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Much has been written about how Parasite positions itself as a class struggle movie. In fact, it is very refreshing to see a film that assumes our social abyss so clearly, directly and didactically. The leftist imagination can sometimes forget these simple truths, and to observe the obvious can be essential in a political setting like ours (and I don’t speak only of Brazil here). The biggest quality and the biggest limitation of Bong Joon-ho’s film is its transparency. It is impossible in the face of his allegory not to understand what it is about and when the pressure cooker narrative bursts into violence to have any doubts as to which side the film is on. Everything is resolved too neatly, and there are times when the drama suggests a system as oppressive as capitalism with characters being moved around the stage to better serve the film’s ruthless project.
There is little ambiguity here. Some might point towards the title, but seeing ambiguity in the parasite’s identity says more about the ideological charge the audience brings with them than about the movie. The ending has the classic ambiguity of great works of popular cinema that want to put their finger on malaise wounds, but who also want to find enough distance so as not to bother audiences enough to hurt their box office. It is terrible in its staging, but the off-screen narration irony with its doomed promise of working class ethics bringing class movement finds some relief even if one of a dream more than reality. In short, what is ambiguous here comes from calculation to ensure that the movie’s brutalist games achieve as much impact as possible with audiences. Moreover, Parasite presents a closed circuit with little in way of exit routes. There are times when the lack of dramatic escapes is as impressive in its dedication as it is frustrating for a certain lack of imagination. What is designed on the film’s action stage will be set in motion with the expected consequences. Parasite does not want to expand dramatic possibilities, but moves towards closing them off.
In Parasite, capital is a prison and the logic of late capitalism is both insurmountable and destined to cancel out any possibility of solidarity among workers. Tenderness here comes down to family ties, for everyone else there is only violence and power games. If there is anything profoundly contemporary in Parasite is to notice how it is a diagnosis without prescription. A painful realization that ends in a gesture of self-annihilation. This world is unsustainable and will soon explode. Parasite ends when in another time it would begin. Fair to notice: it is a hard and even radical take on contemporary class struggle that can hardly be confused with a Marxist analysis. In this sense, it is closer to the pulse of most anti-systemic protests of the past decade than most of the literature about them. It is also a movie whose malaise can be appropriated by diverse agendas.
It is curious to observe than in the film’s social theatre, the middle-class remains an structural absence. In Parasite, one either controls the means of production and receive its benefits or do the manial labor that sustains it. Bong is a popular artist in South Korea and I assume his movie reaches a diverse audience there, but in the rest of the world that embraced Parasite, I imagine its main audience will be those it intentionally leave off-screen. Parasite’s popularity throughout the world is linked to how it stages the middle-class biggest nightmare: going down on social ladder and recognizing it is much closer to the working class. And by doing so offering such an audience an avenue to express their ressentment with safe distance of an allegory.
I’ve mentioned the idea of theatre a few times, and the whole movie builds around its three main stage sets. The house of the rich family where the bulk of the action takes place, the house of the workers’ family that exists above all for its contrast possibilities and the cellar slash prison of the first house which is the film’s main allegorical space. It is a deeply theatrical conception of on-screen space that Bong presents us. The whole movie is a series of social rituals that must be acted in that house that serves as main stage. Gestures of power and submission that should by principle be reinforced. Privilege here is whether or not one is allowed to recognize the meaning behind them. Those who have it are blind to them and those who do not know very well what is at stake in each one. In this, it is a key idea that the workers themselves become impostors playing a role for which they were not “qualified” within our capital logic of technical excellence. It is an irony that this is a film built around the concept of work in which very little is produced, the boss does little while the employees pretend most of the time to perform their tasks and yet somehow the order of things goes unchanged and unnoticed, because work here is just another part of the social scam.
If a theatrical logic is central for Parasite’s intentions, it is worth noticing the cast is flawless, but there is a very interesting contrast in the images projected by both families father figures. Lee Sun-Kyun, the boss, and Song Kang-ho, the servant, are both big stars in South Korea. Song is closest for a foreign audience given his previous presence at the center of Bong’s earlier films (Memories of Murder, The Host, Snowpiercer), in addition of being a recurring figure of other well-known Korean auteurs, especially those with a foot in popular cinema (Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-won), Lee is a constant presence on Korean TV and is best known here. for the thriller A Hard Day and especially for the many films he made with Hong Sang-soo. Song is an actor of big gestures who always dominates the scene who can become the focus even when Bong shoots with Hollywood stars in Snowpiercer. An actor from popular movies who tend towards an exccess. Lee, on the other hand, is a more naturalistic figure who tends to disappear into scenic space, whose domain of scene is more in the way he engages with the fabric of drama. This excess/containment disarray, the desire to expose the silent gestures and to silence them becomes an essential part of the social tension of the film and is well exposed in the posture of its main stars.
Part of Parasite’s strength and relevance lies in this process of enacting power games because the Korean film makes the machinery that stage these games and the social conventions behind them inseparable. If the idea of scenic space is central for the critical conception of the film, it is because the cinematic apparatus itself is dragged into it. The stories we play are an essential part of the narrative that underpins these same conventions of power.
It is towards this notion of social theater that the film returns all the time (some echoes of Snowpiercer) and its strength comes from the implications it derives from it. There is a recurring idea throughout Parasite about smell. The odor separates bosses and workers and threatens to denounce them when the later hide inside the house. “The driver stinks,” the boss complains to his wife, and at that moment not only does the distance between them widen and any possibility of class reconciliation melts away, but whatever spell the bosses might have goes away with it as well, from that moment on Parasite leaves behind any pretense of balanced allegory, the realization that the other’s odor bothers is tantamount to a declaration of war and the film takes a side. As American film critic Steven Erickson mentioned in a conversation with me, smell is something that escapes cinema capacities for mimesis. If everything here reproduces a social logic, the smell cannot be represented. It is the only element that cannot be enacted in social theater. Every gesture reproduces the social order, but odor attacks it. A bug in the system, a break in the cinematic apparatus. As Parasite moves toward its violent ending, the suicidal decision of its main character when finding about the smell is taken. From there, the logic of confrontation is imposed, there’s no longer the possibility of a social pact and there is no game of filmed theater capable of countain it. It is interesting to notice how Parasite and Snowpiercer have opposite ends: in the earlier movie Bong romanticizes the possibilities of the unknown, while here we move towards a prison, the film retracts into individualism, a man alone condemned to a phantom existence. The closed circuit is reinforced. Parasite delineates this tipping point. The rupture is as far as it can arrive.