Reading Colonialism in “Parasite”

Parasite has made history, which is a euphemism for achieving Western recognition — history’s qualifier. Recognition itself hinges on the gaze, and the imperial variety suffuses Parasite’s critical reception. In an early and emblematic review, Manohla Dargis[1] notes in The New York Times: “The story takes place in South Korea but could easily unfold in Los Angeles or London.” Parasite’s setting is rendered an obstacle that must be transcended as a precondition to its recognition.

In other words, the film has to be made applicable to “Los Angeles or London” to become legible. Dargis’s review isn’t particularly egregious, but it’s emblematic of the conceit of many critics, exceptions notwithstanding. The emphasis on universality is achieved through a negation of the particular in a typical display of liberal chauvinism. Consequently, the more Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece is regarded, the more it seems to vanish in the spectacle of its acclaim. Parasite has made history; never mind how history has made Parasite.

This is not a charge against any attempt to relate Parasite to other contexts. Bong’s social critique concerns the international conditions of globalized capitalism, but particular to Korea’s neoliberal and neocolonial present. Examining the film as a story of class in the neocolony shifts it from a decontextualized tale of rich and poor to one of compradors and the colonized. This lens takes Parasite from an allegory of “class conflict” to one of imperialism, and illuminates the film’s recurring motifs of English, militarization and appropriated Indigenous material culture.

As Korea’s present colonizer, the United States is implicated throughout Parasite. No single character exemplifies Americanness definitively. Rather, Americanness is an aspirational status. The United States’ presence is thereby marked by its absence, which paradoxically illustrates the totalizing nature of its hegemony. This is most immediately established through the use of English.

English is the contemporary language of capital; in Parasite, it delineates class and maps power. Ki-woo and Ki-jung, the Kims’ adult children, open the film with a search for their neighbor’s “WIFI” signal from their semi-basement home. Once they connect, they check for correspondence from “Pizza Shidae,” a pizza chain that contracts the Kims for “box” assembly. When the Pizza Shidae manager discovers poorly constructed boxes, she disciplines the Kims with a “penalty” for the harm that could befall the company’s “brand image.” 

Every English word in the first five minutes of Parasite establishes the Kims’ class position in South Korea’s contemporary economy. The very first, “WIFI” refers to something the family doesn’t own yet relies on for their livelihood. “Pizza” and “box” indicate the products the Kims create as irregular workers. “Penalty” and “brand image” are invoked by the boss to discipline the family’s labor. From the onset, Bong and Han deploy English to chart South Korea’s neoliberal class system from below. Nearly half of South Korea’s workforce are irregular workers[2], the result of two decades of steadfast assaults on labor stipulated by the IMF in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Neoliberalization in South Korea was not only a desperate ploy to save capitalism from a crisis of its own making, but also an offensive against the movement of workers and students who ended three decades of military rule just years before the financial crisis. English indexes the productive relations that govern the Kims’ lives, and in doing so indicates the link between imperialism and the family’s immiseration.   

Whereas the Kims live at the mercy of English and the economic system it represents, the Parks’ prestige within that economic order is marked by their proximity to the language. The Parks’ introduction is mediated by Min-hyuk, Ki-woo’s college attending former schoolmate. Min-hyuk has been tutoring the Parks’ eldest daughter, Da-hye, in English, and offers Ki-woo the gig while Min-hyuk studies abroad. At first, Ki-woo wonders how he’ll manage to be taken seriously by the Parks when he himself is not a college student, but Min-hyuk assures Ki-woo his recommendation will be enough. Besides, the mother of the Park household, Yeon-gyo, is “simple, young and simple.”

South Korea’s national college entrance exam has a notoriously difficult English section, a reflection of the extent to which the country’s economy is organized by US strategic and financial interests. The Parks’ search for an English tutor is part of the process of class reproduction. They are purchasing an advantage for their daughter in the ostensibly meritocratic education system, which requires a nation of Korean speakers of divergent economic backgrounds to demonstrate English fluency in order to attend institutions where classes are taught in Korean. As an unschooled temporary worker who’s taken the national entrance exam four times, Ki-woo is both precarious and knowledgeable enough to be able to accept the gig — ironically helping the Parks game the very system that has kept him from upward mobility. That English itself is the basis of Ki-woo’s employment by the Parks underscores the coloniality of the class system that structures their relationship.

Figure 1 – A question from the 2018 CSAT English section. Courtesy of The Korea Times.[3]

Bong and Han introduce every member of the Park family through English: Da-hye through tutoring, Yeon-gyo as “young and simple,” Dong-ik, the Park patriarch, through a magazine clipping titled “Nathan Park Hits Central Park” and a technology innovation award from the fictional RJCAA. Da-song, the Park’s rambunctious young son, first appears when he fires a plastic arrow at Ki-woo. Yeon-gyo comments Da-song is going through an “Indian” phase he picked up from a “Cub Scouts” instructor, and that she ordered his costumes, toy arrows and a mock-tipi “tent” from the US. Commercialized and appropriated Indigenous regalia features throughout the film, harkening to the settler colonial origins of the United States empire Parasite’s characters are ensnared in. 

