Why Does the American 1% Love Parasite?

[WARNING: spoilers for Parasite (2019)]

Chrissy Teigen really loves Parasite.

To anyone who’s seen the film, this probably comes as a bit of a shock. The Best Picture winner is a pretty clear critique of class hierarchy, capitalism, and the tendency of the rich to systematically exploit the lower classes. Bong Joon-ho presents a dichotomy of two families — the poor, unemployed Kims and the ostentatiously wealthy Parks. In short, the general premise is that the Kims start to work for the Parks, infiltrating their home by recommending one another for positions like tutoring, housekeeping, and driving, thereby flipping the script of the usual “rich exploit poor” dynamic. At risk of spoiling anything else, I’ll just say it doesn’t paint the Parks in the best light.

Twitter had a field day with Teigen’s lack of self-awareness. But why are celebrities like her, Ryan Reynolds, and the majority of the ultra-wealthy Academy such fans of this movie?

In a sense, elite approval for the film proves Joon-ho’s point: Mrs. Park is generally portrayed as naïve and oblivious to how egregiously out-of-touch she is…much like the celebrities who love this movie so much. However, beyond this dynamic, I find that there’s something deeper going on.

The American 1% is embracing this film because its Korean origin offers a degree of separation.

Where most audiences picked up on the manner in which Joon-ho’s South Korea reflects American class hierarchy, the fact is that our country as a whole is willing to “other”-ize the film’s commentary. It’s all too easy for us to look at the Kims’ semibasement and argue that it’s not so bad here or only ascribe the Parks’ exploitation of poverty to ultra-ultra-rich individuals like, say, Jeff Bezos. We see the Kims and the Parks as entities separate from our own cultural moment, representatives of a dramatic class divide we can point fingers at, all the while enabling one all around us which doesn’t look too different.

Of course, it’s remarkable that a film entirely in Korean is succeeding so strongly in the American film landscape. That said, there’s definitely a clear disconnect between what the film has to say and what translates to affluent American audiences. It’s especially concerning when you think about the obvious parallels to classism in the states.

SPOILERS:

Take the flood scene, for example. We see viscerally the way rain disproportionately impacts the lower class as it flows down the hill and floods the Kims’ semibasement, landing them in a shelter. The scene in which the family discovers the flooding is potentially the most devastating component of the film, made all the worse by the fact that we’ve just seen the Park parents expose their literal fetish for the poor.

It’s easy to see this, wrench at the tragedy, and separate it from your own existence. The Kims don’t look like your archetypal Americans, and the upper class can comfortably differentiate their plight from that of, say, those impacted by Hurricane Katrina. But just as Katrina disproportionately impacted poor black residents who couldn’t afford to evacuate to safety, Parasite‘s flood hurts the most vulnerable individuals the hardest. The Parks have to cancel their camping trip. The Kims lose their home. In New Orleans, the wealthy moved in with relatives for a bit and then benefitted from stronger engineering. The poor lived in the Superdome. And this is just one example of the striking ways in which Parasite‘s context mirrors our own — the connections Hollywood fails to see.

Moreover, the film is just made so well that a lot of conversations focus on that. It’s entirely possible that Teigen, Reynolds, and their peers were marveling most prominently at scenes like the above (admittedly perfect) montage. Or maybe they picked up on some of the visual prowess detailed in this Twitter thread. And they’d be perfectly justified in doing so: by all metrics, Parasite is a cinematic triumph, worthy of every bit of industry praise it’s been receiving. But for most people, it’s not just a cinematic achievement; it’s a political one.

If only the industry could look inward and see that Bong Joon-ho is talking directly to them.

-Taylor Lomax

4 thoughts on “Why Does the American 1% Love Parasite?

