‘Parasite’ Is the First Sexual Critique of Capitalism

“It’s so metaphorical!” exclaims KiWoo, several times, throughout Parasite. The “metaphors,” eventually, bash his head in. Bong JoonHo seems to be warning us: analyze the movie, interpret every gesture, every word, every prop, every symbol, as a metaphor, at your own peril. For your metaphors become self-fulfilling prophecies, and may, eventually, bash your head in.

It was difficult to keep these thoughts at bay while reading Juhyun Park’s review, “Reading Colonialism in Parasite.” In their review, Juhyun analyzes minute details of the movie: WiFi, the pizza boxes, the English exam, YeonGyo’s English syntax, the North Korean missile, and so on. Through their critical lens of post-colonial studies, “WiFi” becomes a part of the machinery of English as “the contemporary language of capital,” “something the family doesn’t own yet relies on for their livelihood.” The “pizza box,” “penalty” and “brand image” become a representation of “two decades of steadfast assaults on labor stipulated by the IMF in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.” The college entrance English exam, which KiWoo tutors DaHye for, becomes a “reflection of the extent to which the country’s economy is organized by US strategic and financial interests.”

And so on. But this sort of reading, while entirely correct, would, if there we stopped reading, disservice the movie. For what Parasite has achieved is categorically more important than that.

While many charges are labeled against capitalism and neoliberalism, one point of Pride we denizens of capitalism could (mostly) rally around was sexual liberation. Yes, capitalism is exploitative; but it freed us from Victorian repression. Yes, neoliberalism can be dense as a rock; but it gave us gay marriage, a gay presidential candidate, possibility of LGBTQ liberation. Yes, rape culture and the patriarchy are coextensive with capitalism; but neoliberalism gave us human rights, academic feminism gave us the language to talk about sexual assualt, and the #MeToo movement is destroying the perverts. Let us pity the third world countries; the old and rotting past; for they are and were stuck in a stasis of frigid, rigid, rigged sexuality. We have polyamory, abortion as a human right, transgender acceptance. How could we have gotten here without the grace of capitalism?

To these self-celebrations, Parasite replies: wrong again, capital. For Parasite is the very first sexual critique of capitalism and sexuality under capitalism. While we have seen (1) sexual critiques of capitalism (most art-house cinema, some blockbusters, socially conscious music, etc.) and (2) critiques of sexuality under capitalism (Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari & co.), Parasite is the first to accomplish both in conjunction. The Hegelian Idea, that knowledge meets its goal when Notion corresponds to its object and object corresponds to its Notion, manifests here. The critique, and object of critique, coincide, for the first time, in Parasite: while as a critique of capitalism, it is also an immediate, sexual object under capitalism.

Importantly, sex is never a metaphor. The sexual content of a smell is just that: the sexual content of the smell. Sex does not mediate, unlike metaphor. Sex is immediate. Space is immediate. Smell is immediate. Even technology, the great mediator, becomes immediate in Parasite. As GeunSae says, “This send button is just like a North Korean missile” — the threat of a push of a finger, and the mighty Kim family is hands up, kneeling, unable to do a thing.

And what, exactly, does this threat consist of? The reveal of a sexual secret: that the set of people employed in the Park family is not just a set of people without a sexual relation, as is assumed, but with the mightiest sexual relation of all – the familial.

Why, exactly, is this a problem? Leaving aside the obvious issue that the Kims lied to the Parks, we may ask the more fundamental question: why did KiWoo have to pretend that KiJung wasn’t his sister? Why did KiJung have to pretend that KiTaek wasn’t her father? Why did KiTaek have to pretend that ChungSook wasn’t his wife? Because that’s just… weird. KiJung would never have been hired if KiWoo introduced her as his sister. Capitalism would forbid it. For capitalism is the prohibition of incest, and the incestual undercurrent flowing beneath the Park family cannot, as a rule, be recognized.

This undercurrent is instead reflected off their relation with the Kim family. Leaving aside the overt sexual relation between KiWoo and DaHye, there is a notable sexual relation between the Park father and the Kim father. Park thinks Kim smells like an “old radish” or a “boiled rag”. Crucially, as soon as he reveals this, he becomes Horny. He starts touching YeonKyo despite her initial protests. Then he says, it would make him even Hornier if YeonKyo wore the Kim daughter’s panties. To which she replies: “Buy me drugs!” As in: they want to have the same (real in their minds, but imagined) sex their employee, driver Yoon, had, while wearing the sex their (imagined in their minds, but real) employee, KiJung, had. The Kim father, underneath the table in front of them, is very bothered by this symbolic rape.

There is no incestual undercurrent in the Kim family, and they are, in this respect, outside of capitalism. They are sexually correct. They have inside jokes. They communicate telepathically. Their unconscia are in sync. Their hands and feet work in unison. Which brings us to another of Parasite’s brilliant critiques. There is the Lacanian dilemma: that capitalism may admit of ever-more permutations of perversion as a point of escape, a depressurizing site, and in this theoretical line of thought, capitalism could be indefinitely sustained, if simply augmented with layer upon layer of perversion’s many permutations. (Meme: Every day we stray further from God’s light.)

Now consider the obvious Hegelian master-slave dialectic. The Parks are the prototypical masters, and the Kims are the prototypical slaves. The Kims, by the grand con scheme of their devising, are no longer alienated by their labor, achieve some measure of self-consciousness. The Innocent Parks, really, are enslaved by the Kims, emotionally and strategically. Sexually, however? The Kims are never sexual subjects in the movie (they never have sex). The Parks are (they have sex). And this might be the point of puncture where the master-slave dialectic no longer operates in a productive way. At the climax, while KiTaek is holding his dying daugher in his arms, Nathan barks at KiTaek to throw him the key. Mind you – KiTaek is literally holding his dying daughter in his arms. This thick familial relation ought to trump whatever orders your boss might bark at you. In a correct world, KiTaek would have the capacity to simply tune out Nathan, to ignore him, and save his own fucking daughter, by any means necessary.

Parasite would be a very different movie if KiTaek had picked up his daughter, slammed through the crowd, rushed to Nathan’s Benz, drove to a hospital, and resuscitated her. But KiTaek cannot do that. Meekly, he throws the key. Nathan holds his nose at GeunSae. KiTaek is overcome with rage. He thus enacts blind violence which he will regret. The master-slave dialectic may give the slave some agency, but as long as they are in the dialectic, neither can be free. Because the dialectic is also necessarily a sexual dialectic, and the “master” of sex – the rapist – holds agency over the raped, and the raped must, finally, come out through, through the struggle to the death.

Sex is the limit of signification. As such, though I said much, I did not say much. To analyze sexual content is to desexualize it. I can only say to you to resist the urge to signify, resist the urge to desexualize, and take in the movie, your second time, not with your head, but with your erogenous zones. What will that do? Maybe it will, if only for a moment, transport you outside capitalism.

Baek Min (@problem_halting) is a Korean poet and founder of Philosophy of Computation at Berkeley (po.cab).