Monday, February 17, 2020

Parasite: deciphering the real con

Rahul Vaidya

‘I tried to express a sentiment specific to Korean culture, but all the responses from different audiences were pretty much the same. Essentially, we all live in the same country, called capitalism’. – 

Director Bong Joon Ho on his Oscar winning film ‘Parasite’

The criticism of Oscars as celebration of predominantly white, male and extremely cloistered notions ‘what constitutes good art’ has been growing over the years. And despite the furor over #oscarssowhite and #metoo as well as issues of gender pay gaps etc., the attempts by Hollywood and western art world to address the questions of race and gender have been few and far between. Given the long list of nominations for films either celebrating the lost glory of the West (Once upon a time in Hollywood, Ford vs. Ferrari) or melancholy nostalgia of a world long lost or under siege and beyond repair (The Irishman, 1917); little seemed to have changed.

But then something historic happened at Oscars this year. Director Bong Joon Ho’s Korean film ‘Parasite’ not just won the Best International Film as was expected; but also ended up with Best Picture, Best Director, Best original screenplay awards. Its win as Best Picture is quite historic in that no ‘foreign film’ had ever won Best Picture award so far. First Cannes, Golden Globes and then Oscars have all provided their canonical approval for ‘Parasite’. As much as it is novel for an international (and non-European at that) film to achieve such laurels, it is also quite extraordinary for a film that is entirely about class and class struggle to achieve the mainstream critical approval. What is it that sets ‘Parasite’ apart in terms of its politics as well as aesthetics and also ensures such wide approval of audience and critics alike worldwide? I would like to put forth few points in this regard.

First, briefly about the story: in Parasite, an impoverished, working-class Seoul family called the Kims infiltrates the world of the rich through a series of ingenious cons.  Keeping their family ties a secret, their new jobs lift the Kims out of their seemingly inescapable poverty in a few short weeks. Their transition from their precarious existence on the margins fighting poverty and contractual labor of packing pizza boxes for piece-wages after several failed attempts in informal gig economy is so sudden and drastic that it seems and feels surreal, ‘too good to be true’. The mobility that class structures offer vis-à-vis other systems of social oppression such as race, caste is touted as a great advance; what is clear is this mobility is possible not through or because of the functioning ‘system’ but through ways and means of bypassing or conning it. And increasingly so has been the case in the age of neo-liberalism with inequality at its peak.

This dark comedy unfolds in a slow-burn fashion.  It is never in question if the con is going to be exposed at all; it is the question of when and how this fantasy of ‘making it big’ is going to come apart. And it does- in a daringly dark manner that ensures every viewer is unsettled and filled with unease for their ‘unconscious’ (the ideological blind spot) having been called out as sympathy for property and propertied.

The inhabitance of completely different worlds by different classes is depicted in great detail in ‘Parasite’. 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 stark contrast in the world of rich and poor is not portrayed rhetorically or in abstract; but through detailed depiction of the spaces they inhabit and their sense of what is ‘natural’ ultimately shaped by the class. The constant tension and contradiction between these worlds reaches its peak when Kims miraculously escape from Park residence after locking down the former housekeeper woman and her husband (who has been living underground Park residence in hiding) in the basement and covering their tracks at great peril. It is raining heavily and Park family has had to prepone their return from their outdoor camp. For the Parks, the rain offers another episode of enjoying the ‘nature’, as they can witness their son camping safely in the lawn in a tent ‘imported from US’ so that it ‘must be waterproof’ while also celebrating the clean air as ‘all the pollution being washed away by rain’ and then deciding to throw a sudden ‘birthday preview’ party. In sharp contrast, the Kims who are running away in the rain reach their home, only to discover their house submerged along with the rest of the slum area. Everything precious they had held onto has been washed away. They have taken refuge in the local gym. They are waiting for flood relief work for their next meal and clothes when Parks call for their presence at the party as well as for their help and assure them that they will be ‘paid extra’ for this.

