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Films From the Frontlines: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite

Still from “Parasite.”

Parasite, by Bong Joon-ho a noted filmmaker from South Korea, nominated for Best Picture and Best Foreign Film by the Academy, is one of the finest films I’ve seen in a long time. Bong wrote the story, wrote the screenplay, directed the film and willed it into existence. To me, its fundamental premise is that capitalism itself, in this case reflected in South Korean society, is the parasite. But unlike Occupy’s appealing illusion of the virtuous 99% against the evil 1% Parasite offers the viewers a chance to see what they don’t want to—that the parasitism of capitalism and imperialism infects all of us. And unless we dedicate our life to its destruction, (and even then) it is a cancerous web that ensnares all of us in its devious machinations. In the end, the film’s central questions are “Who is the parasite?” and even more challenging, “Are you a parasite inside a parasitical system?” Parasite, in the brilliant web Bong weaves, shows capitalism as a system that implicates the members of every class and, in the absence of a revolutionary, counter-hegemonic movement, is loved or at least emulated by all. The poor are not angry at the rich. They are angry they are not rich and their only real anger is not at the system but those below them–what I call “upward mobility and downward hostility.”

The opening scene shows the Kim family—father Ki-taek (Song Kong-ho) mother Chung-sook, son Ki-woo, and daughter Ki-jeong, living in a one room basement bunker in affectionate if alienated intimacy where they are forced to watch wealthy yuppies using their alley for a piss. Their only relationship to the means of production is the family cottage industry of folding pizza boxes for a local pizzeria that is sub-contracting out the work to even lower wage labor. But the Kim’s have little appetite for the job and prefer to hold their phones up to the ceiling to try to pirate their neighbors Wi-Fi signals. Things are so bad that when the fumigators are outside spraying the adjacent buildings, as the daughter goes to close the window the Kim patriarch, the brilliant xxx seeing so many bed bugs crawling all over their room, says “No leave it, we will get free fumigation” as the entire family chokes on the fumes. (Imagine the chemical impact on the pizza boxes they return.) Then, to add insult to injury, the young woman from the pizzeria rejects many of their boxes for poor assembly and threatens to fire them for such haphazard work. Clearly there must be some way to get out of this misery. Class struggle? Joining a revolutionary collective? Joining the re-unification movement with North Korea to fight U.S. imperialism? Not exactly.

Instead, Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk, who is preparing to study abroad, gifts the Kim family with a scholar’s rock that is supposed to bring them wealth. Min-hyuk suggests that Ki-woo pose as a university student to take over his job as an English tutor for the wealthy Park family’s teenage daughter, Da-hye.

But how can he get such a job with no real qualifications? His sister, Ki-jung, the best grifter in a family full of them, goes online and constructs an elaborate résumé complete with a seal from a prestigious university—even the poorest of the poor have cell phones and internet connections. Ki-woo get the job—with his friend’s recommendation, his sister’s forged documents, and his own acting skills. As he explains to his family, “rich people are so gullible.”

As Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times explains

“The pupil in question is an upper-class teenage girl, Park Da-hye (Jung Ziso), and their lessons will take place in the gated modernist fortress she calls home. Ki-woo just barely manages to keep a lid on his awe the first time the Parks’ formidable housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung Eun), ushers him inside. Designed and formerly inhabited by a famous architect, the house is a masterwork of real-estate pornography with its beige walls, marble floors and vast, cavernous spaces.”

While the wealthy father is away at work the domestic castle is presided over by the distracted, depressed, and often ditzy trophy wife Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong) who Chang explains, “embodies the family’s glossy pretensions whether she’s idly stroking one of the family’s three dogs or peppering her everyday speech with English affectations.”

Despite his friend who got him the job having confiding in him that he plans to marry the young girl he is tutoring when he returns, Ki-woo begins his lessons by holding the young woman’s hand and seductively giving her a lesson in reading and life. He is now in the chase for her affections and more than willing to double cross his friend. Now that he has ingratiated himself into the Park family the hustle of the Kim’s can be extended.

As Mrs. Park explains that her son, Park Da-song (Jng Hyeon-jun) rebellious and traumatized, is sensitive, introverted, and distant, Ki-woo says he knows a great tutor, a friend of a friend, who in fact is his sister the grifter in chief. As they are about to enter the Park mansion for her job interview, she rehearses her lines, “Jessica, only child from Chicago Illinois. I’m a classmate of your cousin” Justin Chang adds, “She shows up with a coolly professional demeanor and a mouth full of therapeutic gobbledygook. (She got it all from Google, she later announces to her family’s amusement.)”

