by Jimmy Wu
Class is back on the big screen. From Sorry to Bother You to Joker, the past year has seen an explosion of popular movies that offer, with varying degrees of coherence, a critique of contemporary capitalism. But perhaps no recent film does so with more savvy than Parasite, a new genre-bender that became the first Korean movie to win the Palme d’Or (by unanimous vote, no less) at Cannes this year. Parasite’s opening scene introduces us to the Kims, a family of four who dwell in a bug-infested “semi-basement”—which is more like a sunken concrete purgatory—with a rat’s-eye view of a grimy Seoul side street. Disheveled father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) would love to have jobs but, aside from some unappetizing piecework folding pizza boxes, have had no luck. Their daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) are college-age and whip-smart, but with university well out of reach, they spend their days scrounging for free Wi-Fi and warding off drunken strangers.
The Kims catch a lucky break when Ki-woo stumbles upon a job tutoring the wealthy teenage girl Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), whose family—spoiled little brother Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon), tech-executive father Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun), and absent-minded helicopter mom Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong)—lives in a sleek modern mansion on a hill, sequestered from the riffraff. Not content with just one lucrative income stream, Ki-woo devises an elaborate scheme to get the rest of his family in on the action. With extreme cunning and operatic flair, the Kims oust the Parks’ existing housestaff, installing their own Ki-jung as American-educated art therapist, Ki-taek as chauffeur, and Chung-sook as housekeeper. It’s a complete changing of the guard.
Yet just as the Kims are celebrating their success over expensive whiskey (expropriated from their vacationing employers), everything goes downhill. The Parks’ recently deposed housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun) returns in the middle of the night, and reveals she’s been caring for her husband Geun-se (Park Myeong-hoon) in a secret subterranean bunker for years, where he hides from loan sharks he can’t hope to repay. But rather than strike a deal to allow Geun-se to stay, the indignant Kims fight for the exclusive right to lick the Parks’ boots, propelling the movie on a tragicomedic path towards its gory end.
By this point, viewers acquainted with director Bong Joon-ho’s repertoire will have recognized political and cinematic elements from his previous works, including Okja (2017), Snowpiercer (2013), and The Host (2006). Snowpiercer in particular was an unsubtle allegory for social revolution played out on a class-segregated locomotive—there, too, a surplus population in a wealthy society grapples with how to escape their miserable and powerless condition. When the ruling class and its hangers-on can get along fine without your labor, what options do you have at your disposal? Parasite continues this line of questioning, injecting new ideas drawn from our current moment. In contrast to Snowpiercer’s lumpenprole heroes making a one-way charge from the back of the train to the front, Parasite explores a narrative that’s more attuned to the present: a collapse of the bottom, as the downwardly-mobile working class meets the criminalized underclass.
And so it is in our reality: more and more of us today are living in the semi-basement of the capitalist hierarchy, and every day many fall into the basement proper.
Unlike Snowpiercer, in which climate change serves primarily to constrain the movie’s setting, Parasite grants it an active role as a catalyst for class conflict. Midway through the film, a late-night downpour causes a minor inconvenience for the Parks: they have to cancel the camping trip they’d arranged for the young Da-song’s birthday. But the same storm spells disaster for the Kims, who return home to find their semi-basement flooded with sewage water and are forced to take refuge in a gym alongside other huddled families. This clever extension of the upstairs-downstairs analogy sends a true-to-life message: poor communities are bearing the brunt of ongoing environmental degradation, a reality to which the wealthy are either oblivious, apathetic, or hungrily eyeing chances to profit. More importantly, the night of the storm is an inflection point: the next morning, the Kims are abruptly summoned to work, this time to put on an impromptu birthday party for Da-song. The Kims oblige, but after a long night of swimming through wastewater, nothing is the same—the four of them are smelly and exhausted, and every command from their out-of-touch employers only compounds a newfound resentment.
