Punching Down: On Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”




PARASITE, BONG JOON-HO’S LATEST movie, joins recent films such as I, Daniel Blake, Shoplifters, and Burning in its attempt to dramatize the wealth gap. The parasites in question are a family of four who insinuate their way into an affluent family’s mansion as English tutor, art therapist, driver, and housekeeper, a scheme that requires ousting those already in the positions. Bong not only has the family variously crawling, slithering, and scuttling around on all fours or on stomachs; three of the family members — Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and Ki-jung (Park So-dam) — share the first syllable of their names with Gisaengchung, or parasite in Korean. Bong has told interviewers that he aimed to realistically portray class relations by undoing the melodramatic formula that pits the righteous poor against the horrible rich. He has always been a clever director, and Parasite succeeds as an experiment in generic novelty, in disrupting as many expectations as possible under limited spatial and temporal conditions — but does it have anything original to say about class?

Perhaps because South Korea developed so hastily in the postwar decades, conversations about class and money have been in the national bloodstream for generations. The country’s mass culture is defined, on the one hand, by graphic violence, and on the other by the pure delight it takes in contrasting wealth and poverty. Though Bong sets his work against television dramas (which most frequently narrate a protagonist’s passage from one class to another), filmmakers, too, trade in class stereotypes. Recent Korean film history confirms Pauline Kael’s observation that “[m]ovies indicate what the producers thought people would pay to see” and are therefore “almost always on the side of the mistreated, the socially despised.” [1] The gangster comedies that spawned seemingly interminable sequels in the early 2000s depicted a gore precariat, uneducated and uncouth but appealing in their humor and pre-modern loyalty to one another (see, for example, the My Wife Is a Gangster franchise, the Marrying the Mafia franchise, and My Boss, My Hero, which led to My Boss, My Teacher). Following the decade of gangster comedies were cop and prosecutor blockbusters that specialized in delivering cinematic justice to corporate scions who, outside of movie theaters, remained untouchable. An oft-quoted line from Veteran — “We don’t have money, but we do have style” — affirms the target demographic of these films.

Rejecting wish-fulfillments in which the disenfranchised stylishly triumph over plutocrats, Parasite delivers uncensored class contempt. Bong’s claim that the title was meant ironically is a cop-out: ironically or not, Parasite unambiguously equates the poor with pests. CGI insects trail the Kims everywhere, and Gi-taek (Song Kang-ho) traipses around looking convincingly arthropod in his spinal stoop. More subtly, Parasite implies throughout that the Parks are at the top and the Kims at the bottom of the social ladder for good reason. Owen Jones, writing in the British context, has argued that the contemporary demonization of the working class “serves a useful purpose in a divided society like our own, because it promotes the idea that inequality is rational. […] Those at the bottom are supposedly there because they are stupid, lazy, or otherwise morally questionable.” [2] The early sequence in which the Kim family fumbles over pizza boxes and demands full payment for their slovenly half-efforts explains, efficiently, why this family belongs to a dilapidated semi-basement. Parasite may not automatically equate poverty with moral superiority, as so many lazy films do, but it taps into to an older literary tradition that, as Orwell noted in an essay on Dickens, deploys the poor “as objects of pity or as comic relief.” [3]

Rather than idealizing the poor, then, Parasite patronizes them. Song Kang-ho, who appears in almost every Bong movie (and seemingly every major Korean movie these days), performs a 21st-century Ah Q, spinning spiritual victories out of humiliations. When the Park boy almost blows the Kim family’s cover wondering out loud why the driver, housekeeper, and art therapist smell the same, Ki-jung complains bitterly that changing their detergent will not help because they reek of the basement. Ki-taek, as always, responds with a kind of willful insouciance, assuring his daughter that there are worse problems to have. This complacency, as it will turn out, is not limited to Ki-taek; the poor are comfortable in their destitution, occasionally piqued into impulsive outbursts but quick to feel remorse. Like the stink of poverty, defeatism and sycophantism run too deep to be washed out.

