Jacobin - November 2019

Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite, which reached US theaters last month after its initial South Korean release in May, has been a massive hit among critics and audiences alike. After its Palme d’Or–winning première at Cannes, it sold over ten million tickets in South Korea alone, making it that country’s fourth biggest-selling film of 2019.

Grossing over $120 million worldwide, Parasite is director Bong Joon Ho’s seventh film and his most successful yet. Coming from a director whose films often feature marginalized characters fighting oppression (see Barking Dogs Never Bite, The Host, and most recently Snowpiercer), Parasite has been hailed as a lucid and straightforward critique of wealth inequality in South Korean society.

The film (spoilers below!) is widely seen as an allegory for the rampant class inequality and popular frustration at the lack of social mobility in one of Asia’s richest countries. Writing in Jacobin, Eileen Jones praised Parasite for going beyond simple allegorical overtures, claiming that it “crystallizes the experiences of being an underclass family grasping at a chance to ‘make it,’ and portrays it in such a way as to hurt you.”

In the New York Times, Brian X. Chen described the film as a confrontation between “the haves against the have-nots,” and interprets the con carried out by the Kim family in the film as revenge for the “bitterness and frustration” at a society engineered to make sure only the wealthy succeed. Scott Mendelson called the film a “brutal social commentary” on the lives of the rich, reliant on the labor of an unrecognized underclass who “can barely afford to live in the civilization for which they provide the foundation.”

The encounter between the Kim and Park families in Parasite is, indeed, a fairly obvious metaphor for class antagonisms in South Korean society. But to focus on material wealth alone risks neglecting a subtler, and ultimately more devastating critique latent in Bong Joon Ho’s film. For Parasite also zones in on the stripping of working-class people’s dignity, self-respect, and social stature, as our work, and our lives, are made ever more precarious by the harshening dynamics of neoliberal capitalism.

Living Paycheck to Paycheck

First, the plot. In Parasite, an impoverished, working-class Seoul family called the Kims infiltrates the world of the rich through a series of ingenious cons. When their son Ki-woo is offered a lucrative gig by his friend tutoring the daughter of a wealthy family in Seoul — the Parks — he accepts. Yet Ki-woo faces the slight complication that he hasn’t attended university, as his family couldn’t afford tuition. Anticipating that the Parks will only accept a college student, he shows up with an enrollment form forged by his artistically inclined sister.

Surprised at the naivety of the rich, Ki-woo devises a series of Mission Impossible–style plots to get his entire family into working for the Parks. Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jeong, becomes an “art therapy” tutor for the Parks’ quirky and somewhat difficult young son. Ki-woo’s father, Ki-taek, gets hired as their personal driver. Ki-woo’s mother, Chung-sook, installs herself as the new live-in help after ousting the longtime housekeeper.

Keeping their family ties a secret, their new jobs lift the Kims out of their seemingly inescapable poverty in a few short weeks. In a labor market lacking in stable, well-paid positions, in which workers often resort to self-employment or casual labor lacking workplace protections, the Kims have hit the jackpot.

The Kims embody the plight of the South Korean working class. They live crammed together in a dingy semi-basement apartment in Seoul, where every night they are subjected to drunks urinating on the street next to their kitchen window. Their life stands in stark contrast to the wealthy Parks, who enjoy the rare privilege of owning a luxurious, gated-off home with a spacious and landscaped front yard (practically unheard of in the dense cities of South Korea).

The symbolism in Parasite doesn’t end there. The Kims survive on cheap takeout pizza, and even when they do have money, they celebrate by eating at a buffet restaurant for taxi drivers — a cheap way to consume a calorie-heavy meal. This symbolism is not lost on moviegoers in Seoul, today one of the world’s ten most expensive cities, with the most expensive groceries in Asia. The Parks, by contrast, stock their refrigerator with bottled sparkling water and feed their dogs high-end organic pet food and Japanese crabsticks.

The diets of the haves and have-nots are, indeed, a striking index of inequality in the South Korean capital. According to a 2018 study surveying 1,023 residents, over 20 percent of low-income Seoulites do not receive adequate nutrients from their diets—a number four times higher than the national average. Moreover, 10 percent of low-income residents suffer food insecurity, meaning they lacked reliable access to what food they needed for a healthy and active life. Added to their generally lesser variety of fresh produce, this feeds a situation in which Seoul’s poor also suffer worse rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

No Plan

In a scene halfway through the film, as the Kim family father Ki-taek chauffeurs Mr Park to an appointment, he attempts to pass himself off as a veteran in the field by fabricating a story about his long love affair with his vocation. Mr Park nods, and replies, “I respect people who work in the same field for a long time.” Similar themes of professional commitment, of “having a plan,” and being self-reliant recur throughout the film.

As Ki-woo stands in the doorway on his way to a job interview, forged documents in hand, he tells his father, “I don’t consider this a crime. I’m going to attend this university eventually. Think of it as just receiving the documents a little early.” His father replies, “Oh, so you do have a plan!” When the upstairs neighbor changes the Wi-Fi password, Chung-sook asks her husband, “Our phones are shut off. Now our Wi-Fi is shut off. So, what’s your plan?”

Later on, after the Kims’ apartment is flooded and they end up sleeping in a gymnasium, Ki-taek tells his son, “Ki-woo, you know what plan never fails? No plan at all. You know why? If you make a plan, life never works out that way.”

For older Seoul residents, this scene is likely evocative of the recurring flooding in the nearby Mangwon neighborhood in the 1980s, a low-income area adjacent to the garbage dump. The city knowingly neglected the dykes holding back the Han River, causing devastating floods that upended the lives of poor and elderly people living there. Mangwon’s residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the city and won compensation, giving birth to Lawyers for a Democratic Society, the first human rights- and democracy-oriented lawyers’ organization in South Korea.

Throughout Parasite, the precariousness of the Kims’ neighborhood is sharply contrasted to the safety and security bought by the Parks’ accumulated wealth. Unbeknownst to Mr Park, before conning his way into the employment of the rich, Kim Ki-taek and his family had tried a slew of jobs to make ends meet. The film opens with the Kims seated in their kitchen, folding pizza boxes for a nearby restaurant — a precarious, piece-wage gig to earn a few bucks. Ki-taek also mentions previously operating a fried chicken franchise and a Taiwanese “king castella” shop, as well as working as a daeri driver. ...
Read full review (with spoilers) at Jacobin