[Marxism] Good review of the overrated "Parasite"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jan 4 06:23:37 MST 2020

The Nation, JANUARY 13/20, 2020
Upstairs, Downstairs
On Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.
By E. Tammy Kim

The South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has called his latest movie 
Parasite, which won this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, 
a “sad comedy.” It’s an imperfect label, though Parasite did make me 
laugh, sometimes hysterically. It also made me feel low—miserable, 
even—but probably not for the reasons Bong intended.

The plot centers on two nuclear families in Seoul, one poor and one 
rich, one downstairs and one upstairs. Ki-taek, the patriarch of the 
lower-class Kim family (played by the formidable South Korean actor Song 
Kang-ho), lives with his wife, Chung-sook; and adult son and daughter, 
Ki-woo and Ki-jung, in a half-basement apartment redolent of sewage and 
thick, hand-washed socks that refuse to dry. (“Ki”/“gi” is also the 
first syllable of the film’s Korean title, “Gisaengchung,” or Parasite.) 
Their neighborhood is of the old, scrappy South Korean style, cramped 
and low to the ground, a tenement in the shadow of the city’s 
cookie-cutter apartment towers. Ki-taek is an unemployed taxi driver, 
Chung-sook is a washed-up hammer-throw champion, and the two children 
failed the university entrance exam. They take in sundry piecework, like 
folding pizza boxes, to survive while on the lookout for a way up.

One night, Ki-woo’s friend stops by to ask a favor. He’s leaving to 
study abroad and needs someone trustworthy to take over his tutoring gig 
in a tony household. Ki-woo agrees and is soon at the Park family’s 
Glass House–style mansion, fake academic credentials in hand. He is 
received by Moon-gwang, the Parks’ live-in domestic worker (played by 
the prolific comic actress Lee Jung-eun), and introduced to most of the 
family: Yeon-kyo, a neurotic but well-meaning stay-at-home mom; daughter 
Da-hye, a horny high school sophomore and Ki-woo’s student-to-be; and 
Da-song, a rambunctious young boy. The father, Nathan, an IT executive, 
is at the office, per usual, working typically punishing hours. (South 
Koreans log an average of more than 2,000 hours per year, compared with 
the OECD average of 1,700 hours.) The Parks, though, are not from the 
old-money chaebol class (the dynasties that own megaconglomerates like 
Samsung and Hyundai) but from nouveau riche obsessed with English and 
with Western luxury goods.

Ki-woo gets the job and a new American sobriquet, Kevin—Yeon-kyo’s idea. 
He’s paid lavishly for his first tutoring session and glimpses a world 
of opportunity in the envelope she hands him, stuffed with pristine 
50,000-won (about $42) notes. What if his sister, father, and mother 
could work for the Park household, too? Ki-woo devises an extensive con 
and, soon enough, persuades the Park family to hire his sister as an art 
tutor and therapist to Da-song, his mother to replace the faithful 
Moon-gwang, and his father to assume the role of chauffeur to Nathan. 
All goes well until this family of hangers-on discovers and is 
discovered by a competing family of parasites. The inevitable face-off 
begins in the mansion’s subbasement, under the clueless Parks’ feet, and 
culminates in a masterfully bloody, baroque finale that implicates 
everyone in the house. Bong’s message seems to be that there are 
consequences to our obscene division of wealth and labor. In his 
account, though, it’s inevitable that the parasites will bleed most.

Parasite is a marvelously tense, propulsive film of sharp angles, 
smells, and cold light. Bong, a talented cartoonist, is known for his 
obsessive storyboarding, and Parasite, like his previous films, deploys 
the grotesque, hyperbolic elements of a comic strip in service of social 
commentary. Many critics have praised the film for its stylized critique 
of capitalism: As No Cut News, a left-wing South Korean outlet, put it, 
the movie asks, “Why do the rich only get richer and the poor, poorer?”

This, I think, gives Bong too much credit. He wants to poke fun at the 
wealthy and lightly satirize our social divides, in the tradition of 
Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. But that’s as far 
as he’s willing to go.

