MAY 1, 2020
A FEW MONTHS before Parasite’s spectacular Oscars upset, an image that perfectly captured the film’s unusually wide appeal circulated wildly on social media. The meme quoted an interview with writer-director Bong Joon-ho, expressing his initial bewilderment over the film’s success. Having thought he’d made a film that was very specifically Korean, its global impact had made him realize that we all inhabit the same country: capitalism. And more than any other movie in recent memory, Parasite captures the system’s most fundamental logic.
Of course, as soon as the big Oscar win introduced Parasite to a much wider audience, questions about its politics sprang up left and right. Some wondered aloud which was meant to be viewed as the eponymous parasite: the poor family, or the rich? Others complained that the film offered no alternatives to capitalism and therefore simply reinforced its quasitheological hold over us. Bad-faith brain-geniuses on the right attacked it for “assum[ing] the point it was trying to prove rather than trying to prove it” — while some on the left cautioned us not to drink the Kool-Aid and be mindful that the film’s politics aren’t actually pure enough. At the same time, untold numbers of comic book nerds predictably went into meltdown over the fact that a socially engaged juggernaut like Joker had been overshadowed by a subtitled arthouse hit that wasn’t even in English.
This flurry of debate is typical for any Oscar winner that wasn’t a foregone conclusion. But Parasite is not just historic in the fact that it’s the first-ever Best Picture winner that isn’t in English. It’s also the first big Oscar winner that has been generally perceived as emphatically anticapitalist. For whatever way one reads the film, the discussions have all raised the same set of questions: What, exactly, is capitalism, and what is it doing to us? Can a feature film — itself both a work of art and a capitalist commodity — be considered legitimately anticapitalist? Is Parasite really an indictment of capitalism, or merely a critique of wealth? And perhaps most crucially, how did Bong Joon-ho manage to express this idea without overt moralizing or didacticism?
I’ll start with the first question, about the nature of capitalism and the ways in which Hollywood films have floundered so badly in their half-hearted attempts to critique it, before turning to Bong Joon-ho’s science fiction films, which show a surprisingly methodical dedication to the development of anticapitalist allegories that all revolve around the different facets of love in the time of capitalism.
Narratives that appear to be critical of capitalism aren’t new to Hollywood. Indeed, a certain hostility toward the obscenely wealthy has been an enduring component of modern bourgeois culture. Examples of enduringly popular stories that express such sentiments abound, from the miserly Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life to Trump-era capitalist overlords like President Business in The LEGO Movie and Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road. As Mark Fisher famously pointed out, capitalist realism is more than just the neoliberal TINA mantra, repeating to us over and over again that There Is No Alternative to capitalism; it also includes an ironic self-awareness that demonstrates both an understanding of our world’s fundamental wrongness and a stubborn refusal to stop participating in its reproduction.
But are these bourgeois stories about evil capitalists actually anticapitalist? Or do they merely provide comforting scenarios that place the blame for systemic injustice on individuals who (perhaps inevitably) take advantage of the system’s weaknesses? Edward Said made the case decades ago that, irrespective of its agenda, the novel as a form reproduced the inner logic of the capitalist system. After all, neatly structured and self-contained narrative worlds populated by characters competing with each other to achieve their individual goals are always already cultural expressions of capitalism’s social organization. Therefore, even seemingly critical films like The Wolf of Wall Street, which invests so much energy in mansplaining to its audience how deregulation unleashed hugely destructive economic practices, cannot really escape the gravitational pull of capitalism’s cultural logic and therefore almost inevitably ends up promoting the values it seeks to condemn.
Nevertheless, there is a notable difference between narratives that are focused on individual characters’ moral choices and narratives that foreground capitalism as a system of social relations. To illustrate by way of example: John Carpenter’s They Live is one of the most frequently cited anticapitalist films, offering a disarming science fiction fable in which capitalists are evil aliens in disguise. But as helpful as this thoroughly disarming allegory is for Žižek-splaining ideology or teaching undergrads a basic understanding of class struggle, it falls into the same Hollywood trap of personifying this struggle as one of “good” human workers against “bad” alien capitalists.
