Korean film director Boon Joon-ho has taken the international world of cinema by storm with his Oscar-winning film Parasite.
In some respects, it is a refreshing break from the monotony of the standard cookie-cutter Hollywood and Netflix output. It owes its unexpected box office popularity and critical success alike to the fact that it raises an issue that, contrary to conventional box office wisdom, actually resonates deeply with people: the injustice of class society.
Bread and circuses
Most mainstream films are so busy dodging the howling reality of class exploitation that they are instead caught up in a race to the bottom of the cultural gutter, in a bid to “give the plebs what they (supposedly) want”.
It turns out however that, unexpectedly, what people really want is to watch a film about class war in south Korea! Indeed, the film’s power is felt in the realm of social media, helping to popularise the Twitter hashtag #EatTheRich. This has the potential to be a spontaneous and popular point of online anti-capitalist discourse, and can be used to popularise class politics.
The truth is that you will hear more genuine laughs from a Parasite audience than you will at any screening of a formulaic Seth Rogen sitcom jam-packed with infantile, brainless and lazy blue comedy.
And alongside the dark laughs, Parasite elicits a potent degree of anger and pity at the situation of the impoverished main characters, and at their treatment by the wealthy characters.
The Kims versus the Parks
Parasite features an impoverished family of four (the Kims), whose son (Ki-woo) who has the opportunity of becoming an English tutor for a girl in a super-wealthy, but comically naïve, family (the Parks), using forged accreditation documents with the hope of eventually going to university. Ki-woo manages to wedge his way into the wealthy household alongside his sister (Ki-jung), who performs the role of an equally fraudulent practitioner of art therapy to help with the alleged mental health problems of the Parks’ young son.
With this foothold in the household, the young Kims draw up a plan to replace the incumbent domestic staff (housekeeper and driver) with their own mother and father. All this is made possible by the wealthy parents’ naivety and short-sightedness, and the film initially presents a well-observed satire on a stereotypical upper-class family outfoxed by the craftiness of the poor and needy.
But as the film progresses it does more than invite us to comfortably cheer on the underdog from a distance; it makes us uncomfortably aware of the dead end that awaits such individualist methods of working-class struggle.
In the rat race for crumbs from the table of the wealthy, we learn to see our fellow workers as rats caught in the same trap, and by the same token diminish our own humanity.
This comes out in a scene where the Parks go off camping whilst the Kims take advantage of their absence to stay at their house for a night of debauchery. After some conversation, Mr Kim senior (Ki-taek) expresses his concern as to the welfare of the housekeeper and driver whose dismissal they had engineered. A drunken Ki-Jung responds by pleading that the family should focus on themselves, revealing a self-defeating counter-revolutionary mentality holding back many of the poor and subjugated of the world from collective class action.
Who are the parasites?
The apolitical audience would be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that it is the poor family who conned the rich family into firing their incumbent staff who are the parasites. After all, the system of individualist competition pressures all of us to strip away our ethics and empathy for others in the rat race for the scraps.
This system bribes sections of the working class to mislead the labour movement into selling out the long-term interests of the whole class. Working-class youths who manage to get into university – at ever-decreasing numbers – are offered cushy jobs in academia so long as they prostitute their talents towards producing more liberal propaganda to be disseminated by the mass media.
But the ‘parasitism’ and decadent behaviour engaged in by individual members of the working class are like drops in the ocean compared to the true parasites of the world: the billionaires who profit from the subjugation of people and countries all over the world.
From cynicism to anger
There is an interesting transformation in the response to the naivety of the wealthy family, particularly that of the wealthy mother (Mrs Park), from contemptuous laughter to sheer fury.
In one particular example, Mrs Park is being driven around by Ki-taek, who has to listen to her praise the rainy weather for clearing up the skies in time for her son’s birthday party. The same rain has just flooded the sewage system in the working-class neighbourhood where the Kims had been living in a semi-basement room, rendering them homeless and propertyless and forcing them to take refuge in a school gymnasium.
During that journey, Mrs Park is oblivious to Ki-taek’s troubles, blithely unaware that he has had to turn up to work after such a disastrous and life-changing event, carelessly handing him her copious bags of shopping and chattering on the phone as she invites friends to her impromptu party.
As they run around to prepare for this ‘casual’ event, you can feel the anger rising amongst the Kim family, anxious for what might happen when it boils over.
It is ironic to hear the protagonists’ frequent jokes about the DPRK (north Korea) in the film, given that the DPRK is one of the few remaining socialist societies in the world – a country that has ended class oppression.
We in the west are constantly being told that south Korea is a bastion of freedom and democracy, whereas in reality its workers are some of the most superexploited in the world, and its society one of the most alienated.
Political repression in south Korea is intense, as witness for example the attacks being launched against a harmless south Korean romcom, Crash Landing on You, which supposedly breaches laws forbidding any expression of sympathy for the DPRK. Merely portraying people in the north as independent and rational human beings – as opposed to mindless zombies – is enough to invite legal retribution, even without openly expressing sympathy for the government of the DPRK.
This is not the doing or the will of south Koreans, who have more in common with their brothers and sisters in the north than our imperialist masters would have us believe. This is the doing and will of their US colonial masters, still in military occupation of the southern half of the Korean peninsula.
In the midst of this, Parasite, a harsh critique of south Korean society, could not have come at a better time. The call for reunification of Korea is growing, and under its pressure the south is pursuing a gradual policy of rapprochement with the DPRK, from the mutual state visits of southern president Moon Jae-in and northern chairman Kim Jong Un, to the north and the south representing themselves as a unified Korea in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games of 2018.
Another end is possible
Parasite builds to a violent climax that some reviewers felt does a disservice to the film, which until that point had walked a fine line between empathy and black comedy. It seems that neither the Kims nor the film’s director could conceive of any other way of ending the story, such is the tunnel vision that attends a lack of confidence in the ability of the working class to act collectively.
Whatever Bong Joon-ho’s private view may be, his film presents an unrelieved picture of a disorganised and alienated working class, but this misses out on the fact that class struggle is alive and kicking in south Korea, despite all the repression.
Trade union battles are courageously fought, often with great personal sacrifice, and there is a pretty large socialist movement, albeit semi-underground owing to thought-crime laws.
Another end is possible!