In interviews, Bong has described Parasite as an allegory of 
polarization: The two families, rich and poor, should exist on an even 
plane as human beings in the same metropolis, but assume the roles of 
titular parasite and host (the title of his 2006 science fiction hit). 
Nathan repeatedly opines that a good servant is one who “doesn’t cross 
the line,” who doesn’t become too intimate with or demand too much from 
his employers. This is untenable and a problem for the rich, Bong said 
on France Inter radio’s L’heure Bleue. “If you’re so concerned with 
boundaries, then you should do [the work] yourself,” he said—yet the 
moneyed would rather outsource this labor. “You can’t maintain your own 
castle. So you let in a tutor for the kids, a housemaid, a driver, and 
they cross the line.”

It’s only through relations of service and subservience that the 
prosperous and destitute have occasion to meet. “The rich and poor don’t 
eat at the same restaurants or take the same flights,” Bong added. “I 
want us to be able to live together. I hope for my son that we’ll one 
day have a mixed society, a coexistence between the rich and the poor.”

Here, then, is where Parasite takes us: not to the ledge of class war 
but to a shrug over inequality. The parasitic family members of his film 
have embraced a long con because the system itself is a con. Yet their 
suffering, in housing and work, is rationalized by their vulgarity and 
unscrupulousness. The rich family’s lifestyle, meanwhile, is never 
questioned. What bothers Bong is not the fact of poverty and unjust 
distribution; he only wants our social arrangements to feel a bit 
kinder. Never mind that a truly mixed society would demand slicing off 
the extremes.

This is not to plead for agitprop. Bong is too good a filmmaker for 
that. It’s simply to temper our political expectations of Parasite. If 
anything, his earlier movies offered more in the way of straightforward 
social critique. The Host, for instance, which introduced him to Western 
audiences, is a monster flick partly about American militarism and 
environmental crimes. Caricatures of capitalism and state power run 
through Snowpiercer, a postapocalyptic allegory set on a segregated 
train, and Memories of Murder, based on an unsolved string of real-life 
rapes and killings in a rural area of South Korea. (Last month, the 
police announced that they located a likely perpetrator in that case.) 
These films put humor and overstatement to more provocative use.

South Korea’s best filmic interpreter of class and social inequality is 
not Bong but Lee Chang-dong, who made last year’s elegiac Burning as 
well as Poetry (2010) and one of my all-time favorites, Peppermint Candy 
(1999). But Lee is too understated to draw the kinds of audiences that 
Bong can. Asked about his hopes for Parasite, Bong said that it “is in 
parts funny, frightening, and sad, and if it makes viewers feel like 
sharing a drink and talking over all the ideas they had while watching 
it, I’ll wish for nothing more.” Which ideas does he have in mind? 
Inequality, betrayal, and a kind of we’re-all-doing-our-best 
both-sides-ism are most apparent. The film doesn’t push us further—to 
mull Korea’s crisis of affordable housing, discrimination against the 
poor, fetishization of English and Western commodities, and glut of 
overeducated, underemployed youth driving the parasitic family’s scheme.

Bong deserves kudos, though, for inserting a bit of wry geopolitical 
commentary. We’re told that the subbasement of the Parks’ mansion, where 
the poor characters battle it out, was built as a bunker in case of an 
attack by North Korea. In mocking recognition of this fact, the dueling 
clans compare their struggle to the North Korean nuclear standoff, and 
Moon-gwang launches into a long, histrionic impersonation of a North 
Korean news announcer. It’s an odd scene, a sort of tonal tangent. But I 
wonder if Bong’s point is this: that the North Korean bogeyman, which 
features so prominently in the apocalyptic imagination of South Korea 
and the United States, is not the real enemy. The chasm between rich and 
poor, in wealth and opportunity and respect, is likely to kill us first.

E. Tammy KimTWITTERE. Tammy Kim is a freelance magazine reporter, a 
contributing opinion writer to The New York Times, and a former attorney.

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