Parasite, a Window Into South Korean Neoliberalism

Bong Joon Ho’s film Parasite has been hailed for highlighting the class divides that split South Korean society. But its portrayal of working-class life also demonstrates a deeper ill of capitalism — the way in which the constant hunt for a job undermines our basic human dignity.

Jo Yeo-jeong in Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite." Neon / CJ Entertainment

Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite, which reached US theaters last month after its initial South Korean release in May, has been a massive hit among critics and audiences alike. After its Palme d’Or–winning première at Cannes, it sold over ten million tickets in South Korea alone, making it that country’s fourth biggest-selling film of 2019.

Grossing over $120 million worldwide, Parasite is director Bong Joon Ho’s seventh film and his most successful yet. Coming from a director whose films often feature marginalized characters fighting oppression (see Barking Dogs Never Bite, The Host, and most recently Snowpiercer), Parasite has been hailed as a lucid and straightforward critique of wealth inequality in South Korean society.

The film (spoilers below!) is widely seen as an allegory for the rampant class inequality and popular frustration at the lack of social mobility in one of Asia’s richest countries. Writing in Jacobin, Eileen Jones praised Parasite for going beyond simple allegorical overtures, claiming that it “crystallizes the experiences of being an underclass family grasping at a chance to ‘make it,’ and portrays it in such a way as to hurt you.”

In the New York Times, Brian X. Chen described the film as a confrontation between “the haves against the have-nots,” and interprets the con carried out by the Kim family in the film as revenge for the “bitterness and frustration” at a society engineered to make sure only the wealthy succeed. Scott Mendelson called the film a “brutal social commentary” on the lives of the rich, reliant on the labor of an unrecognized underclass who “can barely afford to live in the civilization for which they provide the foundation.”

The encounter between the Kim and Park families in Parasite is, indeed, a fairly obvious metaphor for class antagonisms in South Korean society. But to focus on material wealth alone risks neglecting a subtler, and ultimately more devastating critique latent in Bong Joon Ho’s film. For Parasite also zones in on the stripping of working-class people’s dignity, self-respect, and social stature, as our work, and our lives, are made ever more precarious by the harshening dynamics of neoliberal capitalism.

Living Paycheck to Paycheck

First, the plot. In Parasite, an impoverished, working-class Seoul family called the Kims infiltrates the world of the rich through a series of ingenious cons. When their son Ki-woo is offered a lucrative gig by his friend tutoring the daughter of a wealthy family in Seoul — the Parks — he accepts. Yet Ki-woo faces the slight complication that he hasn’t attended university, as his family couldn’t afford tuition. Anticipating that the Parks will only accept a college student, he shows up with an enrollment form forged by his artistically inclined sister.

Surprised at the naivety of the rich, Ki-woo devises a series of Mission Impossible–style plots to get his entire family into working for the Parks. Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jeong, becomes an “art therapy” tutor for the Parks’ quirky and somewhat difficult young son. Ki-woo’s father, Ki-taek, gets hired as their personal driver. Ki-woo’s mother, Chung-sook, installs herself as the new live-in help after ousting the longtime housekeeper.

Keeping their family ties a secret, their new jobs lift the Kims out of their seemingly inescapable poverty in a few short weeks. In a labor market lacking in stable, well-paid positions, in which workers often resort to self-employment or casual labor lacking workplace protections, the Kims have hit the jackpot.

The Kims embody the plight of the South Korean working class. They live crammed together in a dingy semi-basement apartment in Seoul, where every night they are subjected to drunks urinating on the street next to their kitchen window. Their life stands in stark contrast to the wealthy Parks, who enjoy the rare privilege of owning a luxurious, gated-off home with a spacious and landscaped front yard (practically unheard of in the dense cities of South Korea).

The symbolism in Parasite doesn’t end there. The Kims survive on cheap takeout pizza, and even when they do have money, they celebrate by eating at a buffet restaurant for taxi drivers — a cheap way to consume a calorie-heavy meal. This symbolism is not lost on moviegoers in Seoul, today one of the world’s ten most expensive cities, with the most expensive groceries in Asia. The Parks, by contrast, stock their refrigerator with bottled sparkling water and feed their dogs high-end organic pet food and Japanese crabsticks.

