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So Metaphorical

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite makes a mockery of cheap catharsis

Parasite, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes (in a reportedly unanimous decision) and was (less unanimously) a finalist for the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, begins in a dead-end.

The film opens in a dingy sub-basement at the ass-end of a sloping street in a Seoul neighborhood, where the down-and-out Kim family—father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mom Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and the cunning son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik)—eke out a living as members of the literal underclass. They spend the days scamming wi-fi signals from shops upstairs, spraying their derelict domicile for stinkbugs, and working highly precarious, cash-in-hand gigs.

On the recommendation of a friend, Ki-Woo applies for a job tutoring the daughter of the super-wealthy Park family, who live far above the rabble in an open-concept, Frank Lloyd Wright-ish modernist manor. With bogus credentials (courtesy of his scheming sister), Ki-Woo gets the job. He soon secures an art tutor gig for his sister. In due time, the Kims displace the Park family’s help, with papa taking a job as a driver, and mother assuming the position of housekeeper, pushing out the matronly Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), the Park family’s longtime live-in maid.

Parasite is superficially of a piece with several other big-name movies, produced in different national and industrial contexts. Top of mind are Shoplifters, by Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda (which took the Palme d’Or in 2018), and US, the sophomore horror film by the American Jordan Peele. (One could also suggest the UK period drama Downtown Abbey, and its recent movie, as another point of reference, at least in the upstairs/downstairs dynamics between post-Edwardian aristocrats and their hired help.) It also feels consistent with a spate of South Korean thrillers that, in different ways, develop their dramatic tension along class lines. Among them: Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016); Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid (2010; itself a remake of Kim Ki-young’s 1960 film of the same name); and Lee Chang-dong’s cryptic, unforgettable Burning (2018).

If, as the saying goes, two like things constitute mere coincidence while three make a trend, then Parasite can certainly be viewed as part of a trend in movies that concern themselves with class relations and, especially, resentments. What distinguishes Parasite is how it operates simultaneously as a consummate example of what we might call the “class war thriller” and a sly parody of its operations.

Parasite operates simultaneously as a consummate example of what we might call the “class war thriller” and a sly parody of its operations.

Midway through Parasite, Ki-Woo exclaims to his family, “Wow! This is so metaphorical!” It’s played as a winking, nudging laugh-line. But it doubles as a nifty piece of reflexive auto-critique. Parasite, after all, is a thrilling, masterfully constructed piece of filmmaking, courtesy South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (Memories of the Murder, The Host). Here Bong returns to his native shores following middling attempts to break into the broader, English-speaking film market with his chugging post-apocalyptic parable Snowpiercer and the meat-is-murder message movie, Okja.

Bong seems to be acknowledging that his films are often read in light of their allegorical significance, their artistry (or attempts at such) steamrolled by claims of some “relevant” salience. He pitches the young, clever Ki-Woo as a kind of surrogate for his audiences and critics (even the ones who praise him): Woaaaah! So topical! Many metaphor! Yet what distinguishes Parasite is not the manner in which it gestures towards some watery claim of political pertinence because, duh, it’s “about class.” It’s the ways in which it mocks such superficial, movie-of-the-moment relevance.

In the same way that Bong’s best films, Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), redress their generic trappings (the police procedural and monster movie, specifically), Parasite satisfies and subverts the expectations of the class war thriller in equal measure. Firmly installed at the house of Park under assumed identities, the Kims take full advantage of the amenities: pigging out on beef ribs and downing bottles of pricy whiskey while the Parks are away on holiday. What begins as a light comedy-of-manners quickly takes a thrilling, violent turn. On a fittingly dark, stormy night, the Kims are visited by the jobless nanny Moon-gwang, who reveals that they’re not exactly the first family to establish a productively spongy relationship with the dopey Parks—whose wealth, properly leeched, provides prosperous trickle-down effects.

Moon-gwang reveals that, for years, she has been squirrelling her husband, Geun-sae (in deep to some very nasty debtors), away in the Park’s secret basement bunker, funneling food in order to keep him alive. It’s here that Parasite masterfully fish-tails, moving from goofy skewering of class relations to something altogether more sinister. Like Wes Craven’s 1991 anti-gentrification horror movie The People Under the Stairs, in which cannibalistic children teem in the dungeon-like basement of a distinctly Reaganesque landlord, Parasite offers a gothic vision of modern life, in which still-living specters haunt the crawlspaces of capitalism like ghosts.

With this reveal, Parasite necessarily complicates its essentialist class tension. A more rudimentary film would see the two destitute familial clans recognizing their common interests and banding together to sustain their differently parasitic relationships to the Parks. Instead of organizing along such basic class lines, the two groups fracture, quarrelling over their shared access to the Park family’s seemingly limitless resources.

