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Who Exactly Is The ‘Parasite’?

This new genre-bending film from South Korea delivers a sophisticated upstairs-downstairs with a macabre twist.

Parasite, 2019. (screenshot of official trailer/CJ Entertainment/Neon)

James C. Scott, in 1992’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, argues that behind the public face of every society there is a counternarrative written by the subordinate classes. This “hidden transcript” is in dialogue with the public face but always elusive, concealing its rebellion. “Parasite,” the new genre-bending comedy/horror/thriller from Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Snowpiercer”), makes this “hidden transcript” literal in its tale of a hilltop mansion that hides the secrets of its household help.

We begin at the bottom of the hill, with the Kim family. We first see them in the classically “hidden transcript” act of poaching—although this is 2019, so what they’re poaching is wifi. The Kims hang their socks in the window of their semibasement to dry; they battle a stinkbug infestation as they frantically fold pizza boxes in order to make enough cash to survive. Then a friend arrives bearing two things: a heavy “scholar’s rock,” which is believed to bring wealth; and a job for the son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), as the tutor of a wealthy family’s daughter. A few forged university documents and the son is on his way up that hill.

On Scott’s account, the more severe the society’s repression of its underclass, the more violent the fantasies of that subjugated class, and the more carefully they must disguise their true emotions and thoughts in order to survive. The top and bottom of society become unintelligible to one another: the top develops codes, rituals, manners, which a member of the underclass can rarely successfully mimic, while the underclass displays only a compliant smile, hiding the teeth. The Kims insinuate themselves into the life of the Park family, steadily grifting upward until every Kim is working for the family in one capacity or another. As the families intertwine, economically and perhaps sexually, who is feeding off of whom?

“Parasite” offers all the pleasures of the con-artist flick. We get to enjoy the Kims’ stolen victories—even when the victims of their scheming live a good ways down the social ladder. But “Parasite” is not only a caper tale for an age of economic resignation, in which the poor scheme not for wealth but for service jobs. It’s also a home invasion film, where the home is invaded by the help (and then the help themselves face an intruder); and a haunted-house film, where the ghosts are servants.

Scott argues too strenuously that the underclass doesn’t suffer from false consciousness—that it may appear to accept the upper class’s account of underclass inferiority, but it never really gives in. He wants us to attend to the simmering resentments, and to the revolts that erupted even when they faced impossible odds. He wants us to see the resilience of oppressed people’s self-respect.

Bong offers an even more nuanced picture. The “hidden transcript” of the Kims—and the other household help who emerge as their antagonists—does include deception and covert revolt. But it also includes a heartbreaking acceptance of the logic of meritocracy: if you’re smart enough and hardworking enough, that scholar’s rock will shower its blessings of prosperity on you and yours.

“Parasite” uses certain unforgettable contrasts: the awful design of the Kims’ semibasement (who put the toilet on a window ledge?) and the perfect, sleek Park house, for example. The ironwork door to the mansion creaks open and Ki-woo passes from the shadowed, downward-sloping streets outside to the wealthy family’s sun-drenched green lawn. The door slams shut behind him, turning this new bright house into the old dark house of countless horror films, as we suspect Ki-woo is more naive and in more danger than he thinks. A housekeeper physically contorts herself to push aside the shelves concealing a hidden door; a homeowner slumps across a breakfast table in her backyard; faces appear under beds, under tables, disappearing around corners—these are the symbols in Bong’s language of fear, dependence, hidden sorrow, shame.

“Parasite” includes an unforgettable race downward in the pouring rain, from the Parks’ home to the Kims’, and what the characters find at the bottom of the hill is the clearest statement that this is a political movie as well as an intimate psychological thriller/tragedy. “Parasite” explores the limits of the Kims’ ruthlessness, and shows their vulnerability not only to economic exploitation but to humiliation. Scott cites Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb’s The Hidden Injuries of Class: “Public injury to one’s dignity and standing as a person, Sennett argues, is at the very center of class experience for American workers.” It’s indignity, perhaps foreshadowed by that stinkbug infestation, which prompts the movie’s final act of violence.

This is a movie about messages, codes and plans, subterranean communications and misperceptions. (It’s no coincidence that the Kim children work in the Park house under Western names, Ki-woo becoming “Kevin” and Ki-jung “Jessica.”) “Parasite” may even be a “message movie,” though it has an artistry that term conceals. The movie’s long denouement is a part of that artistry. The climax is far from the end; the shattering violence resolves nothing, bringing neither triumph nor complete disaster but a new hard task of salvage.

The film ends with Ki-woo, and asks what his options are. He longs for love, for reunion, for a second chance—he doesn’t want to despair. Does hope require clinging to that heavy scholar’s rock, that tantalus promise of success?

about the author

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos and has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications. She is working on a book on vocation for gay Catholics. Her email is [email protected] and she can be found on Twitter at @evetushnet.

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