“Parasite” and the Plurality of Empire

Bong Joon-ho’s critique in Parasite is less of “universal” capitalism than of the particular imperialisms that have shaped Korean life.

Bong Joon-ho, the director of the Oscar-winning film Parasite, has said that “the film talks about two opposing families, about the rich versus the poor, and that is a universal theme, because we all live in the same country now: that of capitalism.” Indeed, the film’s plot is set in motion when the Kims, a family struggling to subsist in Seoul, capitalize on the needs of an upper-class family, the Parks, to forge their way out of poverty. The Kims barely make rent by folding pizza boxes in a semibasement apartment in the slums of Seoul, while the Parks live in a modernist mansion designed by an internationally renowned Korean architect. Through a series of cons, the entire Kim family ends up working for the Parks—at the cost of getting Moon-gwang, their original housekeeper, fired. The parasitic struggle becomes existential when the Kims discover that Moon-gwang has been hiding her husband, Geun-sae, from debt collectors in the subterranean bunker of the Parks’ mansion. Their confrontation sets off a violent conflict between the two impoverished families as they fight to survive off the rich Park family. It would be easy to read the whole film as a dark examination of class and leave it at that.

But while viewers and critics have correctly highlighted the class struggle at the heart of the film, many outside Korea may not realize that Bong’s critique extends well beyond capitalism. Through the lens of class alone, it’s difficult to understand several key elements in Parasite: the use of Japanese in the term “Indian-Otaku” as a descriptor for the Parks’ son, a seven-year-old obsessed with Native American “dress-up” (teepee, costume, arrows); subtitler Darcy Paquet’s equating of the prestigious Korean university Yonsei with the more global Oxford University in the English subtitles; the Kim family’s obsession with an ancient Korean scholar’s rock; and, finally, Moon-gwang’s imitation of a North Korean news anchor to punish the Kims (“Ignoring the cowardly ruling of the United Nations Security Council, Our Dear Leader announced that he would execute the family of delinquents by firing squad”). None of these crucial details makes much sense when examined only through the filter of class. So what links them all?

To understand this peculiar tableau, we must look at the imperial history that has brought Korea to its present situation. Bong’s comment above refers to the universality of capitalism, but Koreans and Americans also literally live in the same country—South Korea has hosted a permanent American military presence since partition in 1945, at the end of World War II. Even at the turn of the last century, the US determined the question of Korean sovereignty. In 1900 Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “I should like to see Japan have Korea”; five years later, after Roosevelt became president, his secretary of war, William Taft, signed the Taft-Katsura agreement. This treaty granted Japanese rule over Korea in exchange for American rule over the Philippines, effectively enabling Japan’s brutal colonization of the peninsula for 30 years. Bong subtly gestures to this history with the term “Indian-Otaku” in the original, Korean script. Mrs. Park’s use of the Japanese word otaku captures the entanglement of at least two imperialisms: the ideology of American settler colonialism and its relation to enabling Japanese settler colonialism in Korea.

It is only by looking at such imperial history that we see that Bong’s critique in Parasite is less of “universal” capitalism than of particular imperialisms. Indeed, the film gestures not only to Western wealth but also to premodern Korean history: for example, in its depiction of the scholar’s rock and education as symbols of class mobility.

Consequently, we can only understand Parasite’s vision of capitalism and neoliberal globalization by understanding South Korea’s history with patriarchal dominations, from past to present: its experience of Chinese cultural imperialism in antiquity, Japanese settler colonialism in early modernity, and, finally, Western hegemony via contemporary neoliberal capitalism and US militarism. These particular imperialisms undergird the aforementioned tableau. Parasite’s violent struggles aren’t just the result of differences between classes, Bong shows. Instead, this violence is the manifestation of the plurality of empire.

For over a century, American capitalism and American empire have significantly shaped Korean life. The heavy hand the United States had in determining Korean sovereignty did not end with Roosevelt’s blithe handoff of the country over to Japan. A few decades later, the peninsula was halved (as Don Oberdorfer and Robert Carlin explain in their book, The Two Koreas) by two midlevel American government officials who were so ignorant of the land they intended to carve that they had to ask where the peninsula was located on a National Geographic map. Their arbitrary choice of the 38th parallel to bisect the peninsula was a wholly Western act: the US and the USSR failed to consult any Koreans as they set up a “trusteeship” to oversee the North and South.

