A parasite is a homemaker. It makes a home inside its host. One might expect a certain decorum between parasite and host, then, a nod to nature going right when they meet—yet these relationships can be most unkind. The world’s tiniest guillotine, a fly whose larvae embed within the bodies of fire ants, gains control of its host’s mind, then decapitates it from the inside. Parasitic barnacles nicknamed “Loxo” invade the reproductive systems of sheep crabs and impregnate them with their larvae, a process that weakens the crab’s immune system and prevents it from producing offspring of its own. Karl Marx gave the parasite new rhetorical life as a metaphor for capital; for many of his readers the comparison has never lost its relevance. The cultural theorist and critic Mark Fisher elaborated on it in his cult-favorite 2009 essay, Capitalist Realism: “The most Gothic description of capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us.” In this zombie world of absolute capitalism, as Fisher describes it, all life has been reduced to destiny, and all homes to graves from which horrifying future generations will burst muttering about “engagement incentives” and “dynamic pricing.”
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s new family drama Parasite is a tightly acted, staged, and structured film, which also seems to be saying something profound about class warfare. In this way it’s not unlike his runaway-train action flick Snowpiercer (2013), but it’s immensely more thrilling: whereas in Snowpiercer each compartment was like a paragraph in a Vox “explainer” about why capitalism is bad, Parasite’s sections are drawn with greater discipline and ingenuity, their air more suffocating because there is no outside to them. Bong constructs for his didactic purposes two Seoul families. The Parks command immense wealth; the Kims are poor and especially down on their luck, forced to find succor in neighbors’ Wi-Fi and to make ends meet as freelance pizza-box folders. But the families are otherwise ghostly images of one another, a neat nuclear counterpart in each of them: father, mother, son, daughter. And we quickly learn of another family, one even more ghostly: the team of employees, prized for their tactful invisibility, who pollinate the Parks’ light-filled home like bees chained to their flowers.
At the start of the film the Kims are paid a visit by their son Ki-woo’s school friend Min, who proposes that Ki-woo take his place tutoring the Parks’ daughter, Da-hye, while he’s abroad. The son quickly realizes after spending time in the Parks’ house (designed by a famous and important artist!) that its inhabitants are highly susceptible to recommendations; they are too used to being served to have tastes of their own. Theirs is the pale technocratic posturing adopted by the gatekeepers of global capital. Not a universal language, but an international one. They like peppering their speech with English words and surrounding themselves with minimalist design. Their world is a sensual pinpoint from which nearly all smells, sights, tastes, and physical discomforts have been eliminated. We see them in their lavish home, or their car, or the Edenic, upscale supermarket, always immaculately sheltered. The Kims rightly identify this quality as a weakness, one they are keen on exploiting with their near-encyclopedic understanding of narcissism honed by the high level of competition required to earn a living wage, or at least one that keeps them joined together in their basement-level carapace. One by one the Kims, by brisk emotional subterfuge, replace the members of the Park family staff (with the exception of the daughter, for whom they invent a new position: child art therapist).