Art often provides us with a glimpse of reality. It provides us with the possibility of thinking differently by estranging us from ourselves for a moment.
Parasite (2019 film)
Dr Scott Kirkland (Monday 1 June)
Art often provides us with a glimpse of reality. It provides us with the possibility of thinking differently by estranging us from ourselves for a moment. Cinema does this in a unique way. We are locked in a dark room full of strangers, all to be taken into another world for a moment. The best cinema leaves you coming out the other side unable to see this world the same way again.
The last 20 years have seen a fascinating wave of post-IMF bailout Korean cinema concerned with political economy. Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 Best Picture winning film Parasite, coming on the tail of this wave, is ambiguously titled. Precisely who is the parasitic figure is unclear throughout the film. The film’s premise is that a rich family living in a famous (fictional) architect’s home in Seoul need help in the wake of the loss of their daughter’s tutor. Opening the door to figures from another class leads to parasitism taking over their idyllic home.
We begin the film with the introduction of a poor family living in a half underground flat. Like parasites become resistant to insecticide, they open their windows to let in the chemicals from a public fumigation of the streets. The whole family, resistant to attempts to extinguish their lives, through various dubious means or survival tactics, end up working for the rich family as the household staff.
Eventually we learn of a third family, displaced by the first poor family, living in a bunker designed to shield from nuclear catastrophe. We are taken from those who have nothing, to those who find themselves with less than nothing. The husband in this third family has gone into hiding from his creditors who are intent on killing him. Any solidarity between those subjected to the rich is undone by the savage competition for a comfortable life, living as parasites under the roof of the rich. Those who are less than nothing find themselves aspiring to climb just one rung on the ladder of parasitism.
Complication emerges, however, when we see the way the opulence of the rich family’s life is utterly contingent upon extracting wealth from the poor. Their comfort is predicated upon exploitation. Indeed, the rich family cannot bear the presence of the poor, who are known by their common odour, the odour common to “those who ride the subway”, as the rich mother tells us. Everybody in the household is parasitic, there is no society, only the circulation of credit and debt. Even the children are driven to performance and