Parasite: deciphering the real con

Rahul Vaidya

tried to express a sentiment specific to Korean culture, but all the responses
from different audiences were pretty much the same. Essentially, we all live in
the same country, called capitalism’.

Director Bong Joon Ho on his Oscar winning
film ‘Parasite’

criticism of Oscars as celebration of predominantly white,
male and extremely cloistered notions ‘what constitutes good art’ has been
growing over the years. And despite the furor over #oscarssowhite and #metoo as
well as issues of gender pay gaps etc., the attempts by Hollywood and western
art world to address the questions of race and gender have been few and far
between. Given the long list of nominations for films either celebrating the
lost glory of the West (Once upon a time in Hollywood, Ford vs. Ferrari)
or melancholy nostalgia of a world long lost or under siege and beyond repair (The
Irishman, 1917
); little seemed to have changed.

then something historic happened at Oscars this year. Director Bong Joon Ho’s
Korean film ‘Parasite’ not just won the Best International Film as was
expected; but also ended up with Best Picture, Best Director, Best original
screenplay awards. Its win as Best Picture is quite historic in that no
‘foreign film’ had ever won Best Picture award so far. First Cannes, Golden
Globes and then Oscars have all provided their canonical approval for
‘Parasite’. As much as it is novel for an international (and non-European at
that) film to achieve such laurels, it is also quite extraordinary for a film
that is entirely about class and class struggle to achieve the mainstream
critical approval. What is it that sets ‘Parasite’ apart in terms of its
politics as well as aesthetics and also ensures such wide approval of audience
and critics alike worldwide? I would like to put forth few points in this

briefly about the story: in Parasite, an impoverished, working-class Seoul
family called the Kims infiltrates the world of the rich through a series of
ingenious cons.  Keeping their family
ties a secret, their new jobs lift the Kims out of their seemingly inescapable
poverty in a few short weeks. Their transition from their precarious existence
on the margins fighting poverty and contractual labor of packing pizza boxes
for piece-wages after several failed attempts in informal gig economy is so
sudden and drastic that it seems and feels surreal, ‘too good to be true’. The
mobility that class structures offer vis-à-vis other systems of social
oppression such as race, caste is touted as a great advance; what is clear is
this mobility is possible not through or because of the functioning ‘system’
but through ways and means of bypassing or conning it. And increasingly so has
been the case in the age of neo-liberalism with inequality at its peak.

dark comedy unfolds in a slow-burn fashion. 
It is never in question if the con is going to be exposed at all; it is
the question of when and how this fantasy of ‘making it big’ is going to come
apart. And it does- in a daringly dark manner that ensures every viewer is
unsettled and filled with unease for their ‘unconscious’ (the ideological blind
spot) having been called out as sympathy for property and propertied.

inhabitance of completely different worlds by different classes is depicted in
great detail in ‘Parasite’. The Kims embody the plight of the South Korean
working class. They live crammed together in a dingy semi-basement apartment in
Seoul, where every night they are subjected to drunks urinating on the street
next to their kitchen window. Their life stands in stark contrast to the
wealthy Parks, who enjoy the rare privilege of owning a luxurious, gated-off
home with a spacious and landscaped front yard (practically unheard of in the
dense cities of South Korea). The stark contrast in the world of rich and poor
is not portrayed rhetorically or in abstract; but through detailed depiction of
the spaces they inhabit and their sense of what is ‘natural’ ultimately shaped
by the class. The constant tension and contradiction between these worlds
reaches its peak when Kims miraculously escape from Park residence after
locking down the former housekeeper woman and her husband (who has been living
underground Park residence in hiding) in the basement and covering their tracks
at great peril. It is raining heavily and Park family has had to prepone their
return from their outdoor camp. For the Parks, the rain offers another episode
of enjoying the ‘nature’, as they can witness their son camping safely in the
lawn in a tent ‘imported from US’ so that it ‘must be waterproof’ while also
celebrating the clean air as ‘all the pollution being washed away by rain’ and
then deciding to throw a sudden ‘birthday preview’ party. In sharp contrast,
the Kims who are running away in the rain reach their home, only to discover
their house submerged along with the rest of the slum area. Everything precious
they had held onto has been washed away. They have taken refuge in the local
gym. They are waiting for flood relief work for their next meal and clothes
when Parks call for their presence at the party as well as for their help and
assure them that they will be ‘paid extra’ for this.

