“Okja, Snowpiercer, Parasite, they’re all stories about capitalism,” said acclaimed Korean director Bong Joon-ho of his films. “Before it’s a massive, sociological term, capitalism is just our lives.”
Bong has been doing this for a while now. His “Memories of Murder” (2003) tackled crime and protest in a newly democratic South Korea. His 2006 film “The Host” showed the suffering that Korean people go through at the hands of American militarism. “Okja,” from 2017, focused on the commodification of people under capitalism.
“Parasite” — which won this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture — does not deviate from this pattern. A black comedy-thriller, it focuses on the impoverished Kim family and their infiltration of the elite, wealthy Park household. “Parasite” critiques idealizing globalized capitalism, arguing that for every family like the Parks, who have access to all the opportunities in the world, there is a family like the Kims, who are unable to escape their status due to severe economic disempowerment. There is even a dream sequence in which Kevin, the son of the Kim family, pictures himself buying the Park’s house before flashing back to his basement home, reminding us that such class mobility is nothing more than just that: a dream. The disillusionment and despair that permeate the film have worldwide appeal, regardless of the film’s Korean setting. As Bong puts it, “... in the end, it’s as if we’re all living in this one country of capitalism.”
It’s hard to ignore the hypocrisy of celebrating “Parasite” at the Oscars. Attendees receive $225,000 gift bags and will likely be greeted after the ceremony by the very servants and drivers the movie centers on. It’s unclear if the Academy awarded “Parasite” in recognition of its appeal to those disillusioned with global capitalism or in spite of it. But the Academy cares little about this critique — Bong’s victory was nothing more than an opportunity for the Academy to virtue signal its inclusivity.
The Academy’s commendation pacifies Bong’s criticism, because it diverts the focus from the film’s confrontation of economic hegemony, class warfare and violence — issues equally pertinent to the power of recognition wielded by the Academy — in favor of simple diversity. Since the Oscars, “Parasite” has been praised as a victory for Asians and foreign filmmaking. But this praise reproduces an understanding that American, mostly white, upper-class recognition is what legitimizes a film’s success, crowding out the film’s very real critique.
Many critics recognize that “Parasite” is both an achievement for all foreign filmmakers and is still a sharp criticism of income inequality. But just as many have turned the cast and crew’s racial diversity into the focus of their analysis, ignoring the complex socioeconomic issues at play. Many journalists and influential Twitter figures have used the all-Korean cast’s recognition to glorify the potential that Asians have to succeed in the American market, without considering if the prestige and value of Asian cinema should be evaluated on American terms in the first place.
These perspectives fail to recognize that “Parasite” is set in and driven by the tension of South Korea’s rapid economic development and widening inequality after foreign intervention. South Korea’s very creation was staked on it becoming an ally of capitalism and the United States through its incorporation into the global market.
Because American commentators can easily ignore the complex history behind the film, moderate analysts have adopted vague ideas of cultural and economic when discussing its victory. Such perspectives stem from an acceptance of a hollowed-out liberalism that continues to uphold the flaws of global capitalism — one that would rather place bandages on problems as they appear, rather than confronting the endemic failures of the system that cause them. Engaging with “Parasite” in a way that allows for the critique of structural inequality — rather than viewing it from the assimilationist paradigm of “American success” — is a seemingly radical but necessary act that is faithful to Bong’s message. To frame “Parasite” in terms of multiculturalism alone is to forget the uncomfortable truth of how American imperialism has enforced the globalization of capitalism.
A Bloomberg writer, Noah Smith, argues we should understand “Parasite” and its popularity like the rise of K-pop supergroup BTS: as a reflection of South Korea’s “successful” ascension in both cultural and economic power. Takes like this drastically miss the mark. South Korea is a warning to everyone that a system built on unrestrained profit motives inevitably causes us to turn against one another. Bong’s criticism is about how all nations under global capitalism share and exacerbate these issues of inequality, feeding off of each other’s exploitation. Smith and others praising the Academy’s inclusivity are stuck in a paradigm where the only victory is market-validated cultural power. Bong doesn’t constrain himself with such a paradigm.
Parasite is supposed to be an interrogation of the system. But letting our own cultural biases frame the way we think about the film does a disservice to Bong’s piece. Parasite’s victory is an empty one if onlookers fail to appreciate the layers of critique at play. Simply celebrating the film as Korean cinema breaking onto the scene of “global” culture both fails to recognize the film’s biting critique of capitalism and actively effaces the material violence done to maintain America’s position as the arbiter of universal values. Realizing its deeper message can help us consider the possibility of a world that is greater for everyone, not just those who put themselves at the top.