Parasite: The Pseudo-Marxist Film on Class Conflict That the Ruling Class Wants You to Watch
“It’s so metaphorical!” says Kim Ki-woo, at various points in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. And the film has been packaged and sold as such — the movie on class conflict that speaks the truth about the neoliberal era. In a very perverse way, it does; which is what makes the film scary. Here is a movie that purportedly speaks for the working class, but has been welcomed and even hailed by media magnates and captains of industry. Having gained both commercial success and critical acclaim, it has become a popular cultural artefact that will be consumed in various ways in the years to come. Does it really speak for the working class? Or is it, like all bourgeois art, a slickly packaged commodity that deceptively hides the function that it performs in society?
The film begins inside a semi-basement apartment in a poor neighbourhood which is home to the downwardly mobile petty-bourgeois family of the Kims. The cramped apartment, the stairs that lead down to it, and the filthy surroundings signify their place in society. Under neoliberalism, with the rampant destruction of petty production and the informalisation, contractisation, and casualisation of work, a part of this class has become increasingly proletarianised. They literally and metaphorically get pissed on.
The Park family belong to the other part of this class — the ones who have made it under this system, and can afford to buy the labour of others like the Kims. Aptly, they live on top of a small hill in a modernist house that is spacious, well-lit, and surrounded by gardens and trees. Bong Joon-ho drives this point home repeatedly. The Kims open their windows so that they get free fumigation, steal wi-fi from their neighbours, and celebrate by buying buffet lunch at a drivers’ café. The Parks, on the other hand, have their house gated up and secluded from the street outside, feed Japanese crabs to their pet dogs, and celebrate by going on camping trips and calling over others for impromptu parties.
When the Kims manage to hoodwink their way into working for the Parks, the mutually parasitic nature of these two families are laid bare. There is a weird equilibrium that implies that they both can benefit from this arrangement — the Parks from the service of the Kims, and the Kims from the wealth of the Parks. For the Parks, the Kims are ideal because they know not to cross the line. And for the Kims, the Parks are nice because they are rich; money is the iron that irons out all their creases. The only antagonism here is that there are sometimes slights to their dignity on the part of the Parks. The youngest Park, who has not yet learnt the art of being nice, innocently (he even play-acts as the innocent/untainted indigenous Indian) remarks that the Kims all smell the same. And the oldest Kim knows that the power he has as the patriarch in his family is only an illusion — like his wife remarks, if the lights are switched on he will scurry like a cockroach.
Where then is the working class in this grand allegory that supposedly speaks of class conflict? Where is the labour that makes possible the plenitude that is enjoyed by the Parks and is enough to sustain the Kims alongside? For the most part, the working class is invisible. Until they are revealed in the form of the man who lives under the Parks’ basement in abject squalor unbeknownst to all the others (this underground bunker is not well-lit or half-lit; it is filled with darkness). He is not the labourer who produces what others leech off of. He is not the one exploited by the capitalist parasite. He is not the vanguard who will drive the revolution. He is, in fact, the real parasite — the one who feeds off the crumbs thrown away by the Parks. He is not only the horror that the youngest Park cannot fathom, but also the object of disgust to the Kims. It is no surprise, thus, that the Kims do not listen to the appeals of the previous housekeeper to help them. They have nothing but contempt for the working class. Their only concern is to get ahead, mostly at the cost of others like them. And they are prepared to go to any lengths to achieve this purpose.
Parasite thus speaks to the petty bourgeois service class. In so far as the film is a critique of Capitalism, it is that in this sense alone. It speaks of their inevitable loss of power to the capitalist class, the haute bourgeoisie. It speaks of the devastation wrought by neoliberalism upon the weakest among this class of people. It speaks of the envy that the people who form this class have for the luxury that those above them enjoy, something which they believe they are individually entitled to. This is a fascist appeal to ressentiment and it can be seen all around the world in the social movements that have resulted in the success of the likes of the Trumps, Bolsonaros, and Modis. This envy is not revolutionary, but reactionary in its critique of Capitalism.
What the film really indicts is greed, as an abstract and universal truth that is an immutable part of human nature. It is not Capitalism that fosters the social relation that develops between the different classes and creates this emotion, but this feeling that gives birth to Capitalism. The underlying contradiction is not class conflict but an entrenched characteristic of the human species. This is why the film is cynical and ends where it begins - with the suggestion that the Kims will continue hoping that they will succeed in the present order. Some might mistake this cynicism for complexity — that Bong Joon-ho is only telling, in an unsentimental manner and without valourising the poor, the stark truth. However, this is the ultimate utopia — that the present order is insurmountable and will last forever. This is not a historical account of social relations. It is an apology to the exploitative nature of Capitalism.
The massive investments and the marketing that went into creating the juggernaut that is Parasite succeed by artfully erasing the labour of the working class in both its production and narrative. This labour is invisiblised under the commodity that is sold – a doomed reality, if not an impossible fantasy. As new markets open for the speculative purposes of the ruling class (the media industry is one of the most lucrative, along with property), they laugh and tell us to consume their product — it’s so metaphorical!
Azhar is a Masters student in English Studies at IIT Madras. He tweets from the handle @lonelyredcurl.