Why Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a satirical masterpiece watered down by incongruous social optimism
Korean films are extremely violent, and the worst kind of brutality is casually portrayed in them. However, in Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho seems to make a serious compromise when he takes the film to a violent climax, which is not really ‘disturbing’, and ultimately concludes with ‘hope’.
In Parasite, which has made a sensation at the 2020 Academy Awards by winning in the Best Film, Best Director, as well as Best Foreign Film categories, Korean film-maker Bong Joon-ho has created a thoroughly nasty piece of film satire.
But if anything, the film’s compromises give an indication of how all-out satire is not acceptable to global art-film aficionados.
When a director embarks on social satire and targets society as a whole, the person has to necessarily be harsh on every group, because it is not the group that he is targeting, but society as a whole.
It would seem that the violent confrontation in Parasite does not work satisfactorily, because South Korea has a stable socio-economic system that the film is brilliantly satirising.
In Parasite, which has made a sensation at the 2020 Academy Awards by winning in the Best Film, Best Director, as well as Best Foreign Film categories, Korean film-maker Bong Joon-ho has created a thoroughly nasty piece of film satire. But if anything, the film’s compromises give an indication of how all-out satire is not acceptable to global art-film aficionados. The satirical impulse is an unsparing one, and ‘political correctness’ has made a mockery of certain issues taboo, which is why the best satirists in cinema like Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut, 1999) or Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, 1997) disguise their films. While Eyes Wide Shut was a ‘psychological thriller’, Starship Troopers was labelled action sci-fi. Political correctness is a covert way of neutralising dissent by discouraging portrayals of uncomfortable actualities.
When a director embarks on social satire and targets society as a whole, the person has to necessarily be harsh on every group, because it is not the group that he is targeting, but society as a whole. Luis Bunuel’s Viridiana (1961), for instance, debunks ‘Christian charity’, and shows a good-hearted upper-class woman starting a home for beggars, and finding the beneficiaries of her charity a dangerously disruptive lot; she has to be rescued from rape by an unsympathetic relative. The class of beggars, being disadvantaged, would not be allowed to be portrayed like this today, but Bunuel is not making fun of beggars as much as the upper-class charitable impulse, which is only satisfying itself rather than transforming the world.
The protagonists of Parasite are the dregs of the South-Korean economic success story. The Kim family – the father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, daughter Ki-jeong and son Ki-woo – live in a basement just below road level, and, when the film begins, are in despair because their neighbour’s wifi — which they were availing for free — will not be available, as the neighbour has put in a password. The members of the family have temporary jobs, struggle to make ends meet, and the house is full of smelly insects (stink-bugs) they cannot get rid of, though the ‘silver lining’ is that the fumes from the bug exterminator gets into their apartment and kills off some bugs for free. A drunk habitually urinates on the street just above their living room window, and cannot be persuaded to go elsewhere.
But one day Min-hyuk, a friend of Ki-woo's and a university student, suggests that when he leaves to study in the US, Ki-woo should take over his job as an English tutor to the wealthy Park family's daughter, Da-hye. Min-hyuk has plans for Da-hye and he trusts Ki-woo to keep her safe for him until he returns. Ki-jeong forges a degree certificate for Ki-woo and is all set to become Da-hye’s English tutor. The family is proud of her prowess with Photoshop, which, they say, should have justly earned her a PhD.
Min-hyuk describes Mrs Park as simple to Ki-woo, and Ki-woo immediately finds himself accepted as Da-hye’s English tutor. It is interesting here that while the disadvantaged are shown to be scheming and cunning, the rich are gullible and simple. This would certainly be questioned in Indian art film circles where it is the poor who are simple and the rich who are cunning and deceitful. But Bong Joon-ho is making another point here – that the rich can afford to be gullible and ‘nice’ since the system itself is theirs to use. Kim Chung-sook, the mother, in fact pronounces that money is like a heavy iron that straightens out moral creases. Rather than the Parks, it is the housekeeper Moon-gwang who is scheming. The marginalised need all their wits even to carry on, is the film’s obvious implication.
Once Ki-woo is installed as the English tutor in the Park household, he manages to convince Mrs Park that her little son is an artistic genius. The boy is an irritating brat who dresses in ‘American-Indian’ clothes and shoots off arrows at people, and the family has especially imported arrows for him from the US. When Ki-jeong (but not as Ki-woo’s sister) is installed as the art-teacher, she uses Google to find out about ‘art-therapy’ and convinces Mrs Park that her son needs therapy because of a childhood trauma that is revealed in his art. In similar fashion, the Kims get rid of the driver and have him replaced by the father Ki-taek while the housekeeper is replaced by the mother Chung-hook. To all appearances, none of the Kims, all working under one roof, are related in any way, and they are enjoying themselves with the food and the expensive liquor in the empty mansion when the Parks leave for a camp one weekend. The Kims are like ‘parasites’ living off the Parks, but the term is less pejorative than descriptive: that is the only way in which the marginalised can live in a society in which power is asymmetrically distributed.
The mansion in which the Parks live plays a key part in the narrative, and a feature about it is that it was the home of an architect who had a secret basement installed — the kind of intricate basement used by the rich either as protection against a possible nuclear attack from the north, or against creditors. The basement is important because the former housekeeper returns when the Parks are away, in order to retrieve something of hers. She knows about the basement since she was with the former architect owner, and has been using it without the Parks finding out. This is a key development, and the basement becomes the site where she and the Kims fight for control, which develops into the climax of the film.
Korean films are extremely violent, and the worst kind of brutality is casually portrayed, in films like Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003). Kim Ki-duk is another filmmaker here, and I found myself leaving the hall when his Pieta (2012) was in progress. Bong Joon-ho’s films are not as violent, although disturbing, – especially true of his best film, Memories of Murder (2003) – but I think he makes a serious compromise when he takes Parasite to a violent climax, which is not really ‘disturbing’, and then concludes with ‘hope’.
My argument here is that satire must bear some relation to the actuality portrayed, at least in abstract or metaphorical terms. When social satire has an explosive climax implicating political categories (like the poor and the rich, for example), it is evidently predicting a similarly violent confrontation in actual society, or at least envisaging it. When social stability is the expected norm, an explosive climax in social satire is incongruous. George Orwell, for instance, does not have an explosive ending for his fable-as-satire Animal Farm (1945) since the Stalinism, which it was allegorising, seemed very stable as a political ideology when he wrote it.
It would seem to me that the violent confrontation in Parasite does not work satisfactorily, because South Korea has a stable socio-economic system that the film is brilliantly satirising. It is hardly threatened by any kind of internal fault-lines. However, it can be traced to Western film festivals implicitly demanding certain attitudes for political reasons. One rule is that any film dealing with democracy (and capitalism) must end in hope, whereby a suggestion is given that everyone can aspire rightfully to reaching the status of the rich and powerful. Films from ‘totalitarian’ countries must, contrarily, convey the sense that there is no hope except for those aligned with the system. Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev (Loveless, 2017) and Iranian Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, 2011) have learned to play the festival system and make movies that critique their own societies, while Parasite slaps on an insincere ‘optimistic’ ending to a deeply pessimistic film. One only hopes that Bong Joon-ho has, similarly, not learned to ‘play the system’.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of eight books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.