By: Natalie Leonard
Parasite, the newest movie by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho, swept the Academy Awards winning four categories—best director, best original screenplay, best foreign film, and best picture. This begs the question: why did no individual actor in the movie receive an award, let alone a nomination?
One immediate answer is the unavoidable distance between a foreign-language movie and its American audience. Undoubtedly, some of the foreign actors’ intentions are lost in translation, body language is misinterpreted, jokes are lost. But it’s clear that the actors in Parasite (especially Song Kang-ho and Jang Hye-jin) are experts at their crafts. I think something else is at work.
Parasite’s story is about a family at war—the Kim family is unemployed and desperate. When the son, Kim Ki-woo, finds an in with a rich family as their daughter’s English tutor, the Kims quickly oust the house maid, driver, and art teacher, installing themselves in their stead. The contrast between the rich family who employs them, the Park family, and the poor Kim family grounds a critique of a South Korea that is plagued with extreme inequality. The Park family lives in an exquisite house while the Kim family lives in an underground apartment; the Parks enjoy garden parties and vacations, while the Kim family gathers to fold boxes for starvation wages. But the critique’s real object is not the Park family but the system that creates inequality—capitalism—and its propensity to dehumanize the poor, distance the rich, and degrade social relationships both within and across classes.
However, as a black comedy that focuses on poverty, income inequality, and the drudgery of capitalism, Parasite inverts two of the typical tropes. Standard, sentimental critiques of capitalism portray the poor as pitiable and the rich as cunning and greedy to motivate an emotional and ethical reaction. Instead, the Kims are calculating, manipulative, and by all accounts the smarter family. The Parks, for all their wealth, are not avaricious and mean but rather superficially kind, stupid, and easily taken advantage of. Immediately, Parasite disposes of a standard “character” critique that goes: the poor are morally worthy but mistreated by the evil rich, who need to be stopped.
Throughout the movie, questions of character are entirely peripheral. We watch an unemployed family in action—each moment of deliberation is practical, not moral. Bong Joon-Ho’s camera does not linger often on the psychology of any one character, and there are rather few emotional displays. We do not, that is, go behind the mask of either family to see their inner psychological workings. The audience isn’t asked to question the character of either family—if one wanted to, one would probably find the poor Kims to be morally lacking. Kim Chung-sook, the mother, agrees: “If I had all this [all the Parks have] I would be kinder.”
The absence of a moral critique, I believe, is precisely the point. Parasite shows us capitalism as it presents itself: a system of production that exploits its laborers. Evidence of the crimes of capitalism are not borne psychologically but materially—the Kims do not experience capitalism through trauma and emotional pain but rather through physical violence, material destruction, and ultimately death. Bong Joon-Ho presents people as capitalism views people—as capital, that can be discarded or destroyed entirely. The Parks are not portrayed as bad people and the Kims are not portrayed as good people. For within capitalism, neither are people.
Parasite focuses on the surface: the raw facts of poverty, animal-like desperation, and bodily pain. And there is reason to focus on the surface. In thinking too much on an individual’s morality and subjective outlook, the superficial layer is obfuscated. Every individual person within capitalism is morally complex and psychologically interesting—because people are moral and complex. Capitalism, as a system of exploitation, cares not for the moral complexity of the bodies it manipulates, directs, and uses up. And insofar as we all “live in the same country now: that of capitalism,” wouldn’t it be useful to see things through capitalism’s eyes? Maybe in that position, the critique is obvious.