‘Parasite’ joins the powerful wave of convention-breaking, capitalist critiques
It was the second distinct time I was lobbied to watch “BoJack Horseman.” This was a few days before I, more willingly, saw Bong Joon-ho’s (“Snowpiercer”) “Parasite.” I had given “BoJack” a chance once before, at another trusted friend’s lobbying, only to be turned off by how on-the-nose the show seemed to be. At the time, I preferred my social commentary to take more allegorical, thought-provoking forms, perhaps in the spirit of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” — a favorite from my adolescence.
Even though I pretended to work on homework while he queued the third episode of the sixth and final season of “BoJack,” it wasn’t long before I got sucked in. One scene in particular struck me, when one of the characters, Diane (Alison Brie, “GLOW”), interviewed the CEO of an increasingly powerful conglomerate, and he told her on the record that he murdered one of his employees. Diane and I responded with equal shock at first, only for the CEO to clarify that the U.S. House of Representatives just approved a bill legalizing murder for billionaires. She and I both gradually resigned, too, to the CEO’s explanations of how this could be possible. “Really, Diane?” he asked, each time she offered another check or balance that might oppose the passing of this seemingly absurd, but also depressingly not-so-absurd measure. By the final “Really?” I wondered: Is that really so far-fetched, in this country?
Afterward, I asked my friend to explain what he liked about the show, offering my initial ambivalence in response to its directness. He said that that was actually the part of the show he appreciated most — its willingness to spell out the things we’re too scared to admit could happen or are happening in the world — which I now realize is what this standout scene delivered.
A week later, as I tried to process Bong’s latest feature, I kept revisiting that scene and conversation about the appeal of a show like “BoJack Horseman.” “Parasite” makes a similar appeal in the way it juggles reality and realism. And so do a number of films from recent years — to the extent that they seem to constitute a new wave of contemporary cinema. This wave — consisting of films like Bong’s, as well as the work of directors like Hirokazu Kore-eda and Boots Riley — is tidal. It disorients us, destabilizes the forces (often insidious) that give structure to our lives, prevents us from taking the air we breath for granted. And it’s what we need to reckon with the extremes of capitalism in this day and age.
“Parasite” starts with a scenario for which the title prepares us. The four members of the Kim family — the father and mother, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, “A Taxi Driver”) and Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and their young adult children, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik, “Train to Busan”) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam, “Ode to the Goose”) — are living in poverty and struggling to find work. At his friend’s suggestion, Ki-woo finds employment by forging a college degree and assuming a position as a private tutor for the wealthy Park family’s young daughter Da-hye (Jung Ziso, “Daughter”). The rest of the Kims then conspire to get employed by the Park family — either getting the Parks’ servants fired, or convincing the Parks they need additional staff, like an art therapist for their son — and do so successfully for some time.
But to say “Parasite” is about a poor family’s infiltration of a rich family’s domestic labor force is like saying, for instance, Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” is about telemarketing. Both of these capitalist critiques resist the chokehold of synopsis, and are better described in terms of the range of social issues they fearlessly depict and deconstruct. In Riley’s film, this ranges from union organizing to racial discrimination, from violence in the media to corporate violations against human rights. Bong juggles a range of issues as well — the widening gap between rich and poor, class consciousness (or the lack thereof), environmental catastrophe — but all through the lens of class relations. And as these lists may imply, a characteristic of this new wave of films is intersectionality: awareness of how the seemingly incidental are interrelated, of how forms of marginalization converge, by no accident, on the same targets.
While that may sound like a recipe for allegory (how better to balance many competing conflicts than to metaphorize, to branch out to both figurative and literal terrain?), directors like Bong resist clearly signaling what we’re supposed to take as realism versus what is metaphorical. On the one hand, that makes for a troubling viewer experience. One sequence in particular comes to mind: when the Kim family thinks they have the Park mansion all to themselves while the Parks are out of town. While they luxuriate in the Parks’ food and drink, Chung-sook makes a dark joke, that in spite of the power they feel themselves to possess in that moment, the four of them would scatter like cockroaches if they were caught. It’s hard to know what to make of the next scene, then, that disturbingly fulfills her prediction, as the Parks come back home unexpectedly and the Kims crawl under and out from tables in order to escape unnoticed.
But maybe we shouldn’t know what to do with these complexities that Bong juggles, especially the absurdity of living in the extremes of capitalism. “It’s so metaphorical!” Ki-woo memorably exclaims on three separate occasions in the film. It’s hard not to read that as a direct challenge from Bong: Don’t we want to relegate these things to metaphor, when perhaps that’s a coping mechanism? When perhaps we’d do well to accept that we’ve created the conditions for what would seem impossible to be all too possible?
As the cockroach sequence probably suggests, dark humor is the prevalent mood in Bong’s work. “Sorry to Bother You” has a similar register (as does “BoJack Horseman”). Instead of feeling inappropriate or tone deaf, it’s often refreshing. The realities these creatives are confronting are tough to swallow, and they recognize that. Instead of softening the blow, they let their audience struggle with them, choke on them. That is not to say, however, that these films preclude emotional sensitivity altogether; rather, these directors wield emotion more carefully (and perhaps, in turn, less manipulatively). Select scenes from “Parasite” point to these more selective, but subsequently more impactful, emotional displays. I’m thinking of the withering look on Ki-taek’s face every time he overhears Mr. Park expressing revulsion to the scent of poor people or recognized the scent on himself. But the prime example here may be the work of another filmmaker: Hirokazu Kore-eda, the director of 2018’s “Shoplifters.” The extraordinary aspect of this film is not how little the forces of capitalism and the widening wealth gap has left the non-biological family at the center of this film, or the life of shoplifting they must sustain in order to sustain themselves. Rather, it is the love and care they show one another, if not show one another more frequently and authentically, with the forced realization that all other forces of society have left them behind.
At the outset of the 2010s, The Guardian published an article titled “Hollywood searches for escapism after the apocalypse.” It tried to make sense of the onslaught of post-apocalyptic films the U.S. was putting out at the time by linking it to wide-scale social change, and people’s anxiety over that. I first encountered this narrative theory at the same time I first encountered Bong’s work. It was in an ecocriticism unit of a course on literary theory, and we watched the beginning of 2013’s “Snowpiercer,” which takes place on a train that hosts the survivors of a climate disaster that brought on another ice age.
Critics are describing “Parasite” as another dystopian feature, but I would hesitate to call “Parasite” or its contemporaries “dystopian.” That term assumes a remote future, when I don’t think Bong, Riley or Kore-eda want us to take comfort in the same cushion between us and the people we see on screen. These films are doing something different from the apocalyptic films from a decade ago — something more productive, authentic and useful. They aren’t distracting us with the impossible or improbable; they’re showing us what we’ve made possible, are making possible, in an honest, if disturbing, light.
It took me a little while to admit that about these films. It’s not easy to see the world for what we’ve made it. But eventually I’d ask myself, Really? in a tone not unlike the one I’d heard on Season 6, Episode 3 of “BoJack Horseman.” Are these impossible, or do I want them to be? I needed these directors to push me to ask that question and to realize it’s probably the latter. I think a lot of us need to see more clearly where we’re headed before we think about the future.