Bong Joon-ho’s science fiction films travel a remarkably different road. The Host (2006), Snowpiercer (2013), and Okja (2017) each use similar tropes to express more fully what Marx said about capitalist society, which “does not consist of individuals, but expresses […] the relations within which these individuals stand.” Or, to put it even more simply: capitalism can’t be found in the individual but in the social relations that shape us. Therefore, even seemingly anticapitalist narratives that reproduce this focus on the individual ironically end up reproducing its most basic cultural logic. Bong’s SF films paved the way to Parasite by combining an examination of capitalism’s system of social power with the political potential of love.
Snowpiercer is the clearest example in Bong’s filmography: the film maps out class relations as a system that organizes them physically by separating them out across a train carrying the remnants of humanity through Earth’s post–climate catastrophe wasteland. The film depicts a revolutionary moment aboard the train, as rebels from the tail end fight their way toward the front in a desperate attempt to take control of the engine. Moving forward through all the train’s compartments, Snowpiercer unsubtly but effectively sketches capitalism’s class divisions, from the disposable working poor to the complacent middle class to the ruling elite and its small army of enforcers and intermediaries.
But as effective as this emphasis on class relations already is, the film’s masterstroke only occurs in the last act, as working-class rebel Curtis — played, in a brilliant casting coup, by Chris “Captain America” Evans — finally comes face-to-face with Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s billionaire overlord. As Wilford patiently explains, Curtis’s successful ascent has merely marked him as a worthy successor to take over control of the engine. A new figure may take over control, but the train cannot deviate from its endlessly-repeating tracks, a gleefully literal embodiment of capitalism’s self-fulfilling lack of alternatives. Or, as the Thatcher-like propaganda mouthpiece Mason (Tilda Swinton) proclaims: “All things flow from the sacred engine: all things in their […] preordained position.”
Fully realizing his own moral compromises, Curtis is tempted to take over. But then, rather than reproducing a cruel and dehumanizing social system, his uncompromising love for his companions makes him realize that the train itself must be abandoned in order to create new possibilities for social organization. So while some have argued that the wholesale destruction of the train and (presumably) most of its inhabitants constitutes little more than a cruel joke, the film’s allegorical organization clearly proclaims that the only remotely desirable future must be opened up by the dissolution of capitalism’s “sacred engine” and its unchanging system of social hierarchies — and that the only way to reach this conclusion is through the radical love and solidarity that he feels for his comrades.
Bong’s modern classic The Host performs a similar bait-and-switch with the monster movie. For its genre-defining predecessor Jaws, critics and theorists have offered an endless list of interpretations of what the monstrous shark symbolizes, ranging from ideologies of gender to deindustrialization to climate change. And while any given reading certainly seems plausible enough, the genre’s most basic mechanism remains the personification of problems that are themselves the product of a larger social organization. The Host understands this and translates it effectively to familiar fantastic genre conventions.
For while the film’s oddly endearing monster certainly poses a lethal threat, the script goes to great lengths to emphasize how this overgrown newt is a symptom rather than a cause. Like the similarly themed climate change thriller Crawl (2019, directed by Alexandre Aja), the truly monstrous presence isn’t the creature itself but the social system that is responsible for its creation and that constantly worsens the conditions for the films’ protagonists. And as in every other Bong Joon-ho feature, those protagonists are explicitly working-class nobodies, lacking both the ambition and the means for upward social mobility.
