Film & TV

Parasite: Antifa Comedy for the Cancel-Culture Era

From left: Woo-sik Choi, Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, and So-dam Park in Parasite (NEON CJ Entertainment)
Bong Joon-ho laughs at family and social ruin.

Nothing in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite matches the brilliance of the family-dinner-table scene in Stephen Chow’s The New King of Comedy where a fake hatchet is lodged in the head of a daughter who’s struggling to be a movie actress — she brings her work home, taking her social indoctrination and the need for acceptance to the furthest, most hilarious extreme.

But Bong is an unfunny extremist. In Parasite, he annihilates the concept of the nuclear family by setting a brood of lower-class con artists against an upper-class family unit. The slum-dwelling Kim family run scams from their filthy, bug-infested hovel. They pose as servants to the wealthy corporate executive Park family — the son as a tutor, the daughter as an art therapist, the father as a chauffeur, and the mother as housekeeper — and then exploit their employers’ trust.

The Kims scheme to steal the Parks’ envied luxe — an insensitive joke that admits impolite class resentment. The film’s hidden subject follows the economic-inequality rants by leftists. Bong extends that enmity into a murderous, bloody, mean-to-be-hilarious climax, then maudlin finale.

Bong himself is a political con artist. He pits a family of grifters in opposition to elites, as though clarifying the easily exploited social conflicts frequently repeated in the media.

Parasite — it’s the year’s most cynical movie title — kowtows to those privileged progressives who believe the old Communist adage “Property is theft.” Bong exaggerates this for Millennials by inviting them to enjoy class antagonism through the comedy of the Kims defrauding the Parks.

South Korean Bong differs from China’s Chow, a people’s artist whose films are extremely popular. Bong wants his politics both ways: targeting and humiliating the wealthy, high-living entrepreneurs while sentimentalizing and sympathizing with the dishonest, corrupt agitators who angle to swindle them. It’s Antifa comedy — Bong dismantles the idea of family and social unity (symbolized by despoiling a lavish Architectural Digest–style abode) from his own privileged perspective that flatters the self-righteous destructors, sucking up to the armchair radicals in his audience. If you want to know how leftist politics infect the cultural stream as “sick fun,” this is it.

While Chow is a filmmaker of great visual wit and an endearing common touch (proven in such films as Shaoliln Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle, The Mermaid, and The New King of Comedy), Bong insidiously uses genre tropes to facile, cynical effect — praised by trendy critics yet never crossing over into real cultural impact. His ecology-themed monster movie The Host, his dystopian action film Snowpiercer, and his global trade farce Okji deservedly — ideologically — flopped.

It felt bizarre to hear the media gaggle, assembled at Parasite’s press screening, chuckle and giggle as the devious Kim family put their nefarious scheme over on the gullible Parks, laughing as if watching a topsy-turvy version of My Man Godfrey. Seeing one’s enemies attacked and vilified is not just how contemporary media liberals operate; it’s also a feature of the political bias that defines the festival circuit, where progressive ideology is disguised as approved cultural trends.

Parasite won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, which has become a yearly celebration of films that proclaim progressive, anti-American attitudes. Those politics have overrun and confused traditional respect for cinema humanism, much as the Nobel prizes have done. In 2018, the Cannes Palm d’Or went to Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, a solemn family-disintegration melodrama. But Parasite is sarcastic; Bong copies the same pitiless, poisonous view of human relations as that in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Favourite.

By doubling social decay with family dysfunction, Bong and Lanthimos lead a decadent rearguard, confirming Millennial nihilism. It must be a global pandemic, because the ugly sarcasm in these international co-productions matches the pessimism of such American features as Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us. All these movies welcome apocalypse, and that’s supposed to be clever. “It’s metaphoric!” is the Kim son’s pet phrase.

The inhumane antagonisms and sociopathic behavior in Parasite bungle class relations just like Get Out and Us but minus racial paranoia as justification — although the tirade of the ousted housekeeper, imitating North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, might convey secret ethnic-power urges and envy for South Korean audiences (it’s the film’s cancel-culture twist).

Bong, Lanthimos, and Peele are a long way from classic sociological satire. Their films reveal the millennium’s moral defects, flirting with horror and using videogame-slasher-movie snark, but never rising to truly challenging complexity — unlike Chow’s pop epics or Teorema (1969), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s art movie about the modern deconstructed family. Teorema was a deliberately schematic analysis of both family and religious structures and of capitalist hierarchy and Communist folly. It was also a bold self-examination by Pasolini, whose scheme tested his own fleshly urges, spiritual regrets, and intellectual theories.

Millennial social satirists don’t dare personal revelation. Bong repeats the same self-pleasing psychosis as in Call Me By Your Name when the grifter Kim father advises his son: “Live with no plan. Whether it’s killing someone or betraying your country, nothing matters.” Parasite’s award-winning nihilism proves why Chow is a filmmaker for the ages and Bong is a charlatan for the moment.

Editor’s Note: This article has been emended since its initial publication.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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