Bong’s Snowpiercer concerned a revolution unfolding aboard a futuristic locomotive, subdivided head-to-tail along class axes. Bracketing the issue of the train’s geography making like zero practical sense, its driving metaphor was altogether too simple. What matters is not the classic dichotomous camps of Haves and Have-Nots, but the way in which sympathies are tweaked to make the Have-Nots identity with their oppressors, ignoring their own sorry lot in the process. With Parasite, Bong conveys the idea that revolutionary actions don’t tend to express themselves in some simple, clear-cut, programmatic fashion. Instead, class tension spills out in all directions. Parasite’s violence escalates, culminating in a bloody backyard BBQ, not as a result of some inherent revolutionary fictions sparking off, but because of nagging resentments and seemingly randomly calibrated acts of brutality. The violence is always reactionary, occurring across ostensible class lines because, in part, the two groups in a position to overthrow the Parks (or at least continue to sap them) never bother to recognize the commonalities of their condition. Ki-Taek boasts that the “best plan” in life is “no plan.” Parasite explores, at great length, the consequences of this belief.

Much of Parasite’s genius comes from the manner in which Bong directs his performances. While the Parks are rich and dopey, with a fetish for Americanization (best illustrated in the young son’s obsession with images of Native America) that seems symptomatic of their corresponding fetish for capitalism, they’re never really all that bad or openly mean. Likewise, the intruding Kims are wily and vulgarly funny, but never particularly likeable. We root for them as we might root for a team of bank robbers in a heist movie—our hope that they “get away with it” tempered by a competing desire to see them punished. Bong articulates this tension wonderfully in a sequence when the Parks announce an early return from an out-of-town camping holiday, forcing the Kims to tidy up the messy mansion and vanish themselves in just a few minutes; a sequence that plays out like something from a teen sex comedy, where the parents return to crash a roaring kegger.

Any suggestion that the Kims are revolutionary heroes is proved to be ludicrous. The Kims don’t want to liberate the Parks’ storehouses of wealth and capital. They want to hoard it for themselves, essentially cosplaying as the family in their absence. “If I had all this I would be kinder,” Chung-sook gripes, admiring the Parks’ spatial digs and sundry wares. I don’t think we’re meant to believe her.

This is why Parasite being reflexively praised as a consummate class warfare thriller feels odd to me. 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. In the film’s extended epilogue, Ki-Woo lays out a plot for getting back into the Parks’ mansion, from which he and his family have been exiled. The imaginative Ki-Woo divines a future where, through his intelligence and industriousness, he attends university, graduates, lands a well-paying job and, in time, purchases the Park mansion and frees his father. Simply, he pledges to do things the “right way,” without jumping any rungs on the social ladder, or kicking it out from underneath others. Then his vision of upward mobility is revealed to be just that: a fantasy. The projected future dissolves and Ki-Woo is left where we first encountered him, stuck in a dead-end basement hovel, daydreaming his way out.

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.

It may seem like a bitter ending, indulging a cynicism unbecoming a filmmaker whose movies tend to productively re-imagine social and familial bonds. But it’s key to Parasite’s satirical edge, underscoring the manner in which we tend to get lost in daydreams of progressivism, while fundamentally ignoring the material conditions that require meaningful change. Parasite feels, in this respect, like a riposte to a whole culture that saddles mainstream films with claims of social or political relevance because, for example, a feature-length U.S. Air Force recruitment ad is playing well with audiences of little girls.

In his recent book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, critic J. Hoberman offers a handy comparison between Robert Altman’s Nashville and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Where the former posed compelling questions about the character of American life, “Jaws was glibly optimistic in offering itself as a solution” to these same problems. Hoberman thus understands the essential difference between though-provoking art, which raising urgent questions, and mere entertainment, which answers them. Parasite is deeply wary of the latter tack. And in an age of widespread cultural enthusiasm where wan claims of “relevance” and “what we need right now” are imposed on even the most anodyne entertainments, is richer for its skepticism.

Parasite poses as a class war thriller in order to call attention to a fundamental problem of the sub-genre. Namely, the manner in which such stories risk assuaging the tensions they pretend to accelerate. In place of some cockle-warming fantasy of class solidarity, Bong invites us to question the role such fantasies play in offering cheap catharsis, and prods at the acute false consciousness required to believe that social upheaval can be sewn by a blockbuster movie manufactured by a many-billion dollar mass media multinational with a deeply vested interest in the status quo. Parasite is a film that mocks a modern audience’s desperate desire to praise any film with a wide-eyed, “Wow! So metaphorical!” And such deeply thoughtful circumspection is, if we need anything, maybe what we need right now.