It speaks volumes that the film’s most horrifying scenes aren’t those of the creature attacking helpless humans: they are almost without exception moments where the hapless Park Gang-du (Bong muse Song Kang-ho) and his loved ones are treated like verminous carriers of infectious disease by a system designed above all to protect its own structures of power and privilege. Not only is the creature itself presented as the quite literal product of American capitalism’s militaristic neocolonialism, but its emergence also triggers a crisis that quickly reveals the deeper fissures in late capitalism’s social organization. These fissures are revealed most effectively in the tension between the enormous love that binds the Park family together so strongly yet is unable to prevent its destruction by the grinding wheels of an uncaring system. So when Park finally destroys the creature, we realize full well that he has killed the wrong monster.
This logic is extended and cleverly reversed in Bong’s most recent SF film Okja, in which the monster isn’t predator but prey. The eponymous creature — a genetically engineered mutant breed of gargantuan “super-pig” — is the crown jewel in a duplicitous campaign to profit from the global meat crisis. The diabolical Mirando Corporation sees Okja and devoted farm girl Mija (Ahn Seo-yun) as a way to rebrand itself as an ethical and sustainable business, embracing “green capitalism” as a way to get rid of the earlier era’s bad aftertaste.
Tilda Swinton chillingly appears — again! — as the twin sisters who represent the Janus-faced god of ethical consumerism, one seeking new ways to profit from sustainable development while the other does away with all subterfuge and nakedly expounds capitalism’s hard logic of endless accumulation. While this ingenious Swinton-doubling tells us in so many words that there is no real difference between the destructive old ways and the sustainability myth offered by green capitalism, the plot is driven once again not by characters’ individual desires but by a social system that must by definition reduce all living beings to sellable commodities. The girl and her super-pig therefore soon become the focus of a political battle being waged between a company that claims the creature as its rightful property and the Animal Liberation Front, the ecoterrorist group represented in the film as a blundering band of half-witted young idealists.
But while the film’s satirical thrust is once again directed outward, the deep love between Mija and Okja gives the film meaning and life beyond its clownish takedown of capitalist contradictions. Its deep emotional resonance is driven by Bong’s absolute dedication to an understanding of love as something that extends beyond the family, beyond the group of comrades, even beyond the human species. Indeed, the radicality of love lies very precisely in Mija’s inability to see Okja as an object for consumption, ownership, or capitalist accumulation. Her defiance of capitalism’s fundamental objective of turning everything into a purchasable commodity is ultimately what gives Okja its most potent anticapitalist edge.
This, of course, brings us back to Parasite, where so many of these lines from Bong’s earlier anticapitalist allegories converge. As in Snowpiercer, invisible class divisions are translated into clear physical distinctions, with the train’s front-to-back horizontal organization flipped around to form an upstairs/downstairs vertical hierarchy. At the same time, the Kims’ final fantasy of taking over the Park mansion reproduces capitalism’s musical-chairs logic, where it doesn’t matter which individual is on top as long as the system’s organization remains unchanged. On that point, the rich Park family in Parasite is clearly as clueless and weirdly innocent as the monster in The Host. They, too, act like monsters because that’s how they’ve been programmed to act, and their inability to see their servants as full human beings stems not from their inner nature but from the social system that produced them. And, as in Okja, the lethal conflict that emerges among the characters is simply the effect of capitalism’s most basic logic of objectification. Even those who share the same fate are forced to compete with each other so desperately that they lose the ability to recognize their shared humanity.
As in Bong’s earlier films, the transformative potential as well as the limitations of love in the time of capitalism animate Parasite more than anything else. The palpable love that binds both families together has made the movie emotionally relatable to audiences around the world, while at the same time instructing us on the limitations it imposes. For just as capitalism’s class boundaries prevent the Kims and Parks from seeing each other as fully human, they also prove unable to extend love or even compassion to the housekeeper and her husband, with whom they have so much in common. Like the creature in The Host, they see in them a monstrous Other that must be vanquished to safeguard their own unit. The deep tragedy that Parasite makes us feel is that radical love is almost impossibly hard in the time of capitalism — but that it’s also the only thing that will save us.