After the US occupation government from 1945 to 1948, America helped the Princeton-educated Syngman Rhee to become South Korea’s first president. Unfortunately, Rhee’s was far from the last Korean presidency turned dictatorship that the US leadership would directly support.1 In 1980, American military forces and leadership—namely the Carter administration, the Pentagon, and the State Department—condoned brutal military suppression of the democratic uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, in effect legitimizing the rule of the military general Chun Doo-hwan. Since then there’s been a long line of Korean presidents who have supported the expansion of the US military presence in Korea. Indeed, only the current president, Moon Jae-in, has diverged in this respect.

Kim Jong-il weaponized this American involvement to legitimize the North Korean state; in the North Korean narrative, he “prevented the United States from returning all of Korea to a subordinated national status little different to that which prevailed under Japanese colonialism.”2 Thus, as his son Kim Jong-un’s ideology of juche (literally meaning “self-rule”) suggests, anticolonial rhetoric was not only anti-Japanese but also anti-American.

we can only understand Bong’s vision of capitalism and neoliberal globalization by understanding South Korea’s history with patriarchal dominations.

Fans of Bong Joon-ho are familiar with the director’s attention to the latent monstrosities of American imperialism and, specifically, the American presence in Korea. Bong’s The Host—originally titled Gaemul, or Korean for “monster”—is a 2006 horror film that begins with American military personnel dumping chemicals in the Han River, from which a violent mutant monster will emerge. A convenience-store owner (the same actor, Song Kang-ho, who plays Ki-taek, the Kim father in Parasite) fights with the monster, as well as the military, to regain his daughter.

Militarism—a major presence in The Host—manifests also in Parasite: from walkie-talkies to Morse code, we see the language of American militarism as the only means Geun-sae and, eventually, Ki-taek have to connect with the South Korean world above. Geun-sae uses the analog light switches to communicate with the Parks’ son, and eventually so does Ki-taek, with his own son. The camera zooms in on the Morse code chart Geun-sae has taped on the bunker wall, showing that it’s published by the Korean Cub Scouts Association (a branch of the American Boy Scouts). These hallmarks of long-term American militarism and settler colonialism—as exemplified by the appropriated Native American objects—are presented throughout the film, as other critiques have noted.

Through the supernatural figure of the monster, however, The Host depicts the one-to-one relation between American violence and Korean suffering. But in Parasite there is no formal monster. Instead, the film—as the title suggests—asks: what happens when humans behave monstrously? To find the answer, we need to look more closely at what feeds the parasites.

Much of the plot of Parasite moves because of one thing: the drive to obtain a Western education. Ki-woo, the Kims’ son, first gets hired by the Parks to teach English to their teenage daughter, using the anglophone name “Kevin.” Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jung, calls herself “Jessica” and fabricates a degree from Illinois State University to pose as an art therapist. Why are such Western education credentials sought out for financial and social capital?

South Korea is a country known for its “education fever” (gyoyuk yulgi): its citizens’ nearly universal belief that the maximizing of formal education will guarantee class mobility.3 In recent decades, the Korean government has harnessed this fever to serve the demands of globalization, making English language acquisition an essential part of Korean education.4 Today the average Korean student will undergo approximately 20,000 hours of English education from kindergarten through university. South Korea’s “education fever,” in other words, turned into “English fever.”5

The goal of this new fever, of course, is greater enmeshment in the global financial, political, and military order—as defined by the United States, and defended by the US soldiers stationed on South Korean soil. English, then, is not just a universally taught skill; now it is a part of Korean politics. “English has become a gatekeeper for social, economic, and educational success in Korea,” as the college entrance exams attest.

As the private English education market expanded, so did the market for study abroad: upper- and middle-class Korean families began sending their children to study in Western nations to acquire English language skills. This dynamic has historic precedents: just as, during the time of Japanese empire, privileged Koreans sought education in the metropole, Tokyo, thousands of South Korean students have left the country as it globalized, in what has been called an “education exodus.”6 If we keep this exodus in mind, subtitler Darcy Paquet’s choice to domesticate the prestigious Korean university name “Yonsei” as “Oxford” (like his translation of the Korean messenger app “KakaoTalk” as “Whatsapp”) is ironic—under neoliberal globalization, Korean students aim precisely for Oxford.

