heavy on plasticity and pretty, and lite on racial awareness. In a city that is mostly non-Asian, this group of friends infantilizes race by ignoring it and so a lot of Bling Empire feels white without the whiteness. For instance, there’s a scene in Beverly Hills when a police officer stops Anna on a hoverboard and tells her to get onto the sidewalk. She dismisses him with several no’s, exerting her privilege because she can- she’s not black or brown- and that’s where Bling Empire conflates being Asian with floating. Above the wounds of others, their bodies don’t bear the scars, blood, knee on the neck markings of racialization.
While Bling Empire is effective entertainment, give or take situational vapidity, it doesn’t rise above the genre and it lacks the addictive chops of the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit. Much of the Bling Empire drama is contrived and some of it is adolescent slapstick. Whether it’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians or Blac Chyna the reality show blueprint is about an illusion. Manufacture melodrama but make it seem natural. Action over voice.
In one Bling Empire scene, Kane and Kevin are in South Carolina. They see a confederate flag and then across the street they notice white protestors with anti-racism signs. From there it devolves as if a producer had this ingenious idea of introducing racism as theater and entertainment. Kane wants a photo-op, Kevin thinks it’s a terrible idea. Then when the confederate flag guy drives away Kane is childishly neurotic, screaming about Asians coming in and buying the property. It’s vulgar at the very least as if the act of protesting racism is the kind of gratuity a reality show needs to lighten things up. The confederate flag lacks its normal freight beneath this sort of whoring for drama. And of course, reality tv requires Kevin and Kane to take the obligatory selfie with the American flag so the entire encounter is marginalized.
While Parasite had impeccable timing, Bling Empire should have premiered when it was filmed in 2018 instead of now when we are watching the action while surviving coronavirus. I don’t think Parasite could have withstood a world pandemic either. What the Kim’s did to the Park’s hit a nerve but the world wasn’t falling apart, we were lucid; we could romanticize the Kim’s in better circumstances. But because of COVID-19, we lost the nerve and the feeling of romance. Anxiety and food scarcity, evictions and lock downs have been nightmarish. Getting lost in outliers lasts for only so long. Frankly, it just feels too raw living in America right now. Watching reality tv cattiness- Anna and Christine for one- as I try to get my 83-year-old mother a vaccination appointment is a surreal experience.
As a film, Parasite worked because of its mixture of rage, oppression, cluelessness, and revenge. Plus, the blurring of boundaries. The audience had an ally even if the Kim’s were misguided and wrong. We understood their desperation and being in limbo. We wanted them to win because in a farcical way we owned their sorrow; we instantly thought of ours. It’s the problem with Bling Empire, this array of beautifully looking people that lack purpose but perhaps when you do a television show about how rich you are, and how everything is available for your consumption, that is the inevitable consequence.
The paradox of Bling Empire is not the accrued money, inherited or otherwise, nor the absence of white bodies- a relief. It’s the unsaid and the shifting. The friends in Bling Empire just party and shop, party and shop and that was fine before coronavirus and the Capitol attack. But now, in these times, the Bling Empire cast feels like a bunch of rich placeholders who have not been tested in the wholly human way the rest of us have been tested (and have been asked to sacrifice). Or, the way the fictional Park’s were tested when they discovered poverty creates a violent jealousy and an unquenchable lust for what someone else has.
Bling Empire’s cast already has what everyone else wants and their eroticization of it, their greed, feels reckless by series end. Because the world has suddenly changed and things are worse and no amount of money, Asian or otherwise, can fix it.