I don’t need to reiterate the very impressive and well-deserved success of Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2019) in the American market. Its popularity and acclaim have far exceeded that of last year’s dark Korean-language mainstream thriller about class, Burning (dir. Lee Chang-dong, 2018.) While the degree to which mainstream American approval is actually a useful metric of whether a film is “successful” or worth watching is very limited, Parasite’s reception in the States is still interesting to consider.
First of all, Parasite should not be understood in the narrow, reductive way in which “Korean films” are usually interpreted in the West. There’s no reason the lessons of Parasite would only be applicable to Koreans. Reviews often mention small culturally-specific references— Seoul National University, “Kevin” and “Jessica,” ram-don, Ki-jung’s rhyme– that may stand out as making the film seem “exotic” and also carry nuances and connotations non-Korean viewers don’t understand. However, even superficially, they still function fine as signifiers of class difference, reading as a prestigious university, “educated” English-speaking names, instant noodles with expensive steak, and a mnemonic emphasizing how arbitrarily chosen and fake Ki-jung’s identity is, respectively. Furthermore, while the central setting of the half-basement house is a prominent architectural feature of Seoul, it’s not an anomaly in major cities and besides, it functions as an unmissable symbol of (physical, socioeconomic) elevation.
Globalization is said to entail major cities becoming increasingly interconnected, and therefore more alike, due to instantaneous communication, transportation technology, and a world-spanning financial industry. The aesthetics of cities across the globe are perhaps superficially different, but the rich and poor living shoulder to shoulder is one of the tenets of metropolitanism, and city residents experience this socioeconomic chasm in increasingly homogenized ways. Therefore, class difference would not take a very different form in Seoul versus in New York, or in any other city you could have seen Parasite in during its early limited release. Director Bong himself, when asked to comment on Parasite’s global success, offers: “The film talks about two opposing families, about the rich versus the poor, and that is a universal theme, because we all live in the same country now: that of capitalism.” While language, food, customs, etc. differ, capitalism, it seems, is universally understood.
Like Parasite, Burning also has a wry & dark mood, has similar themes, and moves between lower- and upper-class spaces. (In Burning, two working-class friends in Paju fall in with a rich and mysterious traveler, who turns out to be the titular barn-burning arsonist. The film emphasizes how the wealthy are in many ways “invincible” and depicts class envy through the protagonist’s romantic jealousy of the arsonist.) However, instead of straightforward imagery, much of Burning is enmeshed in something about tourism and/or gender, and, in Murakami fashion, incorporates a lot of difficult-to-interpret surrealist elements like sudden flashbacks, strange rituals, liminal existences, and other detached-from-reality stuff. Parasite is successful in the States for the same reasons it’s successful everywhere: besides its excellent cast and soundtrack and cinematography, it portrays something that resonates with everyone and is very intelligible. Every metaphor is meticulously explicated. Even when Parasite turns slasher, viewers can relate to the allegories and therefore easily understand the film’s message. In this way, Parasite is more similar to a movie like Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley, 2018,) which very explicitly criticizes late capitalism and, despite its numerous satirical exaggerations, feels like it takes place in a world exactly like ours except Jeff Bezos has hair.
Perhaps, despite being a foreign film that makes no motions toward not appearing like a foreign film to Americans, Parasite doesn’t feel like a film that takes place somewhere distant or theoretical, and to that we can attribute its American success. However, while for some reason the Western film industry loves remaking popular East Asian media, I foresee one major obstacle to this happening to Parasite. When Mrs. Park interviews Ki-woo for the tutoring job, she doesn’t even care to see his (fake) university transcript because there are no ethnic, linguistic, or cultural barriers to his credibility, and this is the crux on which the entire plot relies. Notwithstanding the nebulous and symbolic “smell of the basement,” if the Kim family speaks, dresses, and acts upper-class, they’re indistinguishable from the “real” upper class. That’s what might make Parasite feel foreign to Americans, or at least why it feels “foreign” to me. Parasite never references discrimination that takes place in Korea because the point is that the two families are so similar. Realistically, though, could such a thing ever happen in the States? In order to address American inequality, you cannot ignore race. Embracing Parasite as a universal representation of capitalism, unfortunately, is even more optimistic than the real conditions of the States, because we (Americans) don’t simply live in a country of capitalism, but in a country of capitalism and racism.