How fitting that the Kim family of the street infiltrates the Park millionaires with cyber-hustling and fraud. On an astronomically larger stage, Barack Obama and the U.S. ruling class pulled off one of the greatest cyber frauds of all time. In 2008, the entire capitalist system came crashing down through a “the credit crisis” that was precipitated by banks cyber fraud. Some banks had bundled sub-prime loans that they knew many could not pay back in fraudulent tranches and sold them to other banks so that when people started to default the banks that held the fugazy loans were literally holding the bag. (Banks lying and stealing from other banks? Could that be true?) But don’t worry; to solve one massive cyber crime, newly elected President Obama and the treasury printed created another one. The U.S. Treasury simply printed billions of fraudulent dollars and gave them to the banks to bail them out because “they were too big to fail.” Meanwhile, millions of working people many of whom were Black, lost their homes that, surprise, went back to the very banks that hustled them, and were resold on the market at inflated prices once the stock market bounced back through massive federal subsidy—often purchased by more affluent whites. Tragically, gentrification and the driving out of Blacks from their historical areas of concentration that despite segregation they had made into their home was accelerated by the first Black president working as an agent of the white banks. While Black people were allowed to fail, in fact their failure was imposed on them by voracious lenders who in turn, “were too white to fail.” Is it a surprise that in the U.S. and all over the world, so many of the poor, learning from their masters, believe their only solution is to replicate the scam on a small or every tiny stage perpetuating the cycle into moral and economic destitution.

In the next elaboration of the scam, the Kim daughter, given a ride home by the Park’s chauffeur, plants a pair of her panties under the driver’s seat. As she later brings that fact to the attention to the gullible wife who on cue shows them to patriarch Park Dong-ik, (played by Lee Sun-kyun) he is appalled (jealous?) that his chauffeur used his back seat for carnal enjoyment. Clearly, the poor are not allowed to fuck in the rich man’s car and the entire idea of a chauffer’s semen contaminating his moving castle leads the Park’s to, of course, fire the chauffeur right according to the Kim’s plan. (The father’s own panty fantasies of are as they say another story.)

By a fortuitous coincidence, the new art tutor happens to knows a friend of a friend who has a great chauffeur, older, more mature, not prone (in all senses of the word) to fornicate anywhere let alone in the master’s car. While he is highly recommended she will see if he is available. As father Kim rehearses for his job interview the entire family helps with his audition. Back in the fumigated/pizza box house the son, with all the pretentions of a director and acting coach, criticizes the father’s performance as being over the top, telling him to take it down a few notches. Then, the father, re-reading his part with more maturity and gravitas is given great reviews by the family (Bong poking fun at himself?) So in Parasite, Joong casts actors to play the part of working people who in turn are actors in their own play impersonating other working people to hustle the ruling classes. So maybe we can act our way out of class subordination or at least to aspire to the next rung on the class ladder.

With the Kim son (tutor) daughter (art therapist) and father (chauffer)now in the hire of the Parks there is only one obstacle left—the erudite house keeper who came with the house before the Park’s even bought it and would be the one to figure out their scam. Again in a brilliant, elaborate, and funny as hell scam, the Kim’s make sure she is dismissed, and by another coincidence, they find her replacement (their mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) as the long loyal housekeeper is shown sent packing out the door suitcase in hand.

Now, with the Kim family having taken over the Park’s family mansion (again who are the parasites here?) the clever set up is about to explode. But as we watch the film we see the manipulative but almost irresistible dynamic of what I call “protagonist identification.” Why do root for the Kims to hustle the workers at the Parks? Because of how Bong set up the film. In The Sopranos, we claim to not respect gangsters but identify with Tony and Carmela and find Tony’s many maulings and murders endearing. Similarly with The Americans, even if most of the audience is anti-communist (or even for a few of us, pro-communist) they andd we come to love Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings as they kill people right and left (mainly left) and stuff their body parts into duffle bags in service to the glorious Soviet Union. In Parasite, Bong wants us to root for the clever Kims against the pretentious and dense Parks so he writes the film from that perspective. For as Mr Kim tells his wife, “They are such nice people” and his wife responds, “They are nice because they are rich.” But do we care about the working class victims of the Kim’s scams. Not a lot, we are entertained by class malice as if the grifters parasitically offing the working class is great comedy. But as the brilliant Bong will show, this is all set-up for a brutal and complex set of events that no matter how much I tell you (or try not to) will be very difficult to grasp as layer after layer of class turmoil is exposed in rapid fashion.

The first sign of the rise and fall of the Kim’s is the Park son observing, but no one taking seriously of the Kims, who are supposedly of no relation to each other, “They all smell the same.” This has some ring of truth, as to the rich, the poor, still living in squalor with bed bugs, fumigation, piss, and Wi-Fi do smell the same to the discerning nose of a ruling class kid.

As we begin to realize this will not end well, the Parks go out for a camping trip and the Kims take over their home with complete ingratitude and hubris—getting roaring drunk of the family’s cognac and other top of the line spirits. Then, on another level, there is an entire other reality of people living in exile underground, figuratively and literally, so that the Park House is now layer upon layer of lies and class pyramids.

