Despite the crass commercialism that drives the production of many movies, there's no doubt that film is a distinctive and distinctively powerful art form.
I hope you’ve had a chance to see Parasite, the wonderful film by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. For me—as for the good people at the Oscars—it was far and away the best film of 2019. Other people, however, are eagerly denouncing Parasite as a failure, a capitulation, a “conservative” film, indeed a movie full of “contempt” for the working class. What is going on?
Here’s what the critics think. First of all, they think that Parasite is a movie with a message. Maybe this is because they assume all serious movies have messages, or maybe it’s something specific about Parasite; either way, they take it for granted that Bong Joon-ho is trying to “say” something, “show” something, "send a message,” “teach a lesson,” “make a statement.” The New Yorker tells us that Bong “made the movie with the desire, the will, to show something that he has in mind.” The Nation talks about “Bong’s message.” The LA Review of Books asks whether it has “anything original to say.”
But sending messages, showing something, and having original things to say, are things you have to do if you’re a journalist or a scholar. They’re not things you have to do if you’re a fiction-writer. They are what you should want from philosophers and historians and social theorists. They are not things you should always demand of movie-makers—even serious ones. Serious, ambitious, even socially committed fiction-makers don’t always teach lessons: they often ask questions, questions to which they refuse to provide answers. They force us to think for ourselves.
That’s how Toni Morrison thought of her own writing. “Classical music,” she said, “satisfies and closes. Black music does not do that…. There is no final chord. There may be a long chord, but there is no final chord. And it agitates you. Spirituals agitate you, no matter what they are saying about how it is all going to be. There is something underneath them that is incomplete. There is always something else that you want from the music. I want my books to be like that.” Bong Joon-ho, to his credit, has said something very similar: he wants viewers of his movie to “tal[k] over all the ideas they had while watching it”—not to have their minds changed in a particular direction.
So it’s a mistake to think of Bong’s movie as a work designed to tell people what to think. Part of what prevents Parasite from being a simple morality tale is that the rich characters aren’t entirely terrible and the poor characters aren’t entirely saintly. The central poor characters (the Kim family) are vastly preferable to the rich characters (the Park family), but they are flawed human beings. What has today’s legion of critics concluded from this? That Bong is trying to tell us something, of course, and what he’s trying to tell us is: the poor deserve what they get.
I hope you find that surprising if you’ve watched the movie, but I promise you, it’s exactly what the LA Review tells us: “Parasite delivers uncensored class contempt…. Parasite implies throughout that the Parks are at the top and the Kims at the bottom of the social ladder for good reason.” (The Parks don’t fold pizza boxes well, so apparently they deserve to live in a slum.) The Nation agrees: “their suffering… is rationalized by their vulgarity and unscrupulousness.” Rationalized!
This idea is already staggeringly false about the Kims: maybe they aren’t enormously motivated to fold pizza boxes, but they are clearly resourceful and sharp. And then again, they are not the only impoverished characters in the film: there’s also the original housekeeper, Moon-gwang, who is surely neither lazy nor unscrupulous. (Most viewers will probably root for the Kims over Moon-gwang. Some will stop to wonder why they did so. And this complexity is a strength of the film, not a weakness.)
If you want to make people think and talk by means of your movie, it’s a good idea to include elements of ambiguity. That includes moral complexity. If, in Parasite, the poor characters are not utterly saintly and the rich characters are not utterly villainous, this is not because the movie is failing to be a good morality tale: it’s because it’s succeeding at being complicated.
So no, the poor characters in the film are not presented as deserving their fate. And no, this is not a “message” about poor people everywhere, telling us that all of them are lazy and unscrupulous and deserve everything that’s coming to them. Parasite is not an allegory, in which the characters stand for All Poor People. They are particular fictional people, not archetypes. We are not supposed to base our views of poor people on what the Kims and Moon-gwang do in this film. And even these specific characters are not presented as deserving to live in the gutter.
The critics got it wrong about what the film is trying to do; as we saw, that led some of them to say very strange things about how the Kims are presented. And it also led to a third invented complaint: that the movie is too simple. Parasite, The New Yorker tells us, is nothing but “spot-on messaging and calculated talking points, aimed at critics and viewers who share this clearly defined perspective.” It’s just preaching to the choir. It’s dull and constraining, leaving the viewer nothing to do. Really? I guess if you completely miss all the complexity, you won’t do the work the movie wants you to—but that’s hardly its fault.
Parasite certainly does ask us whether the real parasites aren’t the rich, not the poor. Whether there can be a just society that also allows for luxury. Whether morality is possible within capitalism—as Theodor Adorno put it, whether there can be a right life in the wrong one. But it doesn’t answer those questions. If the movie were trying to teach us something, that would be a cop-out; but since the movie is trying to get us to think, it’s exactly the right thing to do.
The critics who’ve panned Parasite desperately wanted to see it as a morality tale. They wanted it to be “propaganda for our side,” a movie that calls people to arms against the system. That’s what The Nation meant when it complained “Here, then, is where Parasite takes us: not to the ledge of class war but to a shrug over inequality.” But that’s not what Bong is up to, any more than it’s what Toni Morrison is up to, or A.S. Byatt (“I do not have a message to give to the world, I do not wish to seduce or persuade”), or André Aciman (“my novel doesn’t have a message”), or J.M. Coetzee (“A story is not a message with a covering”), or Leïla Slimani (“There is no message. I think that literature is here to ask questions, not to answer questions”), or scores of others. Bong said it right out: “I’m not making a documentary or propaganda here.” Wouldn’t it be nice if people had listened?