The news that the Korean film “Parasite” won Oscars in four categories, marking the first such wins in Korean film history, came as a pleasant surprise.
Initially, people expected the celebrated Korean film would easily win for best international film and possibly best original screenplay. However, it looked difficult for “Parasite” to win for best picture, because it had to compete with such distinguished films as “The Irishman,” “Joker” and “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” The award for best director was another one that was tough to win because director Bong Joon-ho had to compete with such formidable auteurs as Martin Scorsese. However, ultimately “Parasite” won and received the utmost honors it so deserved.
What, then, made “Parasite” receive such honors at the 2020 Academy Awards? Among others, the movie superbly depicts silent, but persistent class warfare ever existing in a capitalist country, deftly using the motif of the host and the parasite to delineate the inherent problems of a capitalist society. However, “Parasite” does not simply expose the clash between the rich and the poor. Instead, it delves into complex issues of class-consciousness that seriously undermine our society these days.
According to the press, many American viewers of “Parasite” find it intriguing that the movie does not portray the wealthy Parks in the movie as villains and the poor Kim family as good people. Indeed, the image of the Parks is of the metaphorical host deceived and victimized by the parasitic Kim family, who infiltrate into the well-heeled Park family by presenting forged documents and gradually take over the rich home.
Ostensibly, “Parasite” is a movie that deals with class conflict in Korean society. However, there is much more to it. As all great films do, “Parasite,” too, transcends the boundaries of good and evil, and allows open interpretations. Indeed, “Parasite” is a thought-provoking film in the sense that it piques our curiosity with provocative questions: “What is the relationship between the host and the parasite?” and “What happens to the parasite if the host dies?”
Director Bong had already exhibited a similarly ambivalent political stance in “Snowpiercer,” in which he suggests that we seek a third possibility by breaking out of the system, whether it is capitalist or socialist, or whether dominant or rebellious. Bong has a dual perspective and does not simply take one side over and against the other. Unlike “Snowpiercer,” where his viewpoint is universal, Parasite seems to focus on today’s Korean society where the rich and poor abhor each other and try to eliminate the other.
Economists maintain that the economy can prosper when the rich open their purses. That is, the poor can benefit when the rich spend their money. If so, perhaps the rich and poor are reciprocal and mutually dependent on each other. If it is true, they need to coexist peacefully instead of trying to destroy each other. At the end of the movie, when Park dies, stabbed by Kim, both of them lose the house: It becomes the property of a foreign family.
“Parasite” sheds new light on the complex relationship between host and parasite. Since the parasite cannot survive without the host, the existence of the host is prerequisite to his survival. In that sense, “Parasite” provides profound insight into, and a powerful criticism of, our contemporary society, where the rich and the poor antagonize and condemn each other, instigated by wicked politicians who seek political gain in elections.
Therefore, as proud as we are at the wonderful news about “Parasite,” we must not allow our politicians to manipulate these sentiments to win the upcoming election. “Parasite” is not a critique of the rich. It is not a defense for the poor, either. Rather, it is a powerful indictment of our society where prejudice, resentment and fraud between the rich and the poor are rampant.
The age of Karl Marx is over, and we no longer live in an era of the exploiter and the exploited. Today, the relationship between the rich and poor or between labor and management has become much more complex and multifarious than the 19th century. Think about big corporations such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai that have created and provided numerous jobs here, and made our country rich and famous. They are not exploiters.
Upon hearing that “Parasite” won four Oscars this year, we are delighted and appreciate the magnanimity of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to honor the Korean film, rather than other strong Hollywood film nominees.
Recently, Koreans overseas are embarrassed and depressed due to the news of the sudden pandemic of the coronavirus. They realize that in the eyes of Westerners, Asians may all look the same as potential virus carriers. Koreans overseas now understand why some Canadians and Europeans wore T-shirts printed “I am not American” when anti-American sentiment was widespread in Korea years ago.
Thanks to the delightful news, however, now we can proudly say: “We’re from Korea!”
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University. -- Ed.