From the moment she meets Ki-woo, “young and simple” Yeon-gyo makes an effort to flaunt her English. She cautions that Min-hyuk’s “level” was “brilliant” and that she will hold Ki-woo to the same standard, ending her admonition with a haughty “Is it okay with you?” The idiomatic error (“is it okay with you” as opposed to “is that okay with you”) is a tell; Yeon-gyo doesn’t speak English fluently. Nevertheless, she wields it to define the terms of Ki-woo’s labor, reifying her power and status with the colonizer’s language.

This dynamic is reinforced when Yeon-gyo improvises an English name, “Kevin,” to introduce Ki-woo by to the Parks’ housekeeper, Moon-gwang. There’s more to this than the petty vanity of a rich woman lying to impress an employee. At this point in the film, Dong-ik has already been introduced to the audience as “Nathan Park” in an aforementioned magazine clipping. Dong-ik is never referred to as “Nathan” in the film’s dialogue. “Nathan” is a professional persona Dong-ik adopts for the outside world. As CEO of a fictional Korean tech company, Dong-ik’s ties to US industry and finance elites appear to be extensive — he is a comprador. The name “Nathan” carries a prestige that suits his position and facilitates his ties to capital better than a Korean name ever could. Consequently, it also indicates Dong-ik’s allegiance to interests he serves at the expense of people like the Kims. The same colonial logics that demand Dong-ik become “Nathan” also transform Ki-woo into “Kevin” to signify his acceptance into the Park household. Once he is introduced as “Kevin,” Ki-woo is never asked about his alleged college attendance by any of the Park family members; the English name is more of a credential than his forged university enrollment documents.

English is Parasite’s unequivocal language of power, but none of the characters wield it exclusively. The Kims find ways to bend it to their advantage. Ki-woo secures a position for his sister, Ki-jung, by creating a fictional persona for her: “Jessica.” As “Jessica,” an overseas Korean from Chicago, Ki-jung turns the power of English names and language against the Parks. She tells Yeon-gyo that Da-song has “schizophrenia” (a word Yeon-gyo can’t pronounce), and offers her services to unlock the “black box” of his mind. Yeon-gyo accepts “Jessica’s” diagnosis because of an unspecified traumatic incident Da-song experienced the year before, although her faith in “Jessica’s” expertise appears to also be rooted in the credentializing power of English. Dong-ik later exhibits similar susceptibility to the colonial authority of English. When Ki-taek gives him a doctored business card for a fictional company known as “The Care,” Dong-ik decides to use the service to hire a housekeeper to replace Moon-gwang because of the card’s “cool” font and design.

The Kims’ use of English for their own purposes demonstrates how power is contested between the two families. English is the language of power, but that power proves both illusive and elusive. It facilitates the fictions of control the two families indulge in, and yet never produces the absolute certainty either seeks. English is as beyond the control of the Parks and Kims as the conditions of its usage — the capitalist economic order inaugurated and upheld in Korea by colonial occupation. The film’s twist, which introduces the basement bunker and its denizen, Geun-sae, shatters the families’ illusions of control and surfaces war as the condition of possibility which precedes Parasite and South Korea’s class system.

The film’s second act finds the Kims celebrating while the Park family is away on a camping trip for Da-song’s birthday. They’re surprised by the appearance of the former housekeeper Moon-gwang, who reveals the existence of the basement bunker. Moon-gwang explains that many wealthy homes house underground bunkers built to protect the inhabitants from a North Korean invasion or creditors. This humorous comparison likens capitalism to war, and also illustrates how the state of ongoing war and division inform the physical structure of the home which serves as Parasite’s principal setting. The very architecture of the house is militarized, and the invisibility of the bunker mirrors the invisibility of the war. By the time Moon-gwang reveals the bunker to the Kims, her husband Geun-sae has been starving for four days — the unintended and unseen consequence of the Kims’ scheming.

After discovering the Kims’ con, Moon-gwang uses an incriminating video of the family to blackmail them. Geun-sae likens the send button on Moon-gwang’s phone to a nuclear launch button. The analogy is quite apt. On the run from his debts, Geun-sae has been isolated by capitalism (including by the literal structure of the house that encloses him) in a manner reminiscent of the DPRK’s total economic isolation[4] by US and UN Security Council sanctions. Sending the incriminating video is a threat Geun-sae makes out of desperation, a cellular deterrent against forces that threaten to destroy him. Moon-gwang takes the comparison further with an impression of famed North Korean tv anchor Ri Chun Hee, during which she refers to the video as “the last nuclear missile” in the DPRK’s arsenal.

Just as the Kims overpower Moon-gwang and Geun-sae, Yeon-gyo calls the house to tell Chung-sook the Parks will be home in 8 minutes, and to ask her to prepare food for their arrival. With this news, violence becomes necessary to maintain the façade of order in the house. Shots of the Kims scrambling to cook and clean are interspersed with shots of Geun-sae and Moon-gwang being restrained and brutalized. As Chung-sook fills a pot with water, Geun-sae and Moon-gwang are hauled back to the basement in the background. Moon-gwang momentarily escapes as the Parks return home, only for Chung-sook to kick her down the stairs right before serving Yeon-gyo’s meal. As Yeon-gyo tucks in, Ki-taek drags Moon-gwang’s unconscious body back down to the basement. Violence is another chore that comprises the labor of keeping the house.