And so in South Korea, English, globalization, and neoliberalism—the privatization and commodification of all life activities, profit-generating or otherwise—are closely intertwined. English language education—as the South Korean viewers of Parasite know—means America, empire, capitalism, and the global neoliberal order.

Neoliberalism and militarism, as argued by Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey, are “inextricably linked.”7 Through militarism, the US maintains its hegemonic hold over security in the area while “push[ing] for neoliberal reforms … and the deregulation of financial markets” after the 1997 Asian economic crisis. Such economic tactics “have weakened some of the very countries that U.S. troops … are pledged to uphold,” precisely because American military supremacy and its continued capital gain are and have been the aim of East Asian policy.8

Indeed, in his 1965 memoirs, Anthony Eden, the former British foreign secretary, wrote of Theodore Roosevelt that he “hoped that the former colonial territories, once free of their masters, would become politically and economically dependent upon the United States, and had no fear that other Powers might fill that role.”9 Eden’s words resonate today: it is this power of American imperialism that drives the building of the Jeju Naval Base, which South Koreans protested from 2011 to 2016.

Perhaps Bong is asking us to see the global conditions that produced the violence of the film’s climax.

Well before American imperialism, class was bound up with education in premodern Korea. Parasite begins with Min-hyuk—Ki-woo’s rich friend who gets him his tutoring job—gifting Ki-woo’s family with a precious, ancient-looking rock. “Pop-Pop’s been collecting viewing stones since his academy days. Our house is literally filled with these things. … This one is supposed to bring luck. And money,” Min-hyuk tells his friend. Ki-woo gratefully receives it as a symbol of the wealth his family so badly lacks, and clings to it throughout the film, repeating, “This is so metaphorical.”

Suseok—scholar’s rocks—symbolize premodern Korean aristocracy, and are quite valuable in today’s markets. Scholar’s rocks were a fixture of the scholarly elite who ruled during the Joseon Dynasty, the final period of Korean sovereignty, which lasted from the 1300s until 1910, when Japan colonized the country. Just as, centuries ago, those outside the scholarly class (with its exclusive knowledge of classical Chinese) were barred from higher education, today families like the Kims are unable to afford the elite Yonsei University degree, study-abroad program included, that Min-hyuk enjoys.10

Bong has commented on how, by the end of the movie, the metaphorical rock has become a literal weapon used to smash somebody’s head: “It feels like this cursed object, and it ends up being covered in blood. It tells the whole story of all of these horrible events.” It’s the have-nots of the film—the Kims, Moon-gwang, and the subterranean Geun-sae—who wield the rock as a weapon, against each other. For all the violence and weaponry, the scholar’s rock never maims the wealthy.

While the scholar’s rock evokes the neo-Confucian class hierarchies of Chosun Korea, it also recalls the infamous neo-Confucian sexism of the dynasty. Korean feminist scholars today trace the country’s modern patriarchy back to neo-Confucianist constructions of womanhood, like the concept of hyeonmoyangcheo, meaning “wise mother, good wife.” In Parasite’s neoliberal context, Mrs. Park is perhaps the paragon of this ideal: it is as a “wise mother and good wife” that she naively hires all four members of the Kim family, not realizing they are imposters who are, in fact, related. Min-hyuk characterizes her as “young” and “simple” repeatedly, in English.

It is not Mrs. Park but another female character, Ki-jung, who challenges modern Korean patriarchy. During the dramatic monsoon that floods the Kims’ semibasement apartment with sewage—when the Kims are panicked about having left Moon-gwang and Geun-sae tied up in the Parks’ basement—Ki-jung angrily asks her father: “What do we do? What’s the goddamn plan?” Her father, Ki-taek, replies, “I know what I’m doing. Daddy has a plan,” but later he admits to his son, Ki-woo, privately that he doesn’t have one.

Thanks to their father’s lack of a plan, Jessica is the only member of the Kim family who dies. And when her father cannot save her, he murders Mr. Park. Finally, he entraps himself in the subterranean position of Jessica’s killer, Geun-sae. The patriarchy fails all its subjects.


A Handmaiden’s Tale

By Patricia White

While it’s tempting to read Parasite as a universal film, we must not disregard the specificities of what in it is Korean. When Bong presents the Korean past to us (for example, by using the rock as a symbol of its ancient history of unequal power structures), we see the complex foundation on which the patriarchies of the modern period—Japanese settler colonialism, US military rule, the demands of globalized capitalism—have been built.

