So Parasite has won Best Picture at the Oscars. Certainly it is well-made (as discussed in these pages by Jo Ann Skousen). Director Bong Joon Ho knows how to make movies. But I can’t help thinking that what won it for him is its leftward political message. A similar message is what struck me about the other movie of Bong’s I saw, Snowpiercer, which I wrote about in Liberty back in January last year.
Unlike the post-apocalyptic science-fiction Snowpiercer, Parasite is set in today’s Seoul, Korea (Bong’s homeland). The story concerns two families. The Parks are rich and the Kims are poor. The “parasites” are — at least, on the surface — the Kims, who worm their way into the household staff of the Parks, displacing the other servants. In the course of a story that begins as social realism and ends as a surrealistic horror movie, the Kims become the parasites that consume their host.
Bong Joon Ho knows how to make movies. But I can’t help thinking that what won the Oscar for him is Parasite's leftward political message.
The movie is a story of how the class structure drives ordinary people to weird violence. This is supposed to be a deep criticism of modern capitalism — what the Left calls late capitalism. (Why “late”? Is this the capitalist End Times? Is there also a “late socialism”?) I’ve heard several viewers say Parasite is really not a dig at capitalism, because Bong has imagined the poor family, the Kims, as the parasites. They are dishonest, dissolute, and ultimately destructive. The Parks, thanks to their money, are “nice,” and nothing like the evil exploiters imagined by the Old Left.
That interpretation is overly generous, I think. Google “Parasite” and “capitalism” and see what you get. There is Bong Joon Ho saying at the Golden Globes ceremonies, “This film is about the rich and poor and about capitalism.” And Richard Brody saying in The New Yorker that Parasite is about “the injustice of inequality” and a system in which “the warped, the undeserving, and the incompetent . . . lord over a new generation of embittered and marginalized strugglers.” And Gabriella Paiella in GQ asserting that Parasite is “a taut thriller that vividly evokes the acute desperation of late capitalism, all wrapped in a layer of dark comedy.” And Nathaniel Bell of LA Weekly summing up the film as“Alfred Hitchcock by way of Karl Marx.”
And that’s the mainstream press. If you want the hardcore, try the Marxist LeftVoice.org, where Julia Wallace writes, “Parasite captures the inherently parasitic relationship between capitalists and the working class and imagines the headlong plunge that is coming when the working class will get fed up with creating things for the ruling class to take.”
Why “late”? Is this the capitalist End Times? Is there also a “late socialism”?
Are arts writers politically biased? Well, of 398 reviews of Parasite on RottenTomatoes five are unfavorable, and two of those argue that the movie’s anticapitalist message isn’t militant enough. One is Paddy Kehoe of RTE, Ireland’s version of NPR, who says, “It doesn’t point up a route . . . towards radical change.” The other is Rick Krisonak of Seven Days, a publication in Bernie Sanders’ hometown of Burlington, Vermont, who writes that Parasite “offers zero thoughtful comment on capitalism or inequality. It simply gives us poor characters gaming rich characters and assumes we'll side with the poor.”
I think that is Bong’s intention.
His main characters are the members of two families of four: husband, wife, boy, girl. The poor family, the Kims, are thoroughly Asian, working intelligently (if connivingly) as a family unit. The rich family, the Parks, are Westernized to the point of parody. Each soul is on its individual path, mostly lost, with the sheltered, smiling wife praising her son’s childish crayon drawings and wondering why he doesn’t obey his parents. The boy imagines himself an American Indian, prancing around the big, modernistic house, shooting toy arrows at the household staff. The mother’s idea for taming her boy is “art therapy.” The only overt bit of “class oppression” — which many of the critics noted — is the husband’s complaint that everyone in the poor family has a smell. George Orwell said the same in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).
Some of the details of Bong’s story make no sense at all. Kyle Smith of National Review, who may be the only right-winger in Rotten Tomatoes’ fawning herd, notes that the rich people in Parasite are never shown doing any work. The husband doesn’t drive the Mercedes-Benz and the wife doesn’t boil the water for noodles. They don’t really do anything. How did they become so rich? Bong doesn’t think we need to know. In Parasite, work is mostly bullshit, and only the poor do it.
The only overt bit of “class oppression” — which many of the critics noted — is the husband’s complaint that everyone in the poor family has a "smell."
At the outset, the Kims are making a bare living in their roach-ridden, urinated-on basement apartment by folding boxes for takeout pizza — and the employee from the pizza store berates them for messing up that simple task. But these are not the Joads. They are intelligent — school-smart and street-smart. They don’t have a full measure of morality, at least regarding the rich, but they have discipline. And when they try, they are successful. The poor-family daughter does a bangup job as an “art therapist,” instantly transforming the little wild Indian into an obedient boy. The National Review’s man asks how such a smart, disciplined, enterprising family came to be stuck at the bottom of the totem pole, folding pizza boxes: “In order to cock a snoot at supposed class injustice, artists like Bong have to fundamentally misrepresent what’s going on.”
That was my bellyache about Bong’s 2013 movie, Snowpiercer. If you’re going to criticize a system, show us what’s real. Others have done this with the world of household servants — most recently Alfonso Cuaron in Roma (2018), which recreates the home in Mexico City where he lived as a boy. That was real. Parasite is not.
The critics like that it’s not real. They praise it. A.O. Scott of the New York Times calls it “intensely metaphorical and devastatingly concrete.” (Got that?) Scott concludes, “Whether we know it or not, it’s Bong’s world we’re living in. Literally.”
Does the New York Times know what “literally” means?