The Truly Subversive Message of Parasite

by Michael C. Dorf

Bong Joon Ho's Parasite made history on Sunday when it became the first foreign-language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Much of the coverage of the momentous award focused on Hollywood's race problem. The lead story in the NY Times was typical: "In honoring the film, which also won best director, original screenplay and international feature, voters managed to . . . embrace the future — Hollywood’s overreliance on white stories told by white filmmakers may finally be ebbing . . . ."

Fair enough. The Academy and the industry in general need to do much more both to provide opportunities for and recognition to a more diverse group of writers, directors, actors, and others.

Yet in treating Parasite as simply a foreign film with an Asian director and cast, the news coverage overlooks what makes the film truly remarkable. Here I'll offer a few thoughts on the deeply subversive nature of the story Parasite tells. I'll refer to the plot in a way that, I hope, does not contain any spoilers that would, well, spoil, the film for those readers who have not yet seen it.

Here's the basic plot of Parasite: The Kims are poor. They live in a run-down basement apartment. Drunks urinate in the street above them. The parents are unemployed. The young adult son and daughter seem reasonably talented but also down on their luck. As a group they are schemers. The Parks are wealthy. The handsome talented father runs a sophisticated tech firm. The Parks live in a gorgeous home designed by a famous architect. The mom is a somewhat ditzy society woman. The teenage daughter and grade-school son seem badly spoiled. Parasite tells the story of how the Kims con the Parks and the ruin that ensues.

Parasite has been described, somewhat inaccurately, as a "dark comedy." There are, indeed, funny moments, but it really isn't any kind of comedy. At its most straightforward, Parasite offers a bleak view of humans and society.

The Parks are awful without doing anything especially bad. They exploit their workers but seem to pay them reasonably well. They take for granted the perks that money buys. But they show contempt for the non-rich. The attitude comes through most clearly via the sense of smell. In multiple scenes, one sees the Park paterfamilias (played subtly by Lee Sun Kyun) practically shudder with disgust at the foul aroma of the Kims and, more generally, the non-rich.

The Kims are clever con artists, and so one can't help rooting for them, at least initially. But the Kims are also awful. They are not Robin Hoods. They don't help themselves merely to the Parks' riches. They eagerly frame innocent hardworking ordinary people to get what they want.

Parasite is a dark film because it seems to offer no hope. The wealthy spoil their children and express contempt for the poor, but the poor are not better or noble; they are just poor. They do not want to change the system, just their place in it. Parasite is thus a critique of class, but it offers no obvious alternative.

And yet Parasite is also subversive in another way. It subverts the notion of the family as the building block of society. Whatever their flaws, each family works together. The Kims look out for one another. They celebrate together--albeit by getting drunk. With one exception (a scene of threatened violence that is creepily laughed off by Song Kang-ho's Kim Ki-taek), all of the hostility and misdeeds are directed outwards. Meanwhile, the Parks spoil their children out of love; Mr. Park is clearly irked by Mr. Kim's repeated suggestions that he (Mr. Park) indulges his wife's whims because he loves her; Mr. Park does love her, and that's why he doesn't see her as Mr. Kim does.

Thus, the Kims work together as a loving supportive family that has no qualms about cheating everyone who stands in their way. The Parks barely see anyone outside of their own social class but express genuine concern for each other. And there is another couple (about which I cannot say more without spoiling the film) who show deep devotion to one another. The upshot is a portrait of human beings who sacrifice and take risks for members of their own family but actively harm those outside their family.

Now, in one sense, that's a familiar story. Mafia movies portray people doing very bad things but loving and protecting their own families. And yet, there's a depth and poignancy to the intra-familial scenes in Parasite that the typical mafia movie lacks. What the Kims do for one another makes them appealing, even when it all goes south.

During an October 2016 Presidential debate, the candidates were asked to name a positive quality about each other. Donald Trump said he admired that Hillary Clinton is a fighter. Clinton said that Trump's "children are incredibly able and devoted." Putting aside the dubious "able" part, Clinton was right that Trump's children are devoted to their father. More's the pity.

Of late, we have heard a great many people lamenting the increasing "tribalism" of our politics and public life. Too many of us, it seems, support those who look, sound, read, view, Tweet, etc., like us and despise or hold in contempt those who do not. But what is a tribe, really? For most of the history of our species, we lived in bands of a few dozen grouped into tribes of a few hundred. Bands and to some extent tribes were kinship groups--in other words, families. The problems of tribalism are, a fortiori, problems of family loyalty.

One can look at Trump and think, well, at least he loves his family. Sure, his love for Ivanka is, uhm, creepy. And one can question just how devoted to family a serial adulterer is. But if one gets over all of those hurdles, or perhaps if one thinks of somebody other than our miscreant President, one can think that love of family is a positive quality that at least somewhat mitigates externally directed antisocial behavior. Parasite tells us that love of family can be the cause of externally directed antisocial behavior.