The purpose of aligning the bunker with North Korea in the previous scenes becomes clear as the Kims reestablish the appearance of order. Just as South Korea’s neoliberal prosperity is subtended by ongoing war and occupation, the ostensible peace of the Park household is subtended by the bunker. This is further illustrated when Yeon-gyo explains the source of Da-song’s trauma to Chung-sook during her meal, revealing that Da-song suffered a seizure the year before after mistaking Geun-sae for a ghost. Yeon-gyo jokes that there’s an old Korean saying that a ghost is supposed to bring prosperity to a home.

South Korea’s capitalist “miracle” was made possible by brutal military dictators who ruled in service of US strategic and financial interests, often with the direct collaboration and knowledge of the US military[5], which retains over 20,000 soldiers in South Korea to this day. The explosive industrialization which enabled South Korea’s record economic growth was impelled by the force of military rule. Geun-sae’s “haunting” of the house parallels the haunting of the peninsula by the 70-year state of division and war. It is the invisible or invisibilized violence which makes the façade of prosperity and order possible; the grave upon which the house and the class system it represents stand.

Meanwhile, in the bunker, Ki-taek finishes restraining an unconscious Moon-gwang, and then finds Geun-sae singing praises to a magazine photo of Dong-ik. Geun-sae shares that he does this every day, and even sends messages of thanks in Morse code through a set of light switches in the bunker. The “automatic” lights on the house’s kitchen steps are actually operated by Geun-sae, who patiently listens for the sound of footsteps overhead as his signal. This revelation further demonstrates how Geun-sae’s silent, hidden suffering maintains the Parks’ comfort.

Geun-sae’s deep admiration and ritualistic worship of Dong-ik resembles a cult of personality. Morse code is the language of Geun-sae’s worship — a military language in praise of a regime installed and upheld through militarization. The fact that his “Dear Leader” is none other than Dong-ik, paragon of South Korea’s neoliberal and neocolonial present, raises the question of which side of the DMZ is the true dystopia.

Before leaving the bunker and eventually sneaking out of the house, Ki-taek asks Geun-sae how he can stand to live underground. Geun-sae points out many people live underground, especially in semi-basement apartments like the one the Kims inhabit. This link between the bunker and the semi-basements situates the Kims within the invisible war upon which the house and the class system it represents depend.

This point is reinforced as Ki-taek, Ki-woo and Ki-jung escape the house amidst a rainstorm. Bong’s sweeping shots of the upscale hill neighborhood the Parks inhabit fixate on the towering concrete walls, stairs and other infrastructure that separate the rich and poor with fortress-like barriers. By the time the Kims’ arrive back home, the audience has seen how the infrastructure of the city itself concentrates the heavy rains in the poorest downhill areas. Bong cuts shots of the Kim apartment with shots of the bunker. Basement to basement, war zone to war zone. As Moongwang wakes up with a concussion, the Kims enter their flooded apartment. While Ki-jung fights to contain sewage spraying from the toilet, Moongwang vomits into the toilet in the bunker. Ki-woo stares at the scholar rock he received from Min-hyuk in the film’s first act as Da-song peers out from his tent, watching the light flicker with a message from Geun-sae in Morse code. As the Kims fall sleep in a gym surrounded by fellow displaced neighbors, the Parks wake up to a sunny day with birds chirping. The war has many fronts, all of which remain unseen by the comprador Park family, and all of which are a consequence of the Parks’ position.

After the flood, the Kims are summoned back to the Park household to help prepare for an impromptu birthday party for Da-song. As Ki-taek goes through the motions of driving Yeon-gyo around town and assisting with errands, his rage slowly builds to a boiling point. Up till now, Ki-taek has vocally defended the Park family as “nice people,” justifying their indefensible wealth through a fiction of innocence. As the party is about to begin, he finds himself crouched behind a bush with Dong-ik, the respective patriarchs both wearing commercialized war bonnets. Dong-ik explains that when Jessica presents the cake to Da-song, the two men will leap from the bushes as “Bad Indians,” giving the birthday boy an opportunity to save Jessica as the “Good Indian.” In a final appeal to some semblance of common humanity, Ki-taek remarks that Dong-ik is also “trying [his] best” to make his family happy. Dong-ik, who has spent the film expressing increasing irritation at Ki-taek “crossing the line,” rebuffs him harshly: “Think of this as part of your work, okay?”

This moment provides the most straightforward portrait of who Parks are. Dressed in appropriated regalia which celebrates and naturalizes an ongoing genocide, Dong-ik orchestrates a sanitized reenactment of settler colonialism through the labor he exploits from the Kim family. The production assumes the perspective of the settler, mimicking the elimination of Indigenous peoples for entertainment. This scene clarifies that Dong-ik’s allegiances lie entirely with the colonizer, in whose name he upholds a capitalist system underpinned by military occupation. It also implicates Ki-taek, whose belief in the Parks’ innocence has led him to a position of complicity, which the war bonnet on his head makes plain.

