What is a social parasite? The term was a common one among Maoists who saw rich capitalists as sucking the blood of the working class. The Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism Online has reprinted an essay published in 1977 by the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought: “The past two years in Britain has witnessed the beginnings of a powerful mass upsurge in which hundreds of thousands of people all over the country – workers, women, national minorities, students, youth and intellectuals – have been drawn into various forms of rebellion and resistance against the capitalist/imperialist social system, against the tiny handful of parasites, 2 per cent of the population who own over 50 per cent of the property, who are holding on to the political power in their hands like grim death.”
Talk of the top 2%—or today’s 1%—as parasites may seem merely a historical curiosity to those who were not part of the debates about Maoism in the late 1960s and 1970s. However, Parasite, a new film by the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho that won the 2019 Palme d’Or at Cannes, challenges audiences to probe social parasitism amidst growing inequality in a largely affluent country. (The Gini coefficient—a widely used measure of inequality—in South Korea has risen from .31 to .36 in the past ten years. By comparison, in the U.S. it’s risen from .46 to 49; in South Africa, the country with the highest estimated Gini coefficient, it’s .63).
Who are the parasites, the film asks. The rich? The fawning servant dependent on them? The impoverished family seeking to cheat the rich family in order to survive themselves? Or all or none of these? And what makes them parasites: their wealth, status, economic dependency, emotional dependency, skills, lack of skills, lack of identity, or something else? Or the feeling of geographic dislocation conveyed by the film for all of them? The audience never knows the city in which they live, other than that the film was made in South Korea by a South Korean director with South Korean actors and the general sense that they are spared the repression of the North albeit not the ravages of inequality.
The wealthy Park family in Parasite inhabit a dwelling designed by a famous architect. Although they appreciate the status of owning such a home, they have little appreciation for the home’s functions or unique beauty. The husband is often away on unspecified business; the family clearly has money to spend but its sources are never clear. The wife is easily manipulated by those who are cleverer than she is. She cannot cook and does not understand her children although she cares about them. The older daughter cares more about texting and boyfriends than she does about studying, and the younger son loves shooting supposedly American Indian arrows and drawing in the manner of the CoBrA avant garde.
The fawning servant, who came with the house at its purchase from the famous architect, cares meticulously for the home and, almost incidentally, for the family who inhabit it. She is dependent on the family for her livelihood and, it appears, to the house for any sense of identity. Where she lives is, like so much else about her, obscured; the film never shows her retreating to living quarters or going to her own place to sleep for the night.
The Kim family live in poverty in the fetid damp of a basement apartment. Despite apparently trying (and despite the only 3.5% unemployment rate in South Korea), the father of the family has failed to obtain employment. The son, Ki-woo, has apparently taken university entrance examinations four times, without success. (Parenthetically, students in South Korea spend years preparing for the Suneung; estimates are that 2% of students receive offers to attend top-tier universities and 70% of the 590,000 students taking the exam every year are admitted to one of the universities in Korea.)
When Ki-woo’s friend Min goes to study abroad, he recommends Ki-woo as a tutor to the daughter of the Park family. Ki-woo manages to get his sister Ki-jung employed as art tutor to the Park family son; ultimately, his mother replaces the housekeeper and his father the family driver. Ki-woo and Ki-jung are accepted in the family as near but not quite equals; their common smell wafts of the basement in which they live and as a possible revelation that they are related to the housekeeper and driver. Their housekeeper-mother and driver-father, however, are reminded by the Parks of lines they may not cross. As the film nears its end, the father admits that he will no longer try to plan because then he will not be disappointed by failure. The son, on the other hand, has what may be an illusory plan to get rich.
So perhaps each of the characters in Parasite are incomplete, dependent, and out of control of their lives, and their economic circumstances are part of what makes them so. Parasites, moreover, are not symbiotic with their hosts; they do not contribute to their hosts in mutually rewarding ways. Thus is the corrosion of inequality: that it makes parasites of us all.