Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite has proven to be that rarest of objects: a foreign language film that crosses over to mainstream success in the English-speaking world. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and has received a round of plaudits not just from the usual credentialed critics but the rich and famous. Supermodel Chrissie Teigen and possible supervillain Elon Musk both took to Twitter to praise the movie.
These responses drew a wave of revulsion from the Twitterati. The laudatory reviews of Parasite have largely focused on the film’s discussion of class. Parasite is the story of a poor family, the Kims, who gradually infiltrate the lives of a rich family, the Parks, conspiring to get each other jobs in various servile positions. Critics have read the narrative as a story of class struggle. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis describes Bong as “a rigorous dialectician” in depicting the struggle between rich and poor, while Roger Ebert.com reviewer Brian Tallerico writes that the film is about “how the rich use the poor to survive.”
If Parasite is such a vicious attack on the ruling class — if, as VICE succinctly puts it in an article about the controversy, it “roasts the rich” — then, how could the super-rich — not just Teigen and Musk, but the pool of Oscar voters — fall in love with it? Are they simply oblivious, like the gullible Park family? Is it actually a bad satire, one that allows too much ambiguity and undermines its alleged purpose?
I want to discard the latter idea right away. No film, no matter how good, can escape misreadings and misunderstandings. Many movies now upheld as classic satires, like Robocop and Starship Troopers, were viewed by much of their contemporary audience as being straightforward, brain-dead action movies. The idea that art should present no kind of ambiguity is not just impossible but harmful to the pursuit of meaningful work.
And yet, I also don’t think that Parasite is such a straightforward attack against the rich as its left-wing proponents claim. Yes, the rich who love the movie are likely overlooking the way it satirizes their class — or at least choosing to believe that the film is about those other rich people. But if you’re, say, a middle-class DSA-supporting Brooklynite film blogger, to use a caricature, you would be mistaken to think that you’re not in Bong’s crosshairs.
Like all great films (and perhaps all films period, if you want to get really deconstructionist), Parasite is founded on a contradiction. Our natural sympathies are with the Kims, who we see in destitute conditions at the start of the story. They’re the underdogs in South Korea’s (or maybe the whole world’s) class-stratified society. At the same time, they spend the whole film doing increasingly terrible thing to basically innocent people. Bong is testing just how far the audience’s natural sympathies will stretch, creating a productive (and, yes, dialectical) tension.
The Kims’ deception starts fairly harmlessly, with Ki-woo asking his sister Ki-jeong to doctor credentials — a victimless crime. Ki-woo then gets herself hired as an “art therapist” by intimating to Park matriarch Yeon-Gyo that her son Da-Song was abused, which feels slightly less innocuous. When the siblings’ parents also get jobs in the household, it’s by scheming to oust existing servants and take their jobs as a chauffeur and housekeeper. Here, there are actual victims, whose reputations are tarnished as a result of the Kims’ efforts. Meanwhile, Ki-woo has started making out with his pubescent student to avoid her causing trouble, which definitely disturbs the audience’s perception of who the victim is here.
Still, throughout the first act, Parasite just about passes as a cynical but sprightly comedy. It’s easy to imagine a version of the movie that embraces the slobs-versus-snobs dynamic and makes the Parks cruel villains who are justly humiliated by our crafty heroes. (And if you doubt Bong is capable of making a simplistic moral tale, I invite you to watch Okja on Netflix.)
But although the Parks are gullible and a little stuck-up, they’re never actively villainous. Many reviews mention that they exploit the lower classes, which is surely true (there’s no such thing as an honest fortune), but any evidence of this is off-screen. Indeed, it’s their class status and its accompanying obsessions — American culture and credentials, private referral networks, and boutique therapy — that make them so easy to trick.
This comes to a thundering close when the Parks go out for a night of camping. The Kims take the opportunity to enjoy the run of their mansion, enjoying bourgeois luxury and fitting right into it. It becomes clear that what the Kims really dream of is not getting their fair share from the rich but becoming the rich, of having their beautiful houses and soft sheets and private drivers — a dream that lurks in more of our hearts than we would perhaps like to admit.
Things get turned on their head when the old housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang returns in the middle of the night, her old implacable professionalism replaced by homeless-lady mania. It emerges that there’s a bomb shelter hidden beneath the house, without the Parks even knowing, and that her husband Geun-Rok has been living there for years, with her quietly taking food down to them. Moon-Gwang beseeches the Kims to maintain this arrangement, to help support those even lower than them. (There’s a geographic metaphor here, with the Kims’ semi-basement apartment now established as the midpoint between the world of wealth and those even further underground.)
The Kims now find themselves in the position of the comfortable middle class, asked to provide support to those below them, and they balk. Then Moon-Gwang discovers their deception, and the stakes change again. She and her husband now take up a position of comfort in the upper manor, blackmailing the Kims into entertaining them.
This twist highlights an uncomfortable reality for many of us fighting for class inequality: no matter where we are, there are those far below us, whether it be the homeless people we see on the streets or the sweatshop workers who supply our cheap goods. (That the Gooks’ family name is one used as a racial slur by Westerners against Asian people may not be coincidental here.)What would it mean to extend not just theoretical but material solidarity to them, instead of focusing on domestic politics and local struggles? Would we find ourselves in the position of the Kims, finding reasons not to compromise our relatively-higher stations?
In 1984, the book-within-a-book allegedly written by rebel leader Emmet Goldsmith proposes a class system in which the poor seek equality through revolutions, and the middle class uses this opportunity to switch places with the rich. Bong’s vision is even more pessimistic like this: even the underground pair become tyrants once they get a smidgen of power. Geun-Rok imitates a news anchor from North Korea, the ultimate subaltern and tyrannical state. In Parasite it is not just wealth, but also the desire for wealth, or even the knowledge of not having it, that produces moral corruption.
What follows is a tour-de-force of black comedy, as the Kims try to hide their own existence as well as that of the Gooks from the returning Parks. In the process, Moon-Gwang is killed, reflecting the indifference with which the Kims have learned to treat other people.
Parasite concludes, as a good Marxist would have it, with Geun-Rok, the most oppressed and unfortunate, enacting violent revolution in a rich pleasure garden — “the lower depths rise with a vengeance”, as the New York Times review is entitled. But his target is not the well-off Parks, who he worships, but rather the middle-class Kims. We can compare Geun-Rok here to the working-class and destitute people who support right-wing populists around the globe, desperately attached to a social order in which they were always near the bottom. Thus Bong reveals a pessimistic, but eerily familiar, concept of class struggle, in which different segments of the underclass destroy each other while the rich live oblivious above the clouds.
One can, at a stretch, make this narrative fit the socialist monomyth: “If only the Kims and Gooks put their differences aside and targeted the real enemy...” But such an approach ignores the fundamental tensions and contradictions which make Parasite such a unique and striking film, turning it into mere agitprop. Instead, I think we would be better served by focusing on, and reckoning with, the way Bong reveals the ways in which the concept of class struggle becomes entangled with our own self-interest and vanity.
Or, in other words: By all means, eat the rich, but don’t be surprised if you get indigestion.