The specter of war represented by Geun-sae and the space of the bunker are crucial to interpreting the film’s climax. The ongoing war in the Korean peninsula, sometimes called the Forgotten War, is often narrativized as “over” in a manner reminiscent of how the colonization of the Americas is regarded as complete. The recognition of either process as unfinished undermines the solvency of ruling class power, even as that power is sustained by an endless cycle of colonial violence. There is more than simple analogy at work here; there is a direct genealogy that links the US invasion of Korea to its invasions of Indigenous nations. Dr. Jodi Byrd argues the United States advances empire “through the production of paradigmatic Indianness”[6] which is “recycled and reproduced so that empire might cohere and consolidate subject and object, self and other within those transits.”[7] General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the US and UN forces in Korea, unwittingly exemplified this in his writings about the Indo-Pacific as “western civilization’s last earth frontier,” noting “the future and, indeed, the very existence of America, [are] irrevocably entwined with Asia and its island outposts.”[8] US practices of asymmetric warfare can further be traced from the contemporary era to 19th Century invasions of Indigenous nations. Dr. Nick Estes notes, “the US Indian Wars developed the tactics and strategies that would inform US counterinsurgency operations abroad,” elaborating that, “these included techniques like the use of native scouts…and attacks on villages to undermine native economies.”[9] From 1950-1953, the US military dropped 635,000 tons of bombs and 32,500 tons of napalm on North Korea, often targeting civilian infrastructure to destroy North Koreans’ capacity to sustain themselves and resist invasion.[10] US soldiers across the peninsula were given orders to shoot civilians in combat zones [11], including refugees [12] [13], based on the racist notion the enemy could not be distinguished from the populace. The US’ ongoing wars against Indigenous nations thus established the precedents for its conduct in Korea in addition to the land base and accumulated wealth with which it projected its power westward to monopolize the spoils of Asiatic trade. The Park family’s position in South Korea’s contemporary class system stands on this legacy of imperial and settler colonial entanglements.

Until Da-song’s birthday party, the Parks have been shielded from the violence Geun-sae, Moon-gwang and the Kims have endured and inflicted. From the events in the basement to the flood the night before, the violence experienced by the other characters has been necessitated by the Parks’ position. The Parks’ ignorance of the war beneath their feet offers no absolution. The illusion of peace by which they lead their lives is itself upheld by violence, as Chung-sook made clear when she kicked Moon-gwang down the stairs to prevent Yeon-gyo from discovering the truth. Dong-ik’s rendition of settler colonialism is based in his interests as a comprador. The illusion of peace is necessary to sustain the neoliberal order he serves, and for that fiction to stand, the wars must remain forgotten. The childish play he constructs for his son facilitates this forgetting, enacting a story that insists Indigenous resistance is dead and past rather than living and present.

Bong troubles this illusion by juxtaposing the start of the party with Ki-woo’s descent into the bunker, where he intends to kill Geun-sae and Moon-gwang for good. The tables quickly turn, and the scholar rock, the symbol of all of Ki-woo’s aspirations for a better life, ends up being used by Geun-sae to bash Ki-woo’s head in. Just as Ki-jung presents the cake to Da-song, Geun-sae emerges from the basement and stabs her, precisely on Dong-ik and Ki-taek’s cue. The position of the “Bad Indian,” presented as a relic of a finished conquest, becomes the site of Geun-sae’s disruptive rage, contesting the terms of the party’s colonial peace. The “ghost” is made flesh, and the illusion of peace is shattered as the “forgotten” wars refuse forgetting.

After stabbing Ki-jung, Geun-sae engages Chung-sook in a fight to the death. Da-song, faced with the ghost that haunted him the year before, faints on the lawn and is overcome with another seizure. As Ki-taek holds his dying daughter in his arms, he sees Ki-woo’s limp body being carried away by Da-hye. Ki-taek’s belief in the Parks’ fundamental goodness has carried him to this point, and he is rewarded with the potential deaths of both of his children. In the midst of this, Dong-ik begins to scream at Ki-taek to throw him the keys to the car.

Ki-taek fumbles the throw, and the keys end up beneath Geun-sae just as Chung-sook impales him with a meat skewer. Face to face with his Dear Leader for the first time, Geun-sae looks up and greets Dong-ik, who responds with casual disregard: “Are you somebody that I know?” To this, Geun-sae screams “Respect!” in English. Dong-ik is as unmoved by Geun-sae’s dying adoration as he is by Ki-jung’s death, and he turns Geun-sae’s body over without hesitation to get to the keys, pinching his nose shut at Geun-sae’s odor. The camera lingers on this gesture before showing Ki-taek’s stunned face. Dong-ik has spent the entire film complaining about Ki-taek’s smell, which Ki-jung identified as the smell of mold from their semi-basement home in an earlier scene. The emphasis on olfactory disgust in this moment reemphasizes Ki-taek and Geun-sae’s commonalities. Faced with the war raging beneath his feet for the first time, Dong-ik’s immediate reaction is uncompassionate and self-serving. With the war bonnet still on his head, his callous reaction to the deaths of Ki-jung and Geun-sae is linked to his allegiance to the racist empire.

