Parasite’s Transnational Claim

By: Abby Ivancevich

The critically acclaimed film “Parasite” has taken the world by storm for its thrilling, at times, humorous storyline, but its true claim to fame and power lies in its connection to international relations and globalism. Along with winning the famed Best Picture award at the 2020 Oscars, the picture won awards in Canada, England, and Australia, not to mention the 8-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival after the screening. Instead of being categorized as a foreign film, “Parasite” has transcended language, cultural, and global barriers usually subject to international films. 

Part of what makes the movie so eerie yet enthralling is that many of the situations, family dynamics, and struggles are synonymous with reality. The film follows the story of two South Korean families, including the impoverished Kim family of four, where neither of the children or parents are college-educated or have stable jobs. With manipulation and falsification of university documents, the Kim’s outsmart the wealthy Park family. The Kim siblings become tutors for the Park children and the Kim parents become staff for the Park parents. Intertwining these two families provides an eye-opening juxtaposition and portrayal of the wealth gap in Korean society. For example, the first part of the movie takes place in the Kim home: a dingy, cramped semi-basement in a poor neighborhood. Bong Joon-ho, the film’s celebrated director, chose this living situation because the living quarters are primarily underground with a narrow window near the ceiling of the room on the street level. It’s a heartbreaking analogy and visual representation of the Kim’s hope and tortuous view of social mobility while still remaining buried in poverty. 

Contrastingly, the Parks live in a gorgeous modern house on a steep hill in a gated community. However, the Park’s dependence on the lower class for labor and idealization of American products, schooling, and imagery add to their gullible personas, helplessly detached from reality. According to the director, implementing unique and traditional Korean elements like the semi-basement throughout the storyline is what made the movie universal. Joon-ho recognizes, “it’s a paradox in some ways, but I think that’s why the film’s done well.” In an increasingly globalized world, audiences do not want to be overtly shown some overarching, large scale message about society, they want to be reminded of what makes us different, what sets our cultures apart. It’s the underlying themes of family, rich and poor, and relations between Korea and the United States. “Parasite” reaches the perfect balance of unapologetic originality, while still emphasizing ancient yet still relevant values for everyone around the world.

Is the success of this film pointing to a new, truly global genre of films that somehow find a way to please audiences around the world? Probably not. The magic of “Parasite” is more about how it lays out reality and lets the audience interpret it. When the mother from the Park family reassures that the tent their son is sleeping in will not leak because it is made in America, is Joon-ho ridiculing the blind idolization of the US by the wealthy Parks or calling attention to the inequality between the two countries? That interpretation is up to the viewer. The Kim family’s struggle to sustain a job or their decision to falsify university documents is directly applicable to economies around the world. The recent college admissions scandal in the US displays all too clearly the new necessity for higher education and the importance of school prestige. Moreover, the scandal brought to life how wealthy families were able to gain a leg-up overqualified, intelligent candidate due to their socio-economic status. The Kim family is an example of a crafty, intelligent family without proper resources to become successful. Ultimately, the Kims become a fractured, violent team that take up violent action against their employers. 

“Parasite” is also special in its ability to enact change. Recently, the Korean government pledged to donate over 3.2 million won to help families who live in semi-basements. Was this change made to portray the generosity and responsiveness of the Korean government due to international attention or because the movie itself portrayed the living situation with such tragic, intimate detail? It was probably a combination of both factors, but there’s no doubt that the international attention pressured the government to act. Korea is no stranger to soft power, gradually growing its economy to one of the top 10 in the world due to its billion-dollar beauty industry, K-Pop groups, and now, coveted films. Clearly artistic and cultural expression from different countries can have profound effects on the world. 

As accessibility and acceptance of these forms of leverage change and develop, countries can build respect in and outside of their borders. Perhaps historical film classes in the future will study this movie as a representation of the effects of globalization or the human condition, plagued by jealousy, rage, and inequality. This is not the first film that has raised awareness and assistance for disadvantaged peoples, nor will it be the last. For international films to continue to make such a marked difference in the world, brutal honesty and distinctive cultural traditions cannot be compromised. The fear is that restrictive governments or directors will make conscious or unconscious decisions that downplay societal issues for fear of international scrutiny or attention. Globalization cannot be a way to compromise authenticity because it can end up helping disadvantaged peoples in a way few other art forms can.