  1. Hi Taylor! Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful blog. I also find Parasite’s popularity to be a source of fascination. As you say, it is an absolute triumph of cinematic mastery, but not one that seems especially ripe for enthusiasm among the American upper-class. I think your examination of the cultural separation that is available because it is not an American film makes a lot of sense. When I saw Parasite, many of the themes (class, systemic oppression, privilege, etc.) and cinematic devices (doubling, misplaced humor, graphic imagery, etc.) reminded me very much of Jordan Peele’s American film “Us”. It’s an interesting comparison to make as the two movies were made at about the same time in and about two very different parts of the world, yet they have many similarities. But that’s a topic for another time.
    What I find so striking about Parasite and other Bong Joon-ho films is that they offer no solutions. The movie does not indicate any easy way out, nor does it portray any person or group as the hero or villain. Although the Parks live in ignorant bliss, as you mention in your post, they are not characterized as evil. Similarly, the lower-class Kims are certainly not portrayed as agents of justice or moral good. Everyone is merely human. The characters aren’t the main source of conflict in the movie: the system is. I think this makes complex works like Parasite extremely valuable when discussing public policy. Improving the wealth gap through policy is an incredibly nuanced and challenging task, and Bong Joon-ho doesn’t allow his audience to blame the problem on just one cause. This could be a valuable perspective when discussing how best to facilitate class mobility in South Korea, America, and elsewhere.

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  2. Taylor, I think your piece was particularly culturally relevant for a myriad of reasons – politics surrounding the 1% (cough cough Bernie Sanders), Parasite’s award for best picture, indirect connection to celebrities/the 1% through social media… the list goes on.
    I’m speculating that perhaps personable celebrities like Ryan Reynolds or Chrissy are trying to seem more “relatable” by talking about how much they appreciated Parasite – that they’re not all that bad, like the characters in the movie. Personally, I don’t think billionaires should exist, so I’m not sure how relatable this makes them (meaning it doesn’t).
    All this talk about “relatable” celebrities made me think about billionaires doing charity work/philanthropy. Kylie Jenner donated $1 million to the fires in Australia. However, if she had a deep intrinsic concern about it, she probably would have given more, since she could afford to. After all, she spent $100,000 on her daughter’s second birthday, and $1 million is 0.1% of her net worth. For reference, that’s $100 to the average middle-class family.
    Not that that $100 to a middle-class family isn’t a sizeable contribution, but Kylie knows will never struggle to earn an income (because of her fame and other extremely wealthy family members). And not that Kylie Jenner is only donating to seem “relatable” and “not all that bad” but – maybe. Maybe is all I’m saying.

    – Lana

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  3. Hi Taylor,

    Thank you so much for sharing this incredibly thoughtful, insightful, and well-expressed reflection! I have unfortunately not yet gotten the opportunity to watch Parasite, but it seems like a must-watch! (I’m even considering buying it on Amazon Prime now!) And don’t worry, you didn’t spoil too much. I still have no idea what actually happens in the film.

    Since I haven’t watched it, I can’t speak to any specific symbolism or scenes, but your points about classism and “other”-ing certainly resonate with me. In addition to what you’ve mentioned about it being easy to ascribe such exploitation to only the wealthiest of the wealthy, I can also imagine people – especially the predominantly-white celebrities of Hollywood – blaming it on cultural differences, that this kind of exploitation only happens in Asian households or something. It reminds me of something I’ve learned about from reading Toni Morrison’s “Playing in the Dark”, about how white American authors have used African-American characters as a means to explore socially-taboo topics, to essentially project human flaws onto them rather than white characters. The more I learn about racism, classism (which is apparently so denied/unacknowledged that WordPress doesn’t even think it’s a real word – the spellcheck red line is on), sexism, and other such social injustices, the more frustrated I feel with these implicit prejudices.

    – Teresa

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  4. This is a great example of the hypocrisy surrounding American exceptionalism, especially since it’s so obvious to the working class. But as you said, since it takes place in a foreign country, it’s easy for celebrities to treat the exploitation of the poor as a foreign concept. Even though your piece focuses on wealth inequality, I think that all Americans have a bad habit of distances ourselves from societal problems and pretending that they only happen in other countries. For example, a lot of people our age do international volunteering, also known as voluntourism. However, I see it as problematic. Voluntourism trips seem to be geared towards making Americans feel good about themselves for “helping others” instead of actually having a lasting impact on the communities they serve. It’s only worsened by the fact that many of the issues that voluntourism trips focus on, like teaching English, could also be done in the US and possibly the American volunteer’s own community. Like the celebrities you highlighted, it’s easier for all of us to acknowledge social justice issues when we are not implicated in their continuation. But I think your analysis of “Parasite” is a great way to highlight an often ignored problem through popular media. Great job!

    -Jessica

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