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Parasite: Cinema As Social Critique

A blockbuster film may not necessarily be the first place you would look to find academic material. However, the carefully constructed social criticism of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) is a demonstration of a global-scale analysis of neoliberalism and the challenge of the fundamental class divisions that arise within it. Self-reflexive in its contention with its cinematic form, Parasite forces us to look at the world through a critical lens by creating an extensive replica of society through cinema.

At its core Parasite is social commentary. It is a film that dissects class and wealth divisions in South Korea. An academic social critique of this nature often analyses the incorporation of culture into governance, where culture is used as a way of negotiating cooperation between the economic and social goals of a society.

Bong Joon-ho instead uses characterisation to undermine the connection between this creative culture and the state. Da-song born to the rich Park family is said to be a creative genius, creating artwork that places a more comical spin on the drama of the film where his self-portrait is thought to be a chimpanzee. Alternatively, Ki-jung actually possesses the skills to go to art college but is not provided with the same investment that is given to the Park family son. Instead, she uses her talents in forgery by photoshopping false qualifications and posing as an art therapist. The only way Ki-jung can reach a level of equality is by creating a false identity as someone from a wealthy class.

Much of the action of the film revolves around the poorer classes fighting against each other whilst the rich remain on top, always seen to be physically above them. The acts of blackmail, forgery, violence, and even murder between the two poorer families in the film are never critiqued at the individuals’ expense. What is critiqued is the fight over limited resources. Ki-jung is one particular character that exists outside of the rules of the systems around her. Even the smallest of character choices like refusing to put out a cigarette in a no-smoking zone emphasise this. Such an approach to life is still unable to tackle the disadvantages of her poverty, and left to her own devices she ultimately meets her demise.

Contrastingly her brother strives to work within this system, and ‘do the right thing’ as an individual. He wonders how he fits in with the wealth around him and desires to become a rich man who buys a house and gets married. He carries his scholar’s rock, said to bring material wealth to the family, stating that it clings to him and follows him. The symbolism of him being beaten in the head with that very rock is a blatant display of how such a system can quite literally crush these dreams. Both siblings engage with the idea that neither working against nor within the rules of this system can truly change their circumstances.

Bong Joon-ho can place the standard academic social critique of these ideas into a different vernacular through the medium of cinema. Parasite contains a self-awareness that balances the desire to capture a sense of authenticity, with the artificiality that comes with the cinematic form. No more so is this seen than through the film’s imagined ending. Intense violence ensues at the dramatic birthday party of Da-song. After witnessing this episode of visceral bloodshed, you would expect the film to follow the traditional mode of providing its audience with a cathartic ending.

In her book, Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism, Robin James points to the idea that popular culture often profits off of violence through portrayals of survivor stories. James discusses this through the lens of gendered violence where the uplifting aspects of female survivor stories only really serve to undermine the true extent of the issue of this violence. I have been thinking about this idea in relation to Parasite as though it is not necessarily focused on the gendered violence that James speaks to, it does subvert this traditional survivor story mode altogether in its refusal to provide catharsis. If the oppressed classes of this film were met with any semblance of a happy ending, the depictions of their oppression that the film works so carefully to portray would lose all sense of impact. Parasite’s ending leaves audiences with the knowledge that these oppressed families can never hope to win within a system of such inequality.

Bong Joon-ho mocks his own character Ki-Woo through the film’s form, tinging his vision of buying the Park family home in a bright hue that completely juxtaposes the much darker colour palette of the film. When we return to this darkness it is only to find ourselves back to the film’s opening shot. There is no hope of change in this cyclical structure, and as the camera pans down we are brought back to the film’s reality where the poor continue to descend. We know then that Ki-Woo’s missing father will never be able to just “walk up the stairs” and return to his son. Bong Joon-ho makes no attempt at creating an uplifting narrative.

Throughout the film, we are met with the phrase “this is so metaphorical,” perhaps drawing our attention to how we should be viewing this film. This style of symbolic or metaphorical filmmaking relies on audiences to put in a certain amount of work to uncover the more subtle arguments being made. This in turn forces spectators to engage with its critical arguments. One example of this is the subtle motif of Native American culture that threads through the film and is even the theme of Da-song’s party. The child’s obsession with Native American culture seems at first glance to be slightly arbitrary.

Yet if we consider Parasite as a demonstration of social critique on class, discussions of colonialism and imperialism seem to be almost unavoidable. The United States’ exportation of these values along with capitalism saw the adoption of neoliberal economic policies within South Korea. So, when we first enter the Park house and are met by American-exported mock Native American arrows at the door, we are also met with the notion that colonisation was the first problem in the entryway to class divisions.

Parasite therefore works almost as a visual essay that relays and questions the modern structures of class that rule many of our societies.

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Tags: #cinema #wealth #class #parasite


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