In a profoundly painful scene, Mr Kim overhear Mr. Park, saying of his chauffeur, “he pushes his role just to the edge of class insubordination but seems to knows just when to stop” and then goes into great detail about the terrible smell from the chauffeur and how must crack his window to avoid the stench. The odor of wealthy and how they view the poor continues as a theme throughout. Then, the patriarchal Park asks his chauffeur Kim to play a game of Indians a lavish birthday party for his son. (Apparently, the degrading of Native American/Indian culture is universal inside the capitalist world.) The chauffeur, finding a way to fight back, tells the Parktriarch with profound sarcasm “But of course you love your wife” The father angrily replies, “Well remember I am paying you overtime” so basically shut up and do what I say. At that moment, the ruling class father, angry at the insubordination of the chauffeur, shows a visceral sense of his repulsion at his body odor. The chauffeur, having already overheard that painful and degrading caricature retaliates in ways that you will see with your own eyes as the Indian turns on the cowboy.

In the film the mother of the grifters does a funny impression of North Korean television but it is funny to me only for a second. All of us who have been in communist organizations know the sad irony of the worst of communist dogmatism, “Love live the great victories against the imperialist aggressor” except that in fact, it is only the communists who have ever won any victories against the imperialist aggressors. The fact that Bong eliminates any alternative to South Korean decadence through a caricature of North Korean dogmatism is a flaw in his worldview. If he did not choose to portray South Korean social movements or the Korean unification movement as an alternative to the battle between the Kims and Parks far better to have left it out altogether. For while the U.S. and other imperialists use North Korean president Kim Jong-un as a constant source of racist caricature, North Korea is a real country with real people trying desperately to find a path independent of the U.S. (and even the People’s Republic of China, its closest if problematic ally). I know that many organizers in South Korea have respect for the North Korean experiment, want Korean unification, and are far more angry at the decadence of South Korea where they are fighting to change the system.

And if, state supported communist political education seems dogmatic and one sided check out the state supported caricatures of Rachel Maddow and Larry “the Lounge Lizard” O’Brien on MSNBC with their “all hail the glorious Democratic Party in its ruthless struggle against the fascist Trump, all hail Barack Obama and all other Democrats” “all hail the rule of law” even “all hail the Founding Fathers” and other imperialist myths. And to complete the circle, note the Democrats hatred of Trump even when he does something decent, like work for peaceful relationships with the North Koreans and Kim Jong-un, even implying that Trump has a homosexual attraction to Kim since at MSNBC homophobic and war mongering jokes are great as long as Trump, Trump, Trump is the target—and Margaret Cho continues the slander on Saturday night live.

Bong has not chosen to offer an alternative to the Parasite. That is of course his choice and not at all the obligation of his brilliant film. His critique of capitalism is brilliant and more than enough to warrant the greatest appreciation of his craft—winning the Palme D’Or at Canne. Ot is great that Parasite has been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards because U.S. viewers need to know that like everything else, most of the best art and politics is outside the U.S.

I can truly enjoy films like Parasite because after I leave the theater there is work to do to challenge the Parasitic System. My favorite films reflect actual social movements—Pontecorvo’s brilliant The Battle of Algiers and the Algerian revolution, Marcello Mastroianni in The Organizer about 19th Century working class struggle in Italy, Norma Rae as Sally Field portrays southern textile worker unions in the 1970s, The Great Debaters as Denzel Washington plays pro-communist Melvin B. Tolson in the Black South in the 1930s, Just Mercy, about Brian Stephenson and the Equal Justice Initiative’s fight for death penalty prisoners, and Deborah Anderson’s Women of the White Buffalo about women fighting for Native American liberation on the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation today.

Then I go back to South Los Angeles where I work with the Bus Riders Union’s Campaign for Free Public Transportation, work in the PUSH/LA Coalition fighting to restrict the abuses of the LAPD, support the path-breaking work of Black Lives Matter L.A., work on my friend Channing Martinez’ city council campaign as he calls for a “Black/Latinx/Third World United Front” and march in every demonstration I can against U.S. attacks on the people of Iran, Iraq, Bolivia, China.

Bong’s intricate allegory explains that we are all caught up in a complex, interpenetrating, multi-class system marked by exploitation, alienation, grifting, hustling, , opportunism, lying, and deception. While like in Roshoman, everyone sees their own reality as the center of the story, in fact, while the ruling class does control our lives, if we don’t fight the system with all of our heart and soul, Parasite shows us that while we may leave the theater smiling; in fact the joke is on us.

Eric Mann, a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Newark Community Union, Students for a Democratic Society and the United Auto Workers has been a protagonist in 2 documentary films—Tiger by the Tail by Michal Goldman and Bus Riders Union by Haskell Wexler. He regularly reviews films for his weekly radio program, Voices from the Frontlines, on KPFK/Pacifica in Los Angeles. He welcomes comments at eric@voicesfromthefrontlines.com

 

 

 

Eric Mann is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Newark Community Union Project where he worked closely with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He is honored to be among the many hundreds who tell their stories on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website (crmvet.org). He is presently director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center working in South Central Los Angeles at the Strategy and Soul Movement Center. He and Channing Martinez co-host Voices from the Frontlines—Your National Movement Building Show on KPFK Pacifica in Los Angeles. He welcomes comments at eric@voicesfromthefrontlines.com

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