Indeed, the struggle between the Kims, the Parks, and Moon-gwang and Geun-sae must not be reduced to a universalist clash between “rich and poor,” or to the Cold War binary of North Korea vs. South Korea. It would be easy, for example, to see the Kims’ struggle with Moon-gwang and Geun-sae as that of South Koreans competing with North Koreans for international legitimacy. Under such a binary, Cold War framework, we would see Geun-sae as the trope of the cultish North Korean, as some reviewers have done recently, likening his isolation in his subterranean bunker to North Korea’s isolation from global capitalism.

Yet, upon closer consideration, Geun-sae offers us an understanding of how South Koreans reckon with anxiety about North Korean nuclear warfare. In the now famous scene where Geun-sae and Moon-gwang parrot a North Korean newscaster to punish the Kims, they cast their punishment along national lines—South Korean and North Korean—characterizing the Kims as Korean “delinquents” deserving Kim Jong-un’s punishment.

Geun-sae’s altar

It would be easy, then, to see Geun-sae as an archetypal North Korean subject: pro–nuclear war, against unification, and anti-American. But, from his subterranean bunker, Geun-sae worships his Westernized capitalist “host,” the IT mogul Mr. Park, singing, “What a hard day you must have had at work, we love you so much.” He also dedicates his altars (consisting of American products—like empty tomato cans—briefly glimpsed by the camera) to pro-unification political figures like Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, and the pro–Korean unification president Kim Young-sam. The paradox of Geun-sae idolizing pro-unification leaders and worshipping “Nathan” Park while espousing nuclear-war rhetoric is not unlike the contradictions of North Korean policy: after Kim Jong-un’s peace talks with President Trump and his historic visit to South Korea in 2018, the DPRK continued to produce and to test nuclear weapons. Geun-sae’s complex subjectivity—isolated by punishing capitalism, violently unpredictable in affect—must be understood as a South Korean imagining of the paradoxes of North Korea.

Ultimately, we must understand the struggles within Parasite as a South Korean representation of a complex Korean reality. Perhaps Bong is asking us to see the global conditions that produced the violence of the film’s climax. Perhaps Bong challenges us, with all this bloodshed, to ask: What has been done to these characters to produce such fallout? icon

  1. Rhee and other dictatorial presidents, such as Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, were leaders whom the American government enabled and authorized in an effort to resist the DPKR’s legitimacy. See Hazel Smith, North Korea: Markets and Military Rule (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  2. Smith, North Korea.
  3. Michael J. Seth, Education Fever: Society, Politics, and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea (University of Hawaii Press, 2002).
  4. This new focus on English was especially true under President Lee Myung-bak’s reforms from 2008 to 2012. “The Lee regime’s policy directions,” explained Joseph Sung-Yul Park, “aimed to enhance and boost Koreans’ competence in English and to prepare citizens who can better compete in the global market,” since “the global language of English is a necessary resource for full participation in the global economy.” Joseph Sung-Yul Park, “English, Class, and Neoliberalism in South Korea,” in The Politics of English: South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Asia Pacific, edited by Lionel Wee, Robbie B. H. Goh, and Lisa Lim (John Benjamins, 2013), p. 288. See also Hyera Byean, “English, Tracking, and Neoliberalization of Education in South Korea,” TESOL Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 4 (2015).
  5. Chris K. Bacon and Kim So-yoon, “‘English Is My Only Weapon’: Neoliberal Language Ideologies and Youth Metadiscourse in South Korea,” Linguistics and Education, vol. 48 (2018).
  6. Adrienne Lo, Nancy Abelmann, Kwon Soo-ah, and Sumie Okazaki, eds., South Korea’s Education Exodus: The Life and Times of Early Study Abroad (Center for Korea Studies, 2015), p. 362.
  7. Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey, introduction to “Neoliberalism, Militarism, and Armed Conflict,” special issue, Social Justice, vol. 27, no. 4 (2000), p. 2.
  8. Ibid., p. 7, quoting John Feffer, “Gunboat Globalization: The Intersection of Economics And Security in East Asia,” in the same special issue.
  9. Quoted in R. R. Krishnan, “Early History of U.S. Imperialism in Korea,” Social Scientist, vol. 12, no. 11 (1984), p. 8.
  10. Yonsei University was founded by American missionaries.
Featured image: Hyun-jun Jung in Parasite (2019). IMDb