[WARNING: spoilers for Parasite (2019)]
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.
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.
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.