This is where Ki-taek breaks, and the specific choreography of what unfolds is key to understanding the action. As Ki-taek lunges for the knife, he tears the war bonnet off of his head and rushes at Dong-ik, whose back is turned to him. Ki-taek grabs Dong-ik by the war bonnet, knocking it to the ground as he turns Dong-ik around, and stabs him in the chest. Director Bong is known for meticulously storyboarding his scenes, so it’s likely that these details are premeditated. What is it that Ki-taek tears away with his own war bonnet? His complicity? His acceptance of colonial rule? The illusion of the Parks’ innocence?  And why does Ki-taek rip away Dong-ik’s war bonnet? In defiance of the racist empire Dong-ik serves? To make plain that Indigenous peoples are not the target of his anticolonial rage? As a rejection of the narrative that the colonial wars subtending our neoliberal illusions of peace are complete? The meanings we could derive are manifold.

The irony of Dong-ik dying as a result of his racist assumptions of Indigenous extinction should not be lost on us. In stark opposition to Dong-ik’s original vision, none of the killings are committed by characters in war bonnets. When Ki-taek throws the war bonnets to the floor, he reframes the two sides from “Good/Bad Indians” to “Good/Bad Koreans” — those who serve the empire, and those who are brutalized for its maintenance and expansion. Under conditions of occupation, perhaps being Bad Koreans is the only ethical choice to be made.

The film’s ending leaves us with a final note about the state of capitalism and the state ongoing war and occupation that subtends it. Ki-taek flees the scene and is never apprehended by the authorities. Ki-jung dies of her injuries. Chung-sook and Ki-woo are prosecuted for defrauding the Parks, but receive a lenient sentence. Ki-woo, severely injured by the events in the basement, spends several months laughing uncontrollably. Even at Ki-jung’s funeral and his own trial, he is barely able to contain himself. His laughter throws everything into ridicule: his own desperation for class mobility, the sham of justice under the law in a land where the law reigns through exploitation and war. Time passes. Then, one day, Ki-woo sees a light flickering from the Parks’ former home; it’s Ki-taek, sending him a message in Morse code from the bunker.

Ki-taek’s message reveals he has been living in the bunker in secret since the film’s climax. The house is now occupied by a new German family, who remain as blissfully unaware of his existence as the Parks’ were of Geun-sae’s. The new family’s Germanness matters less than their Westernness; they implicitly hold similar allegiances as Dong-ik, literally occupying the same position as the Parks. Édouard Glissant’s words seem particularly relevant here:

“The West is not in the West. It is a project, not a place.”[14] If the space of the bunker represents occupation, war and division, the new family’s residence illustrates how capitalism in South Korea stands upon the ongoing state of war. The illusion of peace has returned to the house, but the state of war continues for Ki-taek, who has taken Geun-sae’s place as the house’s ghost. Ki-taek’s separation from his family is particularly meaningful. Millions of Korean families remain separated[15] across generations by the Korean War. It’s not just the physical walls of the bunker that keep Ki-taek from his family; it is the entire structure of the society. Ki-taek and Ki-woo are close enough to see each other, but are separated by a vast distance manufactured by power. Under these conditions, the only way for Ki-taek to communicate with his family is through Morse code. War is the only language left to us under occupation.

This leaves us with the response letter Ki-woo imagines sending to his father. Faced with the impossible situation of division and occupation, the only solution Ki-woo can imagine is rooted in the neoliberal ethos of hard work and constant striving. He pledges to miraculously become rich and buy the Parks’ house one day, so he can reunite with his father. Ki-woo’s solution is not only deeply unrealistic; it does not address the fundamental problem at hand. Even in this fantasy scenario, Ki-taek would still be contained in the house by a legal system that would seek his prosecution and imprisonment. The forces that created and upheld the Kim family’s separation would not be undone, merely adapted to. The class system and the war enabling it would continue unchanged. Bong’s final shot, which clarifies that the solution Ki-woo envisions is just a dream, seems to dare us to dream harder.

Media narratives that spin Parasite’s acclaim through the lens of liberal assimilation miss the mark; a Hollywood that is more open to Asians or other people of color is no more of a solution than Ki-woo’s dream of buying the house that imprisons his father. The promise of inclusion is a distraction from the wars that haunt Parasite, Korea and this continent. As I write this, Wet’suwet’en land defenders are protecting their unceded territory from an invasion by Canada, which seeks to steal land for the Coastal GasLink pipeline[16]. Indigenous nations across the US and its incorporated territories are engaged in contemporary struggles to assert Indigenous sovereignty against the invading empire and marauding private interests[17]. Koreans in the diaspora and the peninsula are organizing for an end to sanctions against North Korea, a peace treaty, the withdrawal of US troops, and a stop to the build-out of military infrastructure like THAAD[18] and the second Jeju Air Force base [19]. There is far more at stake than a few local award shows.

