Back in 1982, a young Jeremy Irons starred in Moonlighting, a film about four Polish construction workers building a townhouse in London for their employer back in Warsaw. While the film was effusively praised by American critics, not only for Irons’s performance, but also for what they perceived as an anti-communist message, its director Jerzy Skolimowski saw Communist Poland and Thatcherite Britain as part of the same rotten system. He understood that workers are never more oppressed by capitalism than when they think they’re pulling off a good scam. When Novak, the immigrant electrician played by Irons, realizes that his boss didn’t give them enough money to buy food, he shoplifts, subsidizing the construction of his employer’s cheap London townhouse with ever more elaborate heists from a nearby supermarket.
Parasite is the Korean Moonlighting. While nominated for Best Picture and effusively praised by American critics, including Barack Obama, Parasite is a profoundly subversive, anti-capitalist film. Whether intentionally or not, director Bong Joon-ho has managed to slip a film with an underlying Marxist ideology past the American critical establishment. What’s more, unlike Moonlighting, which was a dour, low-budget art house film that never played outside of New York, LA, and maybe Ann Arbor and Cambridge, Parasite is an over the top black comedy in the tradition of Fargo and the Big Lebowski, a hilarious farce that will entertain even people who don’t agree with the director’s politics. Simply put, it’s a great piece of film making. It’s by far the best movie of 2019, so much better than 1917, Ford vs Ferrari, Little Women, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, or Joker it’s difficult to express.
Parasite opens in the “semi-basement” apartment of the working-class Kim family, a man and a woman, both in their forties, and their two kids, a teenage boy and girl, trying to pick up a free wireless signal from a local restaurant. Barely scraping by on a series of low wage, gig economy jobs, they can’t afford to pay their cell phone bills. Every time another host password protects their WiFi it means they get cut off from the outside world. Their fortunes take a turn for what initially seems to take a turn for the better when Min-hyuk, a friend of the family, gets Ki-woo, the son, a job tutoring Da-hye, the teenage daughter of the wealthy Park family, in English. While Ki-woo doesn’t have a college degree or any real qualifications for the job, we soon realize that faking the right credentials is part of the fun. Ki-jeong, the daughter, is not only a skilled forger, she and her brother manage to convince the Park family to hire her on as an “art therapist” for Da-song, the spoiled younger brother of Da-hye. Da-song, who a few years earlier had “seen a ghost,” is arrogant and domineering, and yet is also suffering from some kind of mysterious trauma, and Yeon-gyo, his mother, is willing to spend any amount of money to help him get better.
If Barack Obama and so many other ruling class American liberals are effusive in their praise of Parasite, it’s largely because rich American liberals, while benefiting from capitalism, really don’t understand class. While American conservatives rightfully see money and class privilege as violence, something you take by force, something you have to stockpile military grade weapons to preserve, American liberals are Calvinists. As though they were living in 17th Century Geneva, ruling class American liberals see money and power as a “manifestation of the grace of God,” as a reward for good morality. Thus, “good” people in the United States get to live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and send their kids to Harvard. “Bad” people are white trash, racists, homephobes and transphobes who probably live in some decaying hellhole of coal town in Appalachia and will, rightfully, die a premature death by opium addiction or a heart attack brought on by eating too much processed food. In Parasite, the wealthy Park family, Yeon-gyo the mother and Dong-ik, the father, aren’t evil so much as they are clueless, naive, and “privileged.” They benefit from an exploitive system they don’t entirely understand, or really want to understand. Rich American liberals, therefore, see themselves in Yeon-gyo and Park Dong-ik, as “good” people who are part of a system that while might be in need of some reform — like replacing Trump with Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren — isn’t necessarily destructive or evil
Bong Joon-ho has left the title of the film, Parasite, deliberately ambiguous. Who are the parasites in Parasite? The rich or the working class? The first half of Parasite almost lends itself to a libertarian, Ayn Randian analysis. The treacherous working class seem to be taking advantage of the innocent, naive rich. No sooner do Kim Ki-woo and Kim Ki-jeong establish comfortably establish themselves in the Park family’s magnificent suburban palace, a gorgeous, modernist house that looks as if it could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, then they conspire to get the chauffeur and the long serving, long suffering maid, fired. Soon the entire Kim family is working at the Park family home, keeping their relationship to each other from their employers, helping themselves to free food and free booze, dreaming about the day when they’ll move in for good. Indeed, until the “shocking twist” halfway through the film, I kept comparing Parasite to The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, the 1992 American movie that expresses, and largely justifies, the dread that wealthy Americans have of their servants.
Shocking twist or no shocking twist, however, we eventually notice that while Yeon-gyo and Park Dong-ik might be clueless and naive, under capitalism, they can’t really lose. They are clueless and naive because they get to be clueless and naive. It is in fact a form of privilege. Soon the Kim family realize that the jobs they so cleverly scammed their way into are a trap after all. Boundaries get erased. They are expected to come in on their days off. Duties are poorly defined, and thus open to being extended. Kim Ki-taek was hired on as a driver, but he’s also expected to help Yeon-gyo with the shopping. Chung-sook was hired as a housekeeper but she’s also expected to whip up elaborate gourmet meals on short notice. When Kim Ki-woo first realizes he can sleep with Da-hye, he initially feels like a stud, but then he realizes that being the rich girl’s plaything is as much a part of his job as being her tutor. Only Ki-jeong seems immune from being openly subjugated, and demeaned as little more than a slave, but that’s mainly because she managed to fake a college degree from a university in the United States.
What becomes clear, even before the twist, which I won’t describe to avoid spoiling the movie, is that the Park family have gotten the upper hand over the Kim family mainly because the Kim family have been brainwashed. The Kim family, like so many other working class people in Korea and in the United States, don’t see themselves as proletarians, but in the words of John Steinbeck, as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The Kim family don’t want to overthrow the system that has given the Park family great wealth and power at the cost of the misery of the Korean working class, they want to take their place. Even after a shockingly violent spasm of open class war, nothing really changes. Kim Ki-woo loses everything he has but his dreams. As the credits roll, he still wants to own the house. Only Kim Ki-taek, the father, really seems to learn anything. If you make plans, he tells his son, you lose. If you don’t make plans, nothing can go wrong. Ki-taek never really defines the important difference between “making plans” to scam your way into a the illusion of “success” under capitalism and “making plans” to destroy capitalism itself, but there’s no reason he should be expected to. He’s not Karl Marx, just an ordinary working class guy who’s realized the futility of it all.
Final Note: Parasite is also the first movie I’ve ever seen that expresses how cell phones and social media are used as weapons, not by the working class against the ruling class, but by workers against other workers.