Parasite is an outstanding depiction of the brutality of capitalism by South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho. The film takes the form of gloriously dark comedy, shot through with both thriller and horror elements. It tells the story of the Kim family, who live in a tiny basement in a slum district of Seoul and struggle to get by, working a series of badly paid temporary jobs.
The film’s opening stretch shows the daily struggle of the Kim family, consisting of father Kim Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, son Ki-woo and daughter Ki-jeong, to make ends meet. They take on a job folding pizza boxes for a pittance and are degraded when the boss tries to cut their pitiful pay for supposed shoddy work.
When pesticide spraying government employees come to fumigate the neighbourhood, Ki-taek urges the family to keep the windows open. “Free extermination!” he exclaims as they are enshrouded in noxious chemicals.
In the midst of this daily grind the Kims are offered a glimmer of hope. A school friend of Ki-woo offers to set him up with a job tutoring the daughter of the Parks, a rich Seoul family. The only trouble is Ki-woo has never been to university, despite his obvious abilities, because the family can’t afford it. Unperturbed, Ki-woo decides to fake a degree and charms his way into the job.
The Park family live in a gorgeous light strewn modernist house in one of Seoul’s lavish hill-top neighbourhoods. The contrast with the dark basement in which the Kims are forced to reside couldn’t be greater – a stark visual representation of two families on either side of the class divide.
Seeing the Parks’ abundant wealth, Ki-woo spies an opportunity. He begins a conspiracy to gain employment for his whole family, as they maneuver to replace the Parks’ other household staff through hilarious and ingenious means of sabotage.
The film ratchets up the tension as the Kims’ plan starts to unravel in an increasingly violent manner. It becomes apparent that the central theme of the movie is the way the abject poverty of those at the bottom of capitalist society pushes people to struggle against each other to survive. The Kims do abhorrent things, but only because capitalism has pushed them to breaking point and their lives depend on it.
By contrast, the Parks might seem to be nice, but that’s only because they can afford to be. “She’s rich but still nice,” says Ki-taek of Mrs Park. “She’s nice because she’s rich,” his wife Chung-sook replies. Elevated above the struggle to survive by their immense wealth, the Parks can afford niceties that aren’t open to the Kims.
Deprivation and corruption
The image of South Korea we are presented with in the West is of a gigantic success story for capitalism. The ‘Republic of Korea’ is contrasted with its northern neighbour to show the horrors of ‘Communism’ and the supposed awe inspiring hi-tech wonderland in the South. But, as any Marxist knows, behind rampant development always lies the exploitation and deprivation of capitalism – the very deprivation in which the Kims find themselves mired.
Korea had barely developed under the yoke of Japanese imperialism. At the end of the Korean War in 1953, the South remained a largely rural economy, with a very low standard of living. In the period immediately following the war, the South was totally dependent on the US. It followed the guidance of their American masters by relying on the ‘free market’ to provide development.
As the North began to rapidly industrialise on the basis of a planned economy, the South broke with the advice of the Americans to instead engender growth through state planning. On this basis, South Korea underwent a dramatic economic transformation from a poor third-world country, to a developed capitalist nation.
This growth was driven by the rise of giant state-sponsored conglomerates called chaebols, which came to totally dominate the economy. The chaebols were run by the country’s elite families, who used corruption and their state contacts to emass humongous fortunes. They of course made sure that their wealth was passed on to their children.
On the basis of this development, a new working class was formed in the cities, and a massive wealth divide opened up, with skyrocketing inequality. After the 1997 Asia financial crisis, several chaebols went bankrupt and Korea entered a period of mass unemployment.
The film hints that this is the background to both the Parks’ wealth and the Kims’ poverty. The Kims weren’t always on the edge of survival; both Chung-sook and Ki-taek speak of having lost steady jobs in the past.
Today, South Korea is a nation on edge. In recent years, the country has been rocketed by corruption scandals, general strikes and mass protest movements that have brought down governments.
Parasite exposes the horrific conditions that those at the bottom of Korean society are forced to toil under. What it doesn’t show is the power that organisation and leadership has for the working class, in its struggle to overcome these conditions. Instead, the Kims are seen struggling alone; and, despite their obvious talent and capacity for incredible hard work, this struggle has tragic consequences.
At the end of the day, it is the capitalist system and the bourgeois class that enriches itself through exploitation that is the true parasite.