The diets of the haves and have-nots are, indeed, a striking index of inequality in the South Korean capital. According to a 2018 study surveying 1,023 residents, over 20 percent of low-income Seoulites do not receive adequate nutrients from their diets—a number four times higher than the national average. Moreover, 10 percent of low-income residents suffer food insecurity, meaning they lacked reliable access to what food they needed for a healthy and active life. Added to their generally lesser variety of fresh produce, this feeds a situation in which Seoul’s poor also suffer worse rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

No Plan

In a scene halfway through the film, as the Kim family father Ki-taek chauffeurs Mr Park to an appointment, he attempts to pass himself off as a veteran in the field by fabricating a story about his long love affair with his vocation. Mr Park nods, and replies, “I respect people who work in the same field for a long time.” Similar themes of professional commitment, of “having a plan,” and being self-reliant recur throughout the film.

As Ki-woo stands in the doorway on his way to a job interview, forged documents in hand, he tells his father, “I don’t consider this a crime. I’m going to attend this university eventually. Think of it as just receiving the documents a little early.” His father replies, “Oh, so you do have a plan!” When the upstairs neighbor changes the Wi-Fi password, Chung-sook asks her husband, “Our phones are shut off. Now our Wi-Fi is shut off. So, what’s your plan?”

Later on, after the Kims’ apartment is flooded and they end up sleeping in a gymnasium, Ki-taek tells his son, “Ki-woo, you know what plan never fails? No plan at all. You know why? If you make a plan, life never works out that way.”

For older Seoul residents, this scene is likely evocative of the recurring flooding in the nearby Mangwon neighborhood in the 1980s, a low-income area adjacent to the garbage dump. The city knowingly neglected the dykes holding back the Han River, causing devastating floods that upended the lives of poor and elderly people living there. Mangwon’s residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the city and won compensation, giving birth to Lawyers for a Democratic Society, the first human rights- and democracy-oriented lawyers’ organization in South Korea.

Throughout Parasite, the precariousness of the Kims’ neighborhood is sharply contrasted to the safety and security bought by the Parks’ accumulated wealth. Unbeknownst to Mr Park, before conning his way into the employment of the rich, Kim Ki-taek and his family had tried a slew of jobs to make ends meet. The film opens with the Kims seated in their kitchen, folding pizza boxes for a nearby restaurant — a precarious, piece-wage gig to earn a few bucks. Ki-taek also mentions previously operating a fried chicken franchise and a Taiwanese “king castella” shop, as well as working as a daeri driver.

Daeri drivers drive drunk people home in their own cars late at night, a common form of itinerant contract labor performed by the underemployed in South Korean cities. They are forced to stay on call all day, often waiting on the street with no facilities to rest, escape bad weather, or even use the bathroom. The majority of full-time drivers earn less than $1,750 per month and report suffering from a number of health issues, including muscular-skeletal problems, fatigue, and stress.

Drivers in the city of Daegu formed their own union as early as 2005, but were denied unionization rights on the national level under the previous administrations of Lee Myung-bak and recently ousted Park Geun-hye, citing their status as contract workers. Despite early promises from the current Moon Jae-in administration, daeri drivers were again denied permission to register as a national organization in 2017 by the Ministry of Labor.

However, that may be changing. In a slew of court decisions in November 2019 responding to increasing pressure brought by organized labor, daeri drivers, alongside food delivery drivers and golf caddies, were recognized as “laborers” instead of “contract workers” under the South Korean constitution—likely opening the way for the right to form a union. For daeri drivers who have been fighting for unionization rights for over a decade, the ability to bargain collectively over contracts may spell the end for starvation wages. Without these rights, it would in fact be quite a challenge for daeri drivers to “work in the same field for a long time,” as Mr Park so admires.

The Castella Craze

In a dramatic twist midway through the film, the ousted housekeeper, Moon-gwang, returns while the Park family is away for the weekend and begs Chung-sook to let her into the house. Appearing disheveled, incoherent, and battered, she races down to a secret room in the basement, where the audience learns that her husband, Geun-sae, has been secretly hiding from loan sharks for four years. After escaping from their own basement dwellings to the Parks’ palatial estate, the Kims discover that another working-class family has been eking out an even more miserable existence in the basement right below them.

Geun-sae explains that the predicament is all his fault. He had borrowed money from a loan shark to open a “king castella” cake shop—a pastry craze that began in Taiwan and exploded across South Korea in 2017. Due to low start-up costs, king castella shops were relatively cheap to open and a number of South Koreans staked their life savings on getting rich from the fad. The market soon grew oversaturated and the king castella bubble burst, leaving hundreds if not thousands of people with massive debts and no way to repay them.

These kinds of stories are common in South Korea, where the lack of stable, full-time employment with benefits drives families to found their own business in hopes of sending their children to college and retiring with some savings. In 2017, a remarkable 25.4 percent of South Koreans were self-employed, often operating establishments like fried chicken restaurants and convenience stores — significantly higher than the 15.3 percent average in the OECD countries as a whole.

