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If I were to be unlucky enough to be cornered by an overly curious individual at a party and forced to describe the intangible, thorny concept of class, I’d most likely describe this concept as the invisible lines we all instinctively know not to cross. There’s the streets we know not to walk down, people we aren’t supposed to date, and leisure activities that we simply can’t afford. If I were to descend into wanton memory, I’d proffer the dual images of regular Homer Simpson and Homer in a top hat and monocle attempting to pass as someone he is not. Of course, that person would have to know who Homer Simpson is (and isn’t) which is in and of itself a sign of class standing. I suppose I would have made my point.
Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is one of the more effective, affecting attempts to draw attention to all the ways in which humanity struggles with those invisible lines and what happens when we accidentally (or purposefully) cross them. It shouldn't be surprising that this is accomplished by a director who isn’t from the United States. American cinema isn’t often able to dramatize class divisions without it being dressed up in the trappings of science fiction: the bleak dystopia of Blade Runner or the alien invasion satire of They Live. More recently, Todd Phillips’s Joker asked American moviegoers to sympathize with a homicidal maniac in a clown costume primarily because he was poor. That Joker was based on a comic book character allowed the rather blunt message to digest just a little easier. Joker was, in its own way, similar to the Homer Simpson meme. You identify with the idea because you identify with the character and what he represents.
Foreign directors tend to have more room to dabble in class commentary because most other countries don’t have America’s tendency to believe that we all magically have equal opportunities for success. The Battle of Algiers or Howard’s End aren’t movies that naturally appeal to American sensibilities and either because they’re true stories from those countries or reflections of those culture’s own preoccupations, they can’t be made here. Despite an increased interest in class warfare in the United States during the Trump era, Hollywood isn’t itching to comment on the ways in which large clusters of Americans suffer from the hopelessness of class definitions.
Perhaps that’s why Parasite has struck such a chord with American art house audiences. Bong’s first English-language film, Snowpiercer, imagined a stark vision of class in a dystopian future where the class struggle was illustrated by which car one lives on inside a massive train. Parasite hits harder because it doesn’t come inside the shiny package of sci-fi. The lower class Kim family that fronts Parasite lives in the slums of South Korea and runs an elaborate grift on a wealthy, seemingly clueless family from the other side of the metaphorical tracks.
The Kims live in what we’d call a “garden apartment,” that sits below street level. They’re constantly looking up at the life outside rather than meeting it head on. They toil folding pizza boxes for meager sums of money. When their slacker son Ki-woo lucks into a tutoring job with posh Park family, the Kims hatch a scheme to install their entire family in service jobs at the Park house. Slowly, they worm their way into the Parks’ lives, but find that their plan has unintended consequences that will ultimately undo everything.
There are no clown costumes or aliens. It’s a story of how we take advantage of each other, either materialistically or emotionally. The Kims and the Parks are both leeching off of the other, and eventually that relationship becomes untenable. It’s about what each side of the class spectrum believes they deserve: luxury and security or unambiguous subservience. Parasite leaves a lasting impression because it doesn’t have to hide behind allegory, while also never stooping to the level of having a character explain its theme in a dramatic third-act monologue. It also retains a macabre sense of humor that befits the subject matter. What can we do about the stark realities of capitalism’s callousness but laugh?
I suppose that’s almost, maybe what Todd Phillips was hoping to say with Joker. Arthur Fleck sees income inequality and despair as one big gag, so why not dress up as a clown and lash out violently in the face of a system too unwieldy to fix? The comic book flourishes of a movie like that can’t help but cause audiences to detach, though. You can look at a meme and chuckle at the juxtaposition, but what does it say beyond that? Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You was another American film about class that used arch comedy and sci-fi elements to talk about inequality that similarly lacked pathos. Yes, it was a fantastic, hilarious bit of filmmaking, but it operated on a different plane than Parasite. Once characters start turning into horses, I’d say it’s understandable if you remove yourself from the stakes.
Jordan Peele’s Us might be the closest American sibling to Parasite because both deal with two sets of families who have led drastically different lives, but somehow still require each other to function in a twisted ecosystem that was not of their making. Us makes that connection as literal as possible. The Tethered are connected to their doppelgängers through the unknowable horrors of government-funded science experiments gone wrong. Allegory and metaphor make that which could otherwise feel didactic become mass entertainment. It’s what television shows like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and Black Mirror were created for. There’s a lesson on morality at the bottom of every Cracker Jack box. There are certainly absurdities and flights of fancy in Parasite, befitting the stylistic preference of its auteur, but those visceral pleasures are harder to come by. Parasite allows us to understand the grimmer aspects of human nature more clearly by stripping away the fun bits and not shying away from our capacity for selfishness, but also our unquenchable desire for acceptance. Those qualities are not inherent to America, Korea, or any country. It’s just us.