Parasite (Bong Joon Ho, 2019) is the story of a poor family in South Korea that is struggling to make ends meet through various short term gigs. The movie opens with them trying to hack the wifi from a nearby cafe so they can check their messages and find out if they got any work. The family ends up folding pizza boxes for less than minimum wage — but they all pitch in and do it together.
They live in a small basement apartment in a bad part of town where people routinely urinate on their front doorstep. Their apartment is dark and dirty and crammed so full of stuff that it is obvious they used to live in a much bigger house, but they have now fallen on hard times.
The plot follows the family as they each scam and con their way into getting various jobs as servants in a tech billionaire’s household based on false pretences. It is almost like an Oceans 11 style heist where as different as the family members are, they all work together as a unified team. But it’s striking that the goal of the heist is not to steal money from the rich but just to get jobs. And it is also striking that the poor family is barely scraping by, but the rich family has so much extra money they can afford to employ an entire other family as servants.
Parasite is obviously a metaphor about class and inequality. The rich family is oblivious to the suffering of the poor, and the poor fight with each other to get the scraps the rich leave behind. (There is a brilliant scene where two poor families literally wrestle each other over a cell phone.) The film’s central image — the underground apartment dwellers struggling to climb the social ladder up to the mansion on the hill — is pretty obvious. There is even a running joke about metaphorical symbolism in art — the filmmaker’s way of winking at us and letting us know that he knows that we know a lot of the film’s symbolism is obvious.
At the same time the plot itself is unpredictable and none of the characters is a stereotype. And I think within the obvious images there is a lot of richness and subtlety. For example there is an interesting bit of ambiguity in the title. Are the parasites the poor who live off the rich or the rich who live off the poor? I think it is actually supposed to be both.
Thematically Parasite is quite similar to another South Korean film from last year called Burning (Chang-dong Lee, 2018) that starred Steven Yun from the Walking Dead. Burning was pretty great, actually, but it was an art film, intellectual and literary — which is to say, slow, quiet, and honestly kinda boring. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Parasite on the other hand is relatively direct and even a bit blunt. And also beautifully photographed and exquisitely directed, precisely written, and acted. And a whole lot of fun.
LIke Burning, Parasite is basically a socially-conscious drama, I guess, but it incorporates elements from lots of more pulpy genres like heist thrillers, horror movies, and a whole lot of dark comedy. It is a subtitled foreign film that critics love, but it is not nearly as boring and pretentious as that description might lead you to believe. I mean, at one point there is a geyser of sewage shooting up from a toilet like something out of the Hangover or Bridesmaids. So yeah. It’s that kind of movie.
Thematically there are several interesting things about the poop geyser sequence. For example, it is meant to show how a rain storm can look beautiful out the floor-to-ceiling picture windows in the modernist mansions that look out over the city, but be a disaster for those at the bottom of the hill. It’s that kind of movie, too — poop geysers as poetic social commentary.
Even though this is a Korean film, it seemed to me like a critique of the American Dream and the way that American individualism is socially destructive and how it is transforming the traditional family structure of Korean society. One way to interpret Parasite is that the American dream of pulling yourself up out of poverty is an impossible and even dangerous fantasy. If that’s the point then, what, I guess the unemployed are supposed to be content being poor? There must be more to it than that.
Or is the movie calling for the poor to rise up and overthrow the rich? Violent overthrow definitely didn’t work out too well for the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution or the Chinese, and, without spoiling too much, the family’s con job doesn’t go so well in Parasite either. By the end of the movie, it seems obvious that it’s not a call to arms. What is it then?
The American Dream is not just to be wealthy but to be independently wealthy. To not need to rely on others. To have the sort of freedom that comes from wealth — a freedom and independence that is antithetical to the commitment to mutual dependence of traditional family life. Parasite is a philosophically rich description of the dark side of capitalism where we see ourselves an individuals feeding off each other, instead of as part of one holistic organism — various interdependent members of one body — where we all support each other instead of supporting ourselves at each other’s expense. The movie is calling us to imagine society as symbiotic instead of parasitical.
This was a poignant movie for me to watch right now. In fact, I was in this movie when my comfortable life began to fall apart. I came out of the movie theater and saw that I had a message telling me that I was laid off. I never minded devoting my life to making money for other people; it’s just the instability of the whole system that gets me. Forget the tech billionaires, there are all these ordinary millionaires who live in beautiful houses on the hill above my neighborhood while my family and I could barely afford rent in a house we would never have been able to afford to buy even before we were laid off.
My life was comfortable, but it was precarious. And I have to admit that sometimes I dream of striking it rich somehow so that I would never have to worry about money again. But reflecting philosophically on this movie reminds me that even rich people’s lives are not immune to tragedy and the fantasy of being independently wealthy can turn people into monsters or at least moral insects. There has to be a way to live a happy life without being a parasite. The movie doesn’t necessarily explain how but it clearly sees the problem.
We can’t let the powerful convince us that life is a competition where some people win and some people lose. And it is not even enough to see ourselves as co-parastites, each taking what we need from each other instead of symbiotically giving each other what they need to survive and flourish. Society is a family where we all succeed or fail together. There are several turning points in the film where I kept thinking things could have worked out so much better if the three main families in the story had seen each other as being on the same side and not as being in competition with each other. There is so much wealth in South Korea and in the United States that we could easily take care of everyone if we just decided to do it.