Magazine March 9, 2020, Issue

Parasite’s Class-Conflict Nightmare

Cho Yeo-jeong in Parasite (Barunson D&A)

This column, appearing as it does only twice a month, is a curated rather than a comprehensive guide to the year in movies. But it’s still a trifle embarrassing when the envelope opens for Best Picture and the winner is a film that I had postponed seeing and failed to review.

So let’s remedy that failure and talk about Parasite, the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture . . . ever, and a movie that’s in an interesting sort of dialogue with two of its Oscar rivals, excavating similar themes of class and violence and hilltop real estate.

The director is Bong Joon-ho, who has a knack for making films with left-wing themes and targets — factory farming, the military–industrial complex, the 1 percent — that maintain a slippery strangeness that keeps them from feeling too predictable or didactic. A movie such as Snowpiercer, his most famous English-language film, is a case in point: The story of a revolutionary uprising on a train hurtling around a frozen globe, in summary it sounds like a thudding complaint about climate change and the super rich, but in practice it’s an act of exotic, gorgeous, mildly insane world-building, rivaling the original Matrix as one of the most memorable science fantasies of recent years.

In Parasite there is a similar defiant strangeness, but the alchemy is a little less effective in the end. The movie opens with a family of four, the Kims, living in one of Seoul’s semibasement apartments, called banjiha — sunless spaces built as bunkers during the Cold War and transformed into living spaces by the city’s housing shortage. The patriarch, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), has fallen on hard times, and he’s surviving by stealing Wi-Fi and enlisting his wife and young-adult children to fold pizza boxes.

But survival gives way to opportunity when his son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), gets a chance to take over for a friend as the tutor of a rich couple’s daughter, Park Da-hye (Jung Ziso), who lives with her parents and younger brother in a sleek modernist palace high above the banjiha — a walled hilltop paradise, all clean lines and open spaces, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls and lush greenery outside. At which point the lower-class family embarks on an epic grift, engineering a takeover of the rich family’s home: Ki-woo gets his sister hired as the little boy’s “art therapist,” she gets the family’s chauffeur fired and her father installed as the driver, and then the family’s long-serving housekeeper is pushed out the door (she has a peach allergy, ruthlessly exploited by the Kims) and the mother takes her place. And through all this, none of the clueless, unworldly-seeming Parks realize that the people they’re hiring are related.

This is the comic phase of the movie: The Kims are con artists but they just seem to want jobs (though Ki-woo has higher aspirations), and things turn horror-movie dark only when the Parks take a birthday camping trip, the Kims spread out and drink together in their living room overnight, and suddenly the expelled-from-Eden housekeeper returns, revealing a secret in the house’s basement that sets in motion a violent denouement.

This sudden spasm of hilltop violence recalls the similarly grisly finale of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, the Tarantino movie that lost to Parasite in the Best Picture race. The two movies are both about aristocracy menaced from below, but the contrast is striking: Tarantino’s Sharon Tate is portrayed as a natural aristocrat, vulnerable and talented and kind and in some sense deserving of her golden aerie in the Hollywood Hills, while the Parks are portrayed as inviting invasion, to some extent, through the learned helplessness that comes with unmerited riches, the aristocracy’s sealed-in-a-bubble naïveté. And there is no interposing force in Parasite, no practical middle-class figure like Brad Pitt’s vigorous stuntman, who can stand between the vulnerable nobles and the savage proles.

But the more interesting contrast, in a way, is between Parasite and Joker, a very different, if similarly violent, class-conflict movie. In a perceptive essay, the eccentric libertarian Robin Hanson has described Parasite as “about class conflict from a[n] upper class perspective,” whereas Joker is “about class conflict from a lower class perspective.” This seems right: The action in Joker mostly happens in lower-class spaces; the system above its main character, the mix of bureaucracies and social-service providers and rich people, is at once oppressive, indifferent, and opaque; and the turn to violence happens because Arthur Fleck can’t talk his way into success, can’t navigate an unresponsive world, and decides to burn it down.

Whereas in Parasite, despite the banjiha scenes, the dominant setting is the upper-class space, and the poorer family feels, at times, like a rich person’s fantasy — paranoid, idealized, or both — of what the lower classes are like and what they’re capable of doing. The Kims are simultaneously deprived and omnicompetent, unable to shed their subway stink yet able to master every social cue their new roles require, hapless at folding pizza boxes yet somehow perfectly equipped to exploit the clueless rich.

Parasite is a better film than Joker, but in this respect Joker is the more realistic movie. A dark joke I saw circulating, that Parasite won the Oscar because it resonated with Hollywood royalty who find it hard to find good help, isn’t quite a joke. The weakness of Bong’s movie is that even as it aims to shake the palaces and expose the basements underneath, it can’t help feeling like a nightmare that could be conjured only by someone sleeping comfortably in silk pajamas — a successful ladder-climber who can imagine the poor only as unluckier, more-dangerous versions of himself.

This article appears as “Aristocracy Menaced” in the March 9, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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