Film

Overcoming Isolation Through Mukbang, the Subculture Where People Watch You Eat

Pam Nasr’s short film Clams Casino centers on a young woman struggling to reconnect with her mother but successfully connecting to thousands of viewers and eaters online.

A scene from <em>Clams Casino</em> (2018), directed by Pam Nasr (all images courtesy Pam Nasr)
A scene from Clams Casino (2018), directed by Pam Nasr (all images courtesy Pam Nasr)

Legend has it that the original recipe for Clams Casino was created in 1917, in a hotel in Rhode Island called Little Casino. The dish, named after the hotel, eventually gained great popularity and spread across the United States. It is essentially a clam on the half shell, with breadcrumbs and bacon. The protagonist in Pam Nasr’s directorial debut, Clams Casino, prepares and eats this same dish for a virtual audience. The title of the short film is a double entendre: it functions as both a commentary on the gambling-like monetary aspect of the protagonist’s “hobby,” and on the bizarre yet fulfilling virtual interactions people can pursue while remaining clammed up.

Clams Casino was conceived after Nasr came across a South Korean online subculture known as “Mukbang.” Mukbang is a compound term that combines the Korean words for “eat” and “broadcast.” It is an online broadcast in which a host eats large quantities of well-cooked and elegantly-plated food while interacting with his or her audience, usually through a webcast and chat log. Nasr came up with the main storyline for her film while she was considering the need for a platform such as Mukbang.

A scene from Clams Casino (2018), directed by Pam Nasr
A scene from Clams Casino (2018), directed by Pam Nasr

“The idea of how we can be extremely connected to thousands of people at once, yet be extremely disconnected with those physically close to us, prompted me to investigate the topic further,” Nasr told Hyperallergic. Mukbang, which began gaining popularity in South Korea around 2010, is essentially a performance. In most cases, the Broadcast Jockies — commonly referred to as BJs — showcase their cooking talents as well as their ability and appetite for large quantities of food. Your average Mukbang stream will have a BJ enumerating and presenting an array of consumable items very neatly before placing them on the table facing the screen. After presentation and plating, the BJ will go on to consume the food at a leisurely pace until everything has been eaten. The camera is normally positioned in a way that foregrounds the food. Along with the gestures and exaggerated chewing, the BJs are encouraged to make comments about the food and as many eating noises as possible.

When Nasr came across this online phenomenon, she had many questions. Why do people do it? Who are the people that partake in it? Why do so many others log on to watch them eat? And, most importantly, what can this tell us about the quality of humankind’s interactions? Several reports and studies have attempted to identify the factors contributing to the success and popularity of Mukbang. Some theories suggest it has its origins in the loneliness of unmarried and single South Koreans. Eating in Korean culture is an inherently social activity, but the rise of individualism and loneliness might have sparked an appetite for such broadcasts.

A scene from Clams Casino (2018), directed by Pam Nasr
A scene from Clams Casino (2018), directed by Pam Nasr

“The internet functions today as a tool for us to come up with solutions and easy fixes,” Nasr said, “if you don’t have anyone to have dinner with and are feeling lonely, you just log on and dine virtually with someone else whether a few blocks away or on a different continent. Everybody wants to feel included, like they are a part of something bigger that unites them.”

Another, grimmer theory suggests that the phenomenon of Mukbang is the epitome of humankind’s path away from face-to-face, real life interactions. Mukbang is predictable result of a culture that centers on “the spectacle.” Social interaction has gotten to the point where it can’t even exist without being mediated in some way or another, through screens, virtual devices, interaction, and running commentary.

The gastronomical voyeurism that such broadcasting platforms offer opened doors for Nasr. This phenomenon prompted her to draw from her personal experiences and multi-cultural background as well as her understanding of Mukbang. “Food is such an important part of Lebanese culture,” she said. “In Lebanon, love and affection are expressed through food, and this idea of sharing a meal with loved ones. Cooking for someone shows great appreciation, love, and care. I felt an immediate connection with Mukbang and South Korean culture because of my Lebanese heritage and upbringing.”

A scene from Clams Casino (2018), directed by Pam Nasr
A scene from Clams Casino (2018), directed by Pam Nasr

In the same way that Mukbang plays to our voyeuristic instincts, Clams Casino lets us in on the intimate and complex aspects of familial relationships. The short centers around four Latina women and questions the meaning of loneliness in an age where billions of people are connected online. The short film pokes at the repercussions of socialization in the digital age and our urge to feel desired. The protagonist, Arcelia, is desperate to connect with her mother Gladys. While Gladys’s daily ritual consists of obsessive workouts, beautification, and rejecting her daughter’s lifestyle, Arcelia spends her time desperately trying to establish any kind of relationship with her mother. One way she finds to deal with this rejection is by preparing an elaborate dinner, but who are the guests she’s anticipating?

“Connection can happen on so many levels and in ways that a lot of us can’t really understand,” Nasr said. “If we spend time deconstructing the reasoning behind it, we’ll come to realize that everyone’s pretty much on the same boat, aiming at one thing: connection and desire.”

Clams Casino screens at 1pm on June 23 as part of the SVA Short Film Festival 2018 at the SVA Theatre (333 West 23rd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan). The event is free and open to the public, but RSVP’ing online beforehand is recommended.

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