Bong has left the task of dreaming up to us. Division and war are not Korea’s destiny, and the path to reunification and peace will only become clearer the further we walk it. If we take anything from Parasite, it should be that the liberation of Korea flows through the liberation of all peoples from capitalism and colonialism. For settlers, this especially means struggling with Indigenous peoples for the decolonization of the land beneath our feet. As a start, make a donation to the Wet’suwet’en legal fund, and have a look at these resources for other ways to support the Wet’suwet’en struggle. Educate yourself about what solidarity with Indigenous liberation struggles means, and find out what role you can play locally. (If you live in the Bay Area or Seattle, a great first step is paying your land tax.) History is not just something movies make; it is a collective undertaking we create each day of our lives. Parasite’s ending may be bleak, but it’s we who get to write the coda that follows it.

Ju-Hyun Park is a writer of the Korean diaspora. They grew up between South Korea and unceded Ohlone territory known as the Bay Area. They now live in unceded Lenape territory known as Brooklyn. Their essays have previously appeared in The Fader, Public Radio International, and Truthout.


References

[1] Dargis, Manohla. “’Parasite’ Review: The Lower Depths Rise With a Vengeance.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Oct. 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/10/movies/parasite-review.html.

[2] Morris, Hank. “For Irregular Workers, Korea’s Labor Market Embeds Unfairness: Opinion.” Asia Times, 21 Feb. 2018, http://www.asiatimes.com/2018/02/opinion/irregular-workers-koreas-labor-market-embeds-unfairness/.

[3] “Check Your English Ability with ‘Notorious’ Korean College Entrance Exam.” Korea Times, 16 Nov. 2018, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2018/11/177_258803.html.

[4] “VIDEO: How Sanctions Harm Civilians in North Korea, Especially Women.” Korea Peace Now!, 20 Dec. 2019, koreapeacenow.org/video-how-sanctions-harm-civilians-in-north-korea-especially-women/.

[5] Shorrock, Tim. “The Gwangju Uprising and American Hypocrisy: One Reporter’s Quest for Truth and Justice in Korea.” The Nation, 4 May 2017, http://www.thenation.com/article/archive/kwangju-uprising-and-american-hypocrisy-one-reporters-quest-truth-and-justice-korea/.

[6] The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Jodi A. Byrd. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press, 2011. p xxxv.

[7] p 221.

[8] Sempa, Francis P. “Douglas MacArthur and the Pivot to Asia.” — The Diplomat, 22 Feb. 2015, thediplomat.com/2015/02/douglas-macarthur-and-the-pivot-to-asia/ .

[9] Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. Nick Estes. London. Verso, 2019. p 91.

[10] Talmadge, Eric. “64 Years after Korean War, North Still Digging up Bombs.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 24 July 2017, apnews.com/dd6256bad51e458cb2e8a1bf64b5c2b6/64-years-after-Korean-War,-North-still-digging-up-bombs.

[11] Pyle, Richard (November 21, 2000). “Ex-GIs: U.S. troops in Korea War had orders to shoot civilians”. Associated Press.

[12] “War’s hidden chapter: Ex-GIs tell of killing Korean refugees”. Associated Press. September 29, 1999.

[13] Struck, Doug (October 27, 1999). “U.S., S. Korea gingerly probe the past”The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/korea/korea.htm

[14] “Caribbean discourse: selected essays”, Édouard Glissant. Caraf Books. 1989. p 2.

[15] Kim, Suzy. “Land of the Oldest Travel Ban By Suzy Kim.” Adi Magazine, 2019, adimagazine.com/articles/land-of-the-oldest-travel-ban/.

[16] Kestler-D’Amours, Jillian. “’RCMP off Wet’suwet’en Land’: Solidarity Grows for Land Defenders.” Canada News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 14 Feb. 2020, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/02/wet-land-solidarity-grows-land-defenders-200214163301407.html.

[17] Ouzts, Elizabeth. “North Carolina Tribes Fear Impact of Atlantic Coast Pipeline Construction.” Energy News Network, 22 Mar. 2018, energynews.us/2018/03/21/southeast/north-carolina-tribes-fear-impact-of-atlantic-coast-pipeline-construction/; Smith, Anna V., and Terray Sylvester. “How the Yurok Tribe Is Reclaiming the Klamath River.” High Country News, 11 June 2018, http://www.hcn.org/issues/50.10/tribal-affairs-how-the-yurok-tribe-is-reclaiming-the-klamath-river; Harball, Elizabeth. “In Arctic Village, Gwich’in Leaders Say the Fight to Stop Drilling in the Arctic Refuge Isn’t Over.” Alaska Public Media, 10 Sept. 2019, http://www.alaskapublic.org/2019/07/02/in-arctic-village-gwichin-leaders-say-the-fight-to-stop-drilling-in-the-arctic-refuge-isnt-over/; “’This Is Our Land’: Native Americans See Trump’s Move to Reduce Bears Ears Monument as an Assault on Their Culture.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 16 Dec. 2019, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-utah-bears-ears-20181225-htmlstory.html; Lam, Kristin. “Hawaii Pulls Law Enforcement from Mauna Kea – at Least Temporarily – as TMT Project Is Put on Hold.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 20 Dec. 2019, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/12/19/mauna-kea-hawaii-police-tmt-project/2705166001/; Yochim, Paul, et al. “Line 3 Pipeline Proposal: Yet Another Abuse against Native Americans.” MinnPost, 25 Apr. 2019, http://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2019/05/line-3-pipeline-proposal-yet-another-abuse-against-native-americans/; “About L’eau Est La Vie Camp.” LEAU EST LA VIE CAMP, lelvcamp.org/about/leau-est-la-vie-camp/.