With over 8,000 chicken shops closing their doors in the country every year, for most workers already struggling to make ends meet, the failure of the family business often throws them deeper into debt and desperation. This desperation, a familiar experience for thousands of South Korean moviegoers, is the backdrop against which the lives of the two basement-dwelling families depicted in Parasite unfold. In Geun-sae’s extreme case, desperation literally drives him underground.

Earning “Respect”

When the father of the Kim family, Ki-taek, ends up having to hide in the secret basement of the Park’s house, he witnesses the deranged and wild-eyed Geun-sae’s strange ritual of giving thanks to Mr Park. Geun-sae stands in front of a page ripped out of a financial magazine featuring Mr Park as “CEO of the Year”, and thanks him for “feeding and housing me”— followed by an exclamation of “Respect!” Witnessing this, a perplexed Ki-taek asks, “You do this every day?” Geun-sae then reveals that by manipulating light switches in the basement, he sends the Park family daily messages of thanks using Morse code. Unable to draw the parallels between Geun-sa’s predicament and his own, Ki-taek asks, “How can you live in a place like this? What’ll you do going forward? You don’t have a plan?”

Scenes of showing thanks and unearned gratitude for the “benevolence” of the rich recur throughout the film. After the entire Kim family becomes employed by the Parks, Ki-taek suggests at dinner that they “offer a prayer of gratitude to the great Mr Park” for the income he provides the family.

Working-class characters in Parasite internalize the logics of late capitalism — which lead people like the Kims to regard poverty as a consequence of their own moral failings, not the result of a system built on exploitation and perpetual precarity. In Parasite, this logic results in an unearned “respect” shown toward the rich among the basement-dwelling poor — preventing them from identifying with each other and finding strength in solidarity.

Plan to Win

Alongside simply being a great movie, Parasite resonates with audiences because of the spotlight it shines on economic injustice, repeatedly evoked by the Kim family’s half-basement apartment. In a tense scene, the youngest Park comments that the family’s driver, housekeeper, and two tutors all smell the same — a consequence of the musty, damp odor the Kims’ apartment leaves on their clothes. In a slew of articles, tweets, and Facebook posts following the film’s release, the “half-basement” came to symbolize the collective experiences of Seoul’s less-privileged classes, experiences which are utterly alien to those born into wealth and opportunity.

Yet what makes Bong Joon Ho’s critique of life under capitalism so damning is not the mere fact that he highlights inequalities, but rather his depiction of workers’ demoralization under neoliberalism more generally. Trapped in constant cycles of poverty, the Kims are constantly hunting for a job, a free Wi-Fi signal, and a way to escape the “boiled rag” smell that brands them as poor. They constantly concoct new schemes to write themselves a life story worthy of respect.

The Parks’ lives, on the other hand, exude permanency and stability. They live in a historic home designed by a famous architect — a continual point of pride in conversations with visitors. They enjoy the luxury of spending time together in the evenings, and go on weekend vacations to celebrate birthdays.

The Kims, and millions of South Korean workers, would be under less pressure to work such precarious jobs if the country enforced better labor protections. South Korea has a strong and proud labor movement, but it has never had a left-wing government to rewrite the country’s labor law. Despite early campaign promises from current President Moon Jae-in, so far, he has delivered little, and working-class people continue to juggle multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

In this way, Bong Joon Ho’s film masterfully satirizes the neoliberal culture of self-reliance that permeates South Korean society, exhorting workers to take full economic responsibility for themselves, while at the same time stigmatizing them as undeserving of respect and humanity when capitalism turns their lives upside down. Ki-taek’s assertion that it is best to “have no plan” is a diagnosis of life in South Korea after neoliberal restructuring: when workers are atomized and isolated, they lose the ability to plan ahead, to feel safe and secure, and identify meaning and purpose in their lives. Eventually, some of them lash out.

The film has been received positively in South Korea, where a host of social issues such as rampant gentrification, urban “revitalization” in lower-income neighborhoods, air pollution, rising food and housing prices, and job insecurity have generated a sense of betrayal among many young people. In a September 2019 study, only 23 percent of twenty-somethings from lower-middle-class backgrounds and below said they were optimistic that their quality of life will improve.

In this context, it’s unsurprising that South Korean audiences recognize the hypocrisy of a situation where individuals are told to “have a plan” yet are given no clear route to stability. That Parasite has also done so well with moviegoers in the West suggests that the conditions depicted in Seoul are not so far off from what people experience the world over.