Slaphappy around the rich, the film’s working-class characters are brutal to one another. In one of the film’s most impeccably choreographed set pieces, Bong lays luxurious scores over fist-fights among servants old and new, demonstrating that, like Nabokov, his true specialty lies in elegant presentations of heinous content. Political or ethical critique may seem central to Bong’s career: Snowpiercer took on class and imperialism, Okja animal rights. Bong’s greatest strength as a director, though, is his ability to orchestrate scenes that justify themselves with their stand-alone beauty and humor, and political context, in fact, more often functions as a pretext for wacky formal fun. One sequence splices a scene of Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) winding noodles around her chopsticks with a scene of a poor man violently winding tape around another bleeding poor man. It’s difficult to tell whether this refusal to sentimentalize, this willingness to laugh at abjection, signals a form of respect or disguised snobbery; it probably wants to be the former but will feel to many like the latter.

Parasite is more instructive on how the rich feel about the poor than the poor about the rich. The Parks do not hate the Kims; vaguely inhuman and unclean, the poor are objects of toleration and occasionally charity. Hence it becomes possible for the poor to think, as the Kims vocally do, that the rich are “simple” and “kind” compared to themselves (a claim without basis in studies of wealth and empathy). Viewed cynically, it is no surprise that the jury at Cannes adored Parasite, found it refreshing: an Asian director from a country somewhere safely between the third and first worlds at once derides liberal discourses of tolerance and intimates that social hierarchies express, to a significant extent, difference in character and ability. (The 2018 Palme d’Or, by the way, went to Shoplifters, that other Asian film about a feckless and impoverished family who make bad plans or no plans.)

The Korean film that Cannes didn’t love quite as much last year is Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, which, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, tackled the subject of wealth inequality with commensurate finesse and ferocity. Burning demonstrates that it’s possible to make a film about the working class without idealizing or condescending to them. There, too, a manual laborer (Jong-su, played by Yoo Ah-in) finds himself in the luxury apartment of a Porsche-driving Gatsby-type (Ben, played by Steven Yeun). Suspecting that Ben has killed his friend Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), Jong-su stalks Ben into a swanky art gallery and stands enthralled by a painting depicting people melting in flames. The piece reproduces a scene from the 2009 Yongsan tragedy: during a police crackdown on small business owners who refused to evict in compliance with an urban regeneration initiative, a fire broke out, killing five protestors and one police officer. The scene barely lasts a few seconds, yet it notes how quickly and easily the tragedies of the poor become decorative objects for the rich. What does Jong-su think, how does he feel, staring at an artwork that transmutes class tragedy into a gorgeous shock of color? Lee doesn’t tell; we never get to see Jong-su’s face, since the camera stays behind Jong-su, as it to share his astonishment (and perhaps rage). At the very least, Burning submits that the suffering of the disempowered is not a subject to be treated lightly; it worries whether the film is not doing something similar, making an attractive spectacle — or entertainment — out of a young man’s paralytic despair.

Parasite is exhilarating precisely because it is unfettered by such self-awareness, because it refuses so-called political correctness and snipes indiscriminately at the hypocrisy of the rich and the stupid placidity of the poor. It’s a good thing that Korea’s most talented and ambitious filmmakers have been willing to embrace the combustible subject of wealth disparity, and not all films have to be self-critical. Yet Bong does not consider, or simply does not care about, how someone who lives in a semi-basement, for instance, might respond to the representations of the poor (and not just one family) as shambolic, groveling free-riders. It’s easy to hide behind claims to irony, but Parasite finally lends support to the basic supposition, which is the supposition of the Parks, that over the decades of hasty capitalism, classes have evolved into discrete species that cannot integrate, cannot change even after a violent eruption. The comic shots taken at the already marginalized make Parasite original; they also make it cheap. The scenes of people literally punching down others, of which there are several, encapsulate what this carefully plotted thriller ends up doing without care.

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Seo Hee Im is assistant professor of English at Hanyang University. Her work has appeared in MLQ, Novel, Public Books, and the Guardian.

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[1] Pauline Kael, The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, Ed. Sanford Schwartz, (The Library of America, 2011), 140.  

[2] Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (Verso, 2011), xiii.

[3] George Orwell, A Collection of Essays (Harbrace, 1953), 57: “[T]he ordinary town proletariat, the people who make the wheels go around, have always been ignored by novelists. When they do find their way between the corner of a book, it is nearly always as objects of pity or as comic relief.”


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