[18] Takruri, Dena. “Soseong-Ri: Hub of South Korea’s Anti-THAAD Movement.” South Korea | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 22 Sept. 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/asia/2017/09/soseong-ri-ground-south-korea-anti-thaad-movement-170922073220640.html.

[19] “Jeju Fights Back: An Overview of the Latest Struggle.” Save Jeju Now, 2019, savejejunow.org/gangjeong-village-story-september-october-november-2019-issue/.

34 thoughts

  1. Very thoughtful review. One scene that struck me and wasn’t mentioned here is when Moon-gwang pleads for collaboration to the Kims explicitly on the basis of class solidarity when the bunker is discovered (she says they are all “workers” and “in need”). The Kim’s mother responds only by reiterating her intention to call the police (the class enemy’s mercenaries). Moments before, Jessica had reproached her dad for worrying about the former driver’s fate. It seems to me the director is telling us that their perseverance in refusing to understand their shared class condition and to show solidarity is the root of the tragedy that unfolds in the second half. I also find it meaningful that it is precisely Moon-gwang that impersonates the DPRK news presenter shortly after.

    1. That was my favorite scene in the movie. She grovels and abases herself in front of her fellow oppressed, impoverished worker, pleading for solidarity, and Chung-sook responds with imperious remorselessness (I’m in control! I have the power!). But the very second Moon-gwang realizes she has something over on the Kims, she grabs for the poisoned ring of cruel authority and becomes a tyrant.

    2. The comment reproaching her dad for worrying about the driver’s fate is so important that it’s underlined with a bolt of lighting.

  2. I haven’t seen the film yet, but this is the kind of analysis I can appreciate. Although it doesn’t mention that part of the way South Korea rebuilt itself economically was through it’s transnational adoption of its own children – something that is very much in line with a patriarchal/capitalist and even white supremacist state – as most babies were adopted by western (white) parents. “As Korea’s present colonizer, the United States is implicated throu

  3. I’ve read it and some of it is true but there’s a lot of bulshit there too. A lot of young Korean legitimately envy the more open Society nature of America. They’re striving for it whether or not any American ever step foot in Korea from America, and whether or not America was a superpower. That is because they tasted the idea of freedom from each other by moving to the US where you no longer have to answer to other Korean people here if you don’t choose to.

    For many Koreans that is an amazing liberation. They are pursuing a craving that all humans are born with by leaving tasting the more individualistic life of America. Their pursuit of that life has nothing to do with colonialism. One of the common themes my Korean friends who moved to America tell me is that when they are in America they are free from the collective nosiness of other Koreans. And for many of them that in itself is why they never go back.

    Korea maintains its order through bullying… Bosses make their employees drink or they are going to fire them. 30% of Korean women experience and know that they have to tolerate sexual harassment to get a pay raise in an investment banking. 30% of Korean men have slept with a prostitute. How do you think that makes women feel? Maybe they don’t want to marry people like that, and so their choices are greatly reduced. One of my Korean female Senior Vice-President friends at DBS Bank was told that because she is a woman she cannot be at the table to do business before another Korean conglomerate executive. The romanticization of Northeast Asia is racist in itself.

    Our racist romanticization of Northeast Asia caused us to fail to see it for the Taliban like oppressive place it can be, that it’s not colonial like to want to bring change there. That is simply natural human empathy that transcends the ridiculous pursuit of racial identity lines. People who immigrate to countries tend to unjustly romanticize the place they come from; this author appears to romanticize a Korea that does not exist: one with out its version of the Taliban oppressing people everywhere.

    Radically liberal Americans cannot endure the narrative where they are the liberator because then they have nothing to live for if they are not the one saving someone from the evil country they come from. Such self-hate coupled with a desire to be a defender of the most oppressive elements of some far flung nation on the other side of the world suggests they suffer from a low capacity for abstract decoupling, or to think without context of social narratives gone awry and emotion.

    1. This! Singapore mandated that its citizens learn English and that policy has led to the growth of one of the most successful economies in Asia. Hong Kong would rather stay a colony of Great Britain than become “liberated” under China. The world is complicated but any analysis that paints all rich ppl = bad and all indigenous ppl = good is confused… Also, unceded Lenepe territory known as Brooklyn?? LOL what a tool

    2. All of your examples are responses to arguments that were never made.

      The piece doesn’t talk about sexism so bringing up sexism in South Korea is irrelevant. The nonexistence of the topic in the write up doesn’t mean that the writer is minimizing it or pretending it doesn’t exist, it simply was not relevant because it wasn’t a theme in the movie.