This second half of the movie has prompted countless reviewers to (correctly) characterize Parasite as a story that is riven with class antagonism. However, they largely reduce its critique to that of a vague “economic inequality” or even a technocratic “rift between tax brackets.” Luckily, the film does far more: it’s not just about inequality, but the increasingly complex class relations that generate it. Chung-sook kicks Moon-gwang down the basement stairs in a brutal but perhaps understandable attempt to save her family—to cling onto working-class respectability—only to later find her husband trapped in the same bunker.
And so it is in our reality: more and more of us today are living in the semi-basement of the capitalist hierarchy, and every day many fall into the basement proper. There will be no more return to postwar growth, no labor-capital accord to save the day. A defining challenge for 21st-century revolutionaries will be to organize effectively in these conditions: to forge new solidarities not just between, say, software engineers and warehouse workers (a formidable task in its own right), but between all who have been forsaken by a decaying capitalist order—whether running from loan sharks, living in slums, hopping between gigs, or otherwise generally suffering, perpetually unemployed and unemployable.
A more astute analysis comes from John Semley in The Baffler, who argues that the film “is not a roadmap leading towards class liberation so much as a critique of our tendency to search for these roadmaps in our films, TV shows, and other exemplars of ‘progressive’ culture.” Marshalling as evidence the class infighting between the narrow-minded poor families, as well as Ki-taek’s resignation that “the best plan… is no plan,” Semley asserts that the movie only “poses as a class war thriller” while actually rejecting “a whole culture that saddles mainstream films with claims of social or political relevance.” To a certain extent, I couldn’t agree more: Parasite is not some Marxist Aesop’s fable from which we can simply slurp up instructions for building the revolution. But does this mean that the film’s specific aim is to troll every critic who attempts a political exegesis? For famously left-wing director Bong, who flatly stated in a recent interview that “Okja, Snowpiercer, Parasite [are] all stories about capitalism,” this seems unlikely.
In any case, Parasite may not be programmatic, but it doesn’t follow that this forecloses a radical reading. On the contrary, it challenges us to consider real barriers to, and opportunities to enact, fundamental social change in the absence of tidy historical narratives. There are several points in the movie at which this is apparent. One such moment occurs during the violent birthday party scene, when Mr. Park rolls aside Geun-se’s limp, blood-stained body in search of the keys to his Mercedes. Before he can grab the keys and make his escape however, the putrid stench of the poor overwhelms his senses—he can’t help but turn away and hold his nose. For his onlooking chauffeur Ki-taek, who up to this point had managed to ignore every link between Geun-se’s fate and his own, this is a sublime moment of awakening class consciousness that incites him to take up the knife against his master. For the subjugated classes, the system inevitably produces certain moments of clarity—the question is whether leftists can recognize and make use of them.
Of course for Ki-taek, the violent outburst begets tragedy, forcing him to take Geun-se’s place as the new bunker-dweller. Like the ghosts of revolutions past, Ki-taek scurries along the shadows of the mansion, waiting to be released, waiting to be avenged. Walter Benjamin captured this feeling well in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” observing that the authentic revolution, if it succeeds, not only justifies itself but also redeems the defeated struggles of the past, setting those ghosts free.
How, then, to avenge the failed Birthday Party Uprising? Like many a leftist essay, Parasite’s intriguing finale raises questions but provides no answers. In showing Ki-taek’s downfall, it seems to declare that insurrection—at least of the localized, disorganized variety—will not uproot society. Yet the film’s bleak coda also suggests that the opposite is equally futile. A wistful Ki-woo vows to do things the right way—to go to college, save money, and one day purchase the villa. “All you’ll need to do,” he imagines telling his father, “is walk up the stairs.” But we all know Ki-woo won’t be buying that house, not in a dozen lifetimes. With its last breath, Parasite mocks the fantasy of a “legitimate” takeover of the existing institutions, such that socialism can simply walk up the stairs and enter the sunlight. For those of us who believe a better system is possible, we’ll have to forge a new path to get there. ♦