In the years after World War II, Korea’s economy was in tragic shape. In 1948, the country’s per capita income of $86 put it on par with Sudan. Disastrous policies led to hyperinflation, snail-paced growth forced mothers to make choices about children along the lines of Sophie’s, plus literacy rates in the country were among the lowest in the world. Analyzing the situation, one U.S. official concluded that “Korea can never attain a high standard of living.” The reason, he observed, was that “there are virtually no Koreans with the technical training and experience required to take advantage of Korea’s resources and effect an improvement over its rice-economy status.”
Happily, however, predictions are made to be discredited. The speculation about what became South Korea’s future proved incorrect. Wildly so. Fast forward to the present, and South Korea now finds itself impressively prosperous. Though GDP isn’t the most accurate or worthy of numbers, what was once wrecked by war (among other things) is now one of only two countries (along with Taiwan) to “have managed 5 percent growth for five decades” on the way to its economy presently ranking as the world’s 13th largest.
South Korea is one of the biggest trading partners for both China and the United States, and it can claim some of the most prominent global consumer brands, including LG and Samsung. All that, plus the country’s citizens enjoy, according to The New Koreans author Michael Breen, “the fastest, most extensive mobile broadband networks and the highest penetration of smartphones in the world.” Much has changed in this once desperately poor country, and it’s surely for the better.
All of the above, and realistically much, much more, rates as a backdrop to commentary meant to offer a counter-argument to all the excitement among critics about the 2019 South Korean film, Parasite. Directed and co-written by Bong Joon-ho, it’s presently the longshot but trendy pick to take home the Best Picture prize at Sunday’s Academy Awards. That it’s even nominated is a reminder of how politicized everything’s become, including critiques of films.
For background, Parasite is ostensibly the story of a down-on-its-luck Korean family that folds pizza boxes for a local chain as seemingly its primary source of income. The Kim family lives in a grungy basement apartment in Seoul, though old photos of the Pere Kim perhaps indicate a somewhat upwardly mobile past. Needless to say, the family struggles in the present.
Then luck of sorts find them. Even though none of the family members can find steady work, son Ki-woo is friends with a university student set to study abroad. For extra money, Ki-woo’s friend works as an English tutor for the very rich Park family. The Parks have a daughter who aspires to learn English, so Ki-woo’s friend tells him to pose as a university student in order to get the job. Right here it’s fair to guess that those who haven’t seen Parasite can see how thoroughly implausible the film is.
Simply stated, fluency in English is a rather lucrative skill to possess, Ki-woo ultimately gets the job tutoring the daughter, but if he’s got these skills why on earth would he be folding pizza boxes? We’re supposed to believe that the Kims are poor due to a lack of work options, but let’s be serious. If Ki-woo is fluent in English such that he can immediately impress the rich Parks, why isn’t he already lucratively employed by someone, somewhere in Seoul in consideration of English’s seminal role in the global economy? More on this question in a bit.
Until then, it should be said that having secured the job as English tutor to Da-hye, Ki-woo is told that Da-hye’s brother Da-song is obsessed with art. Sensing an opportunity for his strikingly beautiful sister, Ki-woo fibs to Mrs. Park that she’s an “art” expert of some kind only for Ki-jeong to be hired to tutor Da-song. Once in the employ of the Parks, Ki-jeong frames Mr. Park’s longtime driver for having sex in the car he chauffeurs Mr. Park around in by leaving a pair of underwear in the back seat, only for Pere Kim to become Mr. Park’s driver. The three Kims then exploit the Park family cook’s peach allergy to get Mrs. Kim hired as the cook.
To be fair, movies are supposed to be escapist to some degree. And the stories, to be good, must be a little bit implausible. Fine, except that with Parasite Bong Joon-ho is thoroughly insulting the intelligence of his viewers.