      South Koreans coming to America and staying because they like the individuality and freedom is also irrelevant because it’s not what the piece is about. The Parks are not immigrants who moved to the States because they liked the individualistic lifestyle and the freedom of the country, they never leave South Korea. The whole thing is about the presence of America in South Korea and it comes in the form of appropriating superficial aspects of it because they’re a sign of wealth and class.

      Also the idea that the piece somehow defends “the most oppressive elements of some far flung nation on the other side of the world” is just absurd. The whole thing is a full on critique of the system and somehow you managed to twist it into romanticizing “a Korea that does not exist”. It doesn’t romanticize shit, you just made up arguments that don’t exist in the text.

  4. I’ve read it and some of it is true but there’s a lot of bullshit there too. A lot of young Korean legitimately envy the more open Society nature of America. They’re striving for it whether or not any American ever step foot in Korea from America, and whether or not America was a superpower. That is because they tasted the idea of freedom from each other by moving to the US where you no longer have to answer to other Korean people here if you don’t choose to.

    For many Koreans that is an amazing liberation. They are pursuing a craving that all humans are born with by pursue the innate human need to live a more individualistic life shared in America. Their pursuit of that life has nothing to do with colonialism. One of the common themes my Korean friends who moved to America tell me is that when they are in America they are free from the collective nosiness of other Koreans. And for many of them that in itself is why they never go back.

    Korea maintains its order through bullying… Bosses make their employees drink or they are going to fire them. 30% of Korean women experience and know that they have to tolerate sexual harassment to get a pay raise in an investment banking. 30% of Korean men have slept with a prostitute. How do you think that makes women feel? Maybe they don’t want to marry people like that, and so their choices are greatly reduced. One of my Korean female Senior Vice-President friends at DBS Bank was told that because she is a woman she cannot be at the table to do business before another Korean conglomerate executive. The romanticization of Northeast Asia is racist in itself.

    Our racist romanticization of Northeast Asia causes us to fail to see it for the Taliban like oppressive place it can be, that it’s not colonial like to want to bring change there. That is simply natural human empathy that transcends the ridiculous pursuit of racial identity lines. People who immigrate to countries tend to unjustly romanticize the place they come from; this author appears to romanticize a Korea that does not exist: one with out its version of the Taliban oppressing people everywhere.

    Radically liberal Americans cannot endure the narrative where they are the liberator because then they have nothing to live for if they are not the one saving someone from the evil country they come from. Such self-hate coupled with a desire to be a defender of the most oppressive elements of some far flung nation on the other side of the world suggests they suffer from a low capacity for abstract decoupling, or to think without context of social narratives gone awry and emotion.

  5. A recent blurb in the 2/15/20 issue of The Economist:. “It (Parasite) beat the bookies favorite, “1917”Hollywood stars spouted platitudes about diversity and stealing baby cows. The ceremony had its worst-ever viewing figures.”

    I guess since I had seen “Parasite” on the Sunday afternoon of the Oscars, I watched more of the award show than I would normally — perhaps rooting for “Parasite” — but what struck is that instead of trite acceptance speeches, Mr. Bong let his work speak more powerfully for it self.

    1. Moderator: I accidently posted before I finished my comments. Please use this one instead:

      A recent blurb in the 2/15/20 issue of The Economist: “It (Parasite) beat the bookies favorite, “1917” Hollywood stars spouted platitudes about diversity and stealing baby cows. The ceremony had its worst-ever viewing figures.”
      I guess since I had seen “Parasite” on the Sunday afternoon of the Oscars, I watched more of the award show than I would normally — perhaps rooting for “Parasite” — but what struck me is that instead of trite acceptance speeches, Mr. Bong eloquently elected to let his work speak for itself. And thoughtful essays, like the author Juhyundred’s honor the film and its many subtexts.

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  7. Still reading and enjoying your piece, and maybe I’m missing something, but “pizza” is very much an Italian word, although pizza delivery could very well have taken off first in the US 😉

    1. Yes it’s Italian but it has become an essential part of American identity and in the East, Pizza is viewed more as an affluent edible from America than Italy.

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  10. I don’t often come across articles that are as well-written as they are researched. Excellent work! I hadn’t considered much of this, or at least not to the extent and depth the writer went into it.

    A lot of non-Korean writers seem to leave out or not realize some much-needed context when discussing Korean cinema, so I’m quite thankful for pieces like this.

  11. This is what I wants when looking for an analysis of this film rather than a review full of empty accolades. As always it is an opinion piece but the same well researched and written. Thank you for sharing.

  12. There’s an entire aspect of colonialism here that’s missing, and that is Japan’s influence on Korean attitudes regarding capitalism. A lot of good stuff here, but leaning so heavy into American colonialism somewhat erases the fact that Japanese imperialism and occupation still play a greater role in Korean politics than the US. They’re seeking reparations still, for example.

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