Dearest Sister crafts a story similar to Parasite, where a poor person “uses” a wealthy person to climb out of poverty. The film—directed by the only female horror director in Laos, Mattie Do—is an intimate look at relatives on opposing ends of the economic spectrum. And it uses horror elements to sell the finer points. The film also shows what happens when economics are prized above all else.
Nok, a poor girl, travels to take care of Ana, a wealthy cousin she does not know. Ana is haunted by spirits of the dead, and Nok discovers she can win the lottery by taking advantage of her cousin’s situation. Minus the ghost elements and familial connection, there are clear similarities to Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite. In that film, a poor South Korean family become the staff of a rich South Korean family through some underhanded methods.
Truthfully, it can be hard to find sympathy for the poor in a capitalistic society, particularly if we believe in the system. The system of capitalism, by design, favors economic status; as such, we are often susceptible to regarding the poor with an harsher gaze. It’s because of these sentiments that the wealthy continue to thrive while the poor are pushed further and further away—something we see in both of these films.
In Dearest Sister, Nok clearly exploits Ana’s ability for financial gain, but she is not solely to blame for the escalating circumstances she finds herself in. Ana is clearly not the nicest person either, just easier to overlook. When Nok arrives at the home, Ana wants her to live in the servants quarters; to sleep on the floor in a room shared with a maid and a handyman. It’s only thanks to Ana’s husband that Nok ends up living in the home and gets her own room, complete with a bed. Through the film, both Ana and her husband provide little in comfort to the other caretakers. While there could be a “both sides” argument, who is more at fault? The wealthy atop the system? Or the poor trying to survive it by whatever means necessary?
Similarly in Parasite, it might be hard to sympathize with the poor family because of how they behave. They are lazy, always looking to get something with minimal effort—an exact portrayal of what many think of when they think of poor people. It doesn’t matter if Bong Joon Ho knowingly holds this reflection up to us, or if his own biases are depicted in the Kim family. Ultimately, this belief and the blame falls on all of us who prize capitalism. In Dearest Sister, Nok is just as unsympathetic a character; rather than sending money home to her parents and boyfriend, she splurges on herself. And many wealthy people are guilty of the same. But this behavior seems unsavory for a poor person. Is it only alright to gorge when a person is rich?
With capitalism comes an overvaluing of monetary gains simultaneously with a devaluing of human life and quality of life. A necessary side effect are the stereotypes that diminish those who are not wealthy. Capitalism favors money, appearances, and societal etiquette. It views people as means to an end. Therefore, poor people are called lazy, crass, or worse. And it works. In the US, for example, Republicans and conservatives seem to heartily believe this, despite studies debunking the myth of laziness.
In Dearest Sister, Ana is consistently cold to Nok, and allows a friend to insult her until she feels like Nok is of use to her. She then gives her the nickname “little sister.” The label is a false title that never exists nor will exist in the film, because Ana never fully sees Nok beyond what she can get from her: care. She sees Nok as a means to an end, which is precisely how Nok sees Ana.
The same happens with Parasite. The poor Kim family is seen as bloodsuckers, while the rich Park family are hapless victims of their greed because the Park family is nice. Yet the Parks’ behavior is the same as any wealthy family who make their help feel a part of the family until they cross whatever imaginary line the elite have that clearly separates them from the poor.
In the US alone, around 78% of workers live from paycheck to paycheck. Far too many around the world are closer to being homeless than they are to being wealthy. Yet, surprisingly, too many people still extend their sympathy and pity to a wealthy person, whilst condemning a person for trying to survive.
This sympathy for the wealthy—while viewing people in poverty’s actions through a harsher lens—is indicative of what we are taught throughout our lives: to aspire to wealth and do it the “right way.” It is hammered into our psyches that if we are unsuccessful, it’s because we are not being our best selves. We see the various versions of “hustle and grind” sayings; indeed, in many societies your value is partially determined by that level of grind. Do you work 40+ hours? You’re amazing! Work 20 or less? You’re lazy and just want to have fun and never grow up. Not only is this mentality ableist, but this implies the wealthy don’t party and have fun. Meritocracy is a myth; it’s the bootstrap lie. Still, people on social media staunchly defend their favorite elites from any criticism about how they earned their money.
It’s a game. If everyone realized the wealthy were wealthy because of the exploitation of the poor and working class, what would happen to the elite? They would be decimated. So, to prevent that, they spin a yarn that anyone could be where they are. We just have to want it enough. Then, any failure is on the individual and not society.
We need to retire the mentality that being “nice” equates with being good. This is another tactic we see in these films; one that allows sympathy for characters who don’t deserve it. Many people are nice because society expects a level of superficiality. In Parasite, when Choong-Sook’s husband points out the rich mother, Yeon-kyo, is “rich, but nice,” Choong-Sook clarifies she’s “nice because she’s rich.”
People will fire you…nicely. They say you don’t deserve equality…nicely. The elite will threaten you…nicely. They’re nice so long as we are useful, as when Ana refers to Nok as “little sister” because she needs her attached, grateful, and appreciative. We’ve been taught niceness and appearances have more value. Capitalism is a system where we are forced to play by rules that change on the whims of the elite. Let’s stop wringing our hands in sympathy for the wealthy. It may look nice, but it’s smoke and mirrors. They don’t need our sympathy and they don’t deserve it. Feel bad for the ones who didn’t get a chance to live because they were too busy trying to survive.
Featured Image: Shudder