other interesting and critical part of the narrative is the ‘smell’. The Park
family’s son innocuously calls out the con of Kim family when he declares all
four workers in the house who are supposedly strangers ‘they all smell the
same’. Completely shaken and panic-stricken, the Kim family tries to reason among
themselves that ‘this must be because of the same soap’ and tries to use
different soaps but to no avail. The smell is clearly the smell of poverty-
living in dingy household where cooking and other smells become parts of the
persona. It is also telling that ‘to make it’, the capitalist system places
demands on the workers ‘to not be like workers’- not to look like a worker, not
to think like worker i.e. to become a cog in the machine without working class
politics or even visible markers of working class even. It is clear that this
is not very different in inspiration and aspiration from demands of caste
system in modern times or social conservatives who are obsessed with ensuring
not just the power relations in workplace, society, and politics remain firmly
in favor of the privileged but also the visual appearance and also overall
‘being’ of spaces also takes the shape of the aesthetic notions of the
powerful. The furor over food, clothing, music and culture at large epitomizes
this cultural hegemony and its constant need to resort to repressive state/
civil society apparatuses of late. (Not only in India but also worldwide) These
are the kinds of obsessive demands that Park family head and successful
businessman constantly expresses: ‘Mr. Ki-taek (Kim) constantly seems to cross
the boundary line (that the employee should follow) but never really crosses
it. However, his smell does cross it’. Also, the reason why he is enraged and
ultimately fires his previous driver is ‘because why did he need to do it (sexual
intercourse) in his employer’s car; and worse, why in the backseat-by doing
that, he certainly crossed the line’. 
However, there is a curious aspect of role play of ‘poverty’ also
involved when he tells his wife to wear cheap underclothes like the one he
found in the car that he believed to belong to girlfriend of former driver; so
that ‘it will turn him on’. This aspect is very much familiar historically in
India through various caste based institutions like devdasi or tamasha- lavani
which have celebrated the art and female bodies pertaining to lower castes and
savarna men happily indulged in to quench their fantasies; however this didn’t
lend any social mobility or respect to the profession, bodies or castes of
these artistes. It seems like the touch can occur only one way- only the
dominant can freely touch the untouchable working people for their pleasures or
for beating. The poor are obligated to even hide their ‘smell’.

celebration of ‘work ethic’ is an important aspect of ‘Capitalism with Asian
characteristics’ as Zizek called it. This work ethic is to approach the work
and workplace without any questions in the hope of ‘making it big’ in fair
manner. This work ethic is direct result of lack of stable, formal employment.
Celebration of self-employment, entrepreneurship is a major part of this. It is
obvious that only a handful will make it. But it is absolutely necessary that
everyone accepts this wholeheartedly. The story of former housekeeper for
Clarks is telling. Her husband fell for loan sharks as he borrowed money to
open cake shop and his venture failed. He literally had to go underground, in
Park’s residence unknown to them to save him from loan sharks. He doesn’t
consider this as anything extraordinary, but reasons that many poor Koreans
continue to do so. What is telling is the manner in which the logic of late
capitalism is internalized by working class. He is in hiding, in abject poverty
and living on food that his wife used to steal from Park household. Yet, he
thanks the Parks every night for feeding him and providing cover to reside by
sending message through his basement lighting system on Morse code and
constantly demands Kims to respect Mr. Park. It is this internalization of
logic of capitalism that prevents Kim family to forge solidarity with the
former housekeeper and her husband or vice versa.

brings us to the concluding part of the film which has been quite confounding
and complex. At the birthday preview party, former housekeeper’s husband
emerges from the basement in a mentally deranged state where he goes on killing
the members of Kim family when he is killed by Chung-sook (Ki-taek’s wife). When
Mr. Kim is despairing the killing of his daughter, Mr. Park’s son suffers
trauma induced seizure. So Mr. Park orders Ki-taek to take him to hospital.
When Ki-taek sees the disgust in Mr. Park’s face even at that moment at the way
Ki-taek smells; he goes on to kill Mr. Park and then vanishes. His son and wife
are charged with fraud and are out on probation. His son discovers that Ki-taek
has taken refuge in the same Park house basement through Morse code
communication via lights system. This time though, his son fantasizes about
rescuing Ki-taek not through some other trick, but to become rich first, then
buy that very house and then Ki-taek can emerge from the basement without any
fear. As much as it seems hopelessly romantic and ill-fated and impossible to
attain; this dream tells us a lot about the paradox that working people and the
Left worldwide find themselves in. It is not the revolutionary overthrow of the
state, but legal manner of parliamentary victories is the only viable
alternative; but even that remains increasingly beyond reach. Hence, both
working people as well as the Left remain condemned to the underground-
suffering double oppression of non-recognition of work as well as
excess-recognition as criminals when their only crime is their struggle for
real justice.
It is
quite possible to read this film entirely as sharp social satire, tragic-comic
tale which highlights the income inequality in South Korea which leads people
to lead a parasitic existence at the mercy of the rich. In fact, most of the
praise in the mainstream has revolved around this theme only. However, the real
question is who really the parasite is. At the
outset it is the Kim family or many other families residing underground;
conning their way up. This is the way fantasies have been shaped up all across
the world. The rage over Arushi murder case in Delhi over past many years is a
telling example. The sight of working people, their habits, and households have
been subjects of horror upon which many cultural productions are based (Batman
et. all). The pristine abode of bourgeoisie family household and its corruption
through encounter of the outside world is at the very core of the fantasy of
our capitalist world. However, this fantasy is an ideological inversion to
distort the reality. The reality is the very luxury and comfort of the
bourgeoisie is based on the toil of the working people who are doubly deceived-
first to accept the unfair terms of labor contract where their unpaid labor is
appropriated by the bourgeoisie to build their wealth; and secondly to view
themselves as ‘guilty’ and ‘parasites’ for ‘conning’ and trying to outwit the
system’. In this sense, the bourgeoisie are the real parasites who suck the
working people dry- economically as well as emotionally. It is this big lie
that was so succinctly called out by Brecht when he said- ‘what is robbing of a
bank compared to founding one’.  Bong
Joon Ho’s cinema aptly captures this ethos and richly deserves all the awards,
accolades and the celebration.    

The author is Independent Researcher based in New Delhi