Much has been made of the Korean film Parasite, and rightly so: its trenchant social critique seems to perfectly capture this moment in history. Massive income inequality and the seeming callousness of elites—who, to quote the sociologist Rachel Sherman, have their own “anxieties of affluence” to deal with—have become dominant issues not only in Korea but also in the United States.
As this film makes history for becoming the first foreign-language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, it is worth asking what about the film is so compelling—what about its social critique is so resonant.
Parasite is rich with social commentary—the message goes far beyond “inequality is bad”; instead, the film seeks to tear down the justifications for inequality itself. The inciting incident of the film occurs when the main character, a teenage boy from an impoverished family, replaces his well-heeled college friend as the English tutor for a wealthy girl. In the conversation between the two men, the teenage boy explains that he has no credentials to serve as an English tutor, but his friend argues that he is extremely well qualified regardless of his degree. He accepts the offer and, with the help of his sister, who designs a fake diploma from a prestigious university, he gets the job. Already, the film rejects the credentialism so common in elite education: what confers value, the film reminds us, is skill, not pedigree. Not only is the boy a skillful tutor, but his sister is a masterful forger of documents. (Why can’t you get into art school?, her family jokingly asks.)
Later, the rest of the family has joined the ruse: the father serves as a valet for the wealthy family, while the mother serves as a housekeeper. Neither have the esteemed backgrounds they claim to possess (though the father did have some driving experience), but they perform their work admirably, earning praise from the family. The father’s driving is so smooth that his client’s coffee doesn’t even tremble as they round a corner.
Yet the employees in this house are not always treated well. Their cover is almost blown when the young master of the house remarks that all of them smell the same. We”ll have to use different soaps, the father suggests, to disguise the fact that all of the employees—allegedly unrelated to one another—in fact live in the same dwelling. No, the daughter replies, the soap won’t help. They all live in the same basement; the stench won’t come out. And indeed the wealthy father expresses to his wife that the driver has a nasty smell, the smell of people who ride the subway. Not the smell of the subway, but the smell of those people who ride it.
As each member of this poor family finds a job in the household—English tutor, art therapist, valet driver, and housekeeper—others are forced to leave their position. The valet driver and the housekeeper, in particular, are removed by some clever scheming involving a misplaced set of panties and an allergy to peaches. Does the wealthy family feel guilty for firing their loyal employees? Not as far as we can tell. But the poor family does feel a touch of guilt—yet they comfort themselves with the notion that, surely, these people must have even better jobs by now.
A key moment in the film occurs when a rainstorm sweeps through the city, flooding the basement of the poor family with sewage water. The next day, we see the wealthy mother in the backseat of the car, chatting about how lovely the sunshine is after the rain, and how grateful she is for the rain. Any minor hassles, she says, were worth it: we made lemons into lemonade. Her son had a lovely time camping outdoors, in his sturdy American-made teepee, a symbol of the joys of untamed wilderness. What fun to battle the elements!
The climax of the film occurs when the employees of the house discover that they are not alone. Someone has been living with them. It is perhaps this character, a man who lays in hiding from murderous loan sharks, who is the titular parasite of the film. But in fact, we learn, his wife has been taking care of him; he has stolen not a penny from the wealthy family. Indeed, he is the victim, the victim of an exploitative financial transaction that may cost him his life. Still, he is grateful to Nathan Park, the patriarch of the household, for making his survival possible. Perhaps this is a form of Stockholm syndrome, or perhaps a metaphor for hegemony—the kind of oppression so complete that it is accepted even by the oppressed.
Perhaps this is reading too much into the story. But that is precisely what the film asks us to do. It is, as the protagonist constantly reminds us, “so metaphorical.” So metaphorical, indeed, that the gift the protagonist receives from his predecessor, a precious “scholar’s stone,” gives him the good luck to serve as the new English tutor but also serves as the object with which he is literally struck down toward the end of the film. He cannot let go of this rock; it has trapped him in his position—he is, as Pierre Bourdieu once wrote, “inherited by his inheritance.”
One of the most interesting moments in Parasite occurs toward the end of the film. The mother of the wealthy family decides to hold an impromptu gathering to celebrate her son’s “trauma recovery.” His trauma is intriguing: in first grade, he saw a ghost, and he has been plagued by the vision ever since. Do you believe in ghosts?, the mother asks the new housekeeper in hushed tones. Clearly, she herself does. A ghost has visited her son, and she is celebrating because—with the help of the new art therapist (the daughter of the poor household), he is well on the way to recovery.
But who is this ghost? It is the man living in the basement of the house, the titular parasite, who sneaks upstairs one night to find that the kitchen is not empty, as he had hoped—the young son is staring back at him, eating his birthday cake. It is the face of the basement dweller who has caused the boy so much trauma.
What, then, is this “trauma”? It is the trauma of witnessing others’ suffering. It is the trauma of seeing a starving man, trapped for years in a basement because he fears for his life, emerging in the dead of night to grab a bite to eat. This is the trauma from which the young boy must recover—the trauma that sent him into a seizure when it first occurred, and a trauma that repeats itself in one of the final scenes of the film.
This trauma, ultimately, lies at the core of the film. It is the conceit of a brilliant relational sociology which understands that suffering is double-edged: the son’s trauma is made possible only because of the trauma of the man in the basement, who must forever live in fear because of a financial arrangement gone wrong, an arrangement that was itself the product of income inequality.
As the son is rushed to the hospital in the final scenes, he relives his trauma as the man in the basement emerges again, this time to seek vengeance against the family that destroyed his wife’s life and livelihood. Three families are enmeshed in a circle of violence, a circle whose every step is enabled by poverty and those who seek to escape or exploit it. “So metaphorical,” indeed.
Parasite is not the first to blend psychological thriller with social critique: the movie Get Out, which was also nominated for Best Picture, broaches similar themes, but with a focus on white supremacy rather than income inequality. (In this sense, it is probably the appropriate American companion to Parasite, because the original sin of slavery constitutes a unique form of American horror, both in the film and in our nation’s history.) What makes Get Out and Parasite so effective is that the deep-seated sense of unease we feel in watching the mistreatment of the characters—made safe by a touch of distance, a touch of fantastical absurdity—blends seamlessly into a kind of real-life horror, the horror of social recognition. This frisson of fear and anguish is felt not so much on behalf of the characters, but on behalf of a structural circumstance that is far from fantasy. It is this doubling of terror, structural terror superimposed on the situational, from which the viewer cannot escape even as the credits roll. This feeling you have, both films seem to say, this is what you should be feeling all of the time, because the horror is happening right now.