The other interesting and critical part of the narrative is the ‘smell’. The Park family’s son innocuously calls out the con of Kim family when he declares all four workers in the house who are supposedly strangers ‘they all smell the same’. Completely shaken and panic-stricken, the Kim family tries to reason among themselves that ‘this must be because of the same soap’ and tries to use different soaps but to no avail. The smell is clearly the smell of poverty- living in dingy household where cooking and other smells become parts of the persona. It is also telling that ‘to make it’, the capitalist system places demands on the workers ‘to not be like workers’- not to look like a worker, not to think like worker i.e. to become a cog in the machine without working class politics or even visible markers of working class even. It is clear that this is not very different in inspiration and aspiration from demands of caste system in modern times or social conservatives who are obsessed with ensuring not just the power relations in workplace, society, and politics remain firmly in favor of the privileged but also the visual appearance and also overall ‘being’ of spaces also takes the shape of the aesthetic notions of the powerful. The furor over food, clothing, music and culture at large epitomizes this cultural hegemony and its constant need to resort to repressive state/ civil society apparatuses of late. (Not only in India but also worldwide) These are the kinds of obsessive demands that Park family head and successful businessman constantly expresses: ‘Mr. Ki-taek (Kim) constantly seems to cross the boundary line (that the employee should follow) but never really crosses it. However, his smell does cross it’. Also, the reason why he is enraged and ultimately fires his previous driver is ‘because why did he need to do it (sexual intercourse) in his employer’s car; and worse, why in the backseat-by doing that, he certainly crossed the line’.  However, there is a curious aspect of role play of ‘poverty’ also involved when he tells his wife to wear cheap underclothes like the one he found in the car that he believed to belong to girlfriend of former driver; so that ‘it will turn him on’. This aspect is very much familiar historically in India through various caste based institutions like devdasi or tamasha- lavani which have celebrated the art and female bodies pertaining to lower castes and savarna men happily indulged in to quench their fantasies; however this didn’t lend any social mobility or respect to the profession, bodies or castes of these artistes. It seems like the touch can occur only one way- only the dominant can freely touch the untouchable working people for their pleasures or for beating. The poor are obligated to even hide their ‘smell’.

The celebration of ‘work ethic’ is an important aspect of ‘Capitalism with Asian characteristics’ as Zizek called it. This work ethic is to approach the work and workplace without any questions in the hope of ‘making it big’ in fair manner. This work ethic is direct result of lack of stable, formal employment. Celebration of self-employment, entrepreneurship is a major part of this. It is obvious that only a handful will make it. But it is absolutely necessary that everyone accepts this wholeheartedly. The story of former housekeeper for Clarks is telling. Her husband fell for loan sharks as he borrowed money to open cake shop and his venture failed. He literally had to go underground, in Park’s residence unknown to them to save him from loan sharks. He doesn’t consider this as anything extraordinary, but reasons that many poor Koreans continue to do so. What is telling is the manner in which the logic of late capitalism is internalized by working class. He is in hiding, in abject poverty and living on food that his wife used to steal from Park household. Yet, he thanks the Parks every night for feeding him and providing cover to reside by sending message through his basement lighting system on Morse code and constantly demands Kims to respect Mr. Park. It is this internalization of logic of capitalism that prevents Kim family to forge solidarity with the former housekeeper and her husband or vice versa.

This brings us to the concluding part of the film which has been quite confounding and complex. At the birthday preview party, former housekeeper’s husband emerges from the basement in a mentally deranged state where he goes on killing the members of Kim family when he is killed by Chung-sook (Ki-taek’s wife). When Mr. Kim is despairing the killing of his daughter, Mr. Park’s son suffers trauma induced seizure. So Mr. Park orders Ki-taek to take him to hospital. When Ki-taek sees the disgust in Mr. Park’s face even at that moment at the way Ki-taek smells; he goes on to kill Mr. Park and then vanishes. His son and wife are charged with fraud and are out on probation. His son discovers that Ki-taek has taken refuge in the same Park house basement through Morse code communication via lights system. This time though, his son fantasizes about rescuing Ki-taek not through some other trick, but to become rich first, then buy that very house and then Ki-taek can emerge from the basement without any fear. As much as it seems hopelessly romantic and ill-fated and impossible to attain; this dream tells us a lot about the paradox that working people and the Left worldwide find themselves in. It is not the revolutionary overthrow of the state, but legal manner of parliamentary victories is the only viable alternative; but even that remains increasingly beyond reach. Hence, both working people as well as the Left remain condemned to the underground- suffering double oppression of non-recognition of work as well as excess-recognition as criminals when their only crime is their struggle for real justice.
It is quite possible to read this film entirely as sharp social satire, tragic-comic tale which highlights the income inequality in South Korea which leads people to lead a parasitic existence at the mercy of the rich. In fact, most of the praise in the mainstream has revolved around this theme only. However, the real question is who really the parasite is. At the outset it is the Kim family or many other families residing underground; conning their way up. This is the way fantasies have been shaped up all across the world. The rage over Arushi murder case in Delhi over past many years is a telling example. The sight of working people, their habits, and households have been subjects of horror upon which many cultural productions are based (Batman et. all). The pristine abode of bourgeoisie family household and its corruption through encounter of the outside world is at the very core of the fantasy of our capitalist world. However, this fantasy is an ideological inversion to distort the reality. The reality is the very luxury and comfort of the bourgeoisie is based on the toil of the working people who are doubly deceived- first to accept the unfair terms of labor contract where their unpaid labor is appropriated by the bourgeoisie to build their wealth; and secondly to view themselves as ‘guilty’ and ‘parasites’ for ‘conning’ and trying to outwit the system’. In this sense, the bourgeoisie are the real parasites who suck the working people dry- economically as well as emotionally. It is this big lie that was so succinctly called out by Brecht when he said- ‘what is robbing of a bank compared to founding one’.  Bong Joon Ho’s cinema aptly captures this ethos and richly deserves all the awards, accolades and the celebration.    

The author is Independent Researcher based in New Delhi

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