Up front, we’re supposed to believe a son fluent in English, a daughter capable of betraying reasonable knowledge of art, a father knowledgeable of cars (and who can clean up to look the part of an elegant chauffeur), and a mother capable of cooking for those in possession of discerning palates, rate only the most menial of work unless they trick others into hiring them. We’re then expected to believe that individuals so resourceful as to talk themselves into jobs by hyping their backgrounds can’t do the same with the myriad high-end corporations based in Seoul?
Naturally the above question is never answered, and it isn’t because the maker of Parasite plainly isn’t interested in being accurate or plausible; rather his goal is to make the rich, for being rich, appear awful. We see this firstly given the ease with which the Kims get themselves hired by the Parks. They’re wholly duped, and hint hint, readers can surely guess why: the rich are stupid! Don’t you get it? So focused on surface things are they, and so focused are the well-to-do on the things that occupy rich people, that they’re oblivious to what the economically desperate Kims are doing to them. The poor and unemployed? They’re naturally very wise and street smart; their economic situations wholly a consequence of their birth. The problems with such a scenario are many.
For one, Bong might consider why there was a market in South Korea for Parasite to begin with. Stating the obvious, socialistic, class-struggle narratives are generally given life by the wealth that the director and co-writer at least claims to disdain. Translated, fifty to sixty years ago when South Korea was desperately poor, there was no raison d’etre for Parasite. The rich were microscopically few in South Korea, and they certainly weren’t funding the silver screen visions of people like Bong. Why would they have? The country was too poor such that there was no market for movies, let alone films about self-proclaimed sophisticates bilking true-life sophisticates long on money, but short on common sense. The story would have in no way been relevant. Everyone was poor not too long ago.
Some will point out that Parasite has proven a global box office success, and has in particular done well in the U.S., but that just calls for readers to re-read the previous paragraph. Looked at domestically, does anyone seriously think AOC, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would have followers, and notoriety, absent the U.S. being populated by the richest people in the world? The socialist politicians previously mentioned will never admit it, but the wealth they claim to disdain is the source of their own prominence. Naturally Parasite’s excessively expressed hatred for the rich plays well in a country like the U.S. Ok, fine, but let’s step back to seriously think about the plausibility of Parasite with the two previous paragraphs along with the opening paragraphs very much in mind.
For the last several decades South Korea’s economy, and Seoul’s in particular, has boomed. In light of the boom, is it at all reasonable to purport as Bong does that smart, street smart and attractive residents of Seoul only rate steady work of the pizza-box folding variety? Such a question answers itself. But if readers aren’t satisfied, ideally the truth that South Korea is one of the world’s largest importers (#9 among countries) should. Individuals can only import insofar as their production rates imports, and South Korea is a champion importer. The latter is surely a sign that its people aren’t just employed, but employed in highly remunerative fashion.
After that, a narrative takes shape in Parasite that poor people have a unique scent; one that offends the more refined sensibilities of rich people like the Parks exposed to the poorly-scented Pere Kim. This leads to an odd turn in this wildly overrated film that will surely offend those who attend art house films to avoid slasher scenes. Sentient readers can guess where the movie goes.
Of course, the main contradiction within Parasite is the film’s broadest narrative about seething hatred among the poor for the evil, haughty and surely stupid rich. Really? Well if true, why is superrich dense Seoul a magnet for so many who aren’t, and why do billionaire rich Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco attract quite a few more strivers than do Buffalo, East St. Louis, and Jackson? Though moviemakers would have us believe the non-rich despise the haves, the migratory patterns indicate a much more accurate truth: where the rich are is where the opportunity is for those who aren’t.
Crucial here is that Parasite’s message isn’t the only thing that’s awful about the film. It’s also at least ½ hour too long, with an ending that’s even more implausible than the story of class struggle that precedes the slasher-film ending. Parasite doesn’t deserve Best Foreign Film, Best Picture, or any kind of serious award. That it’s a trendy prediction for some speaks to how much politics and polemic statements within films have replaced good moviemaking as all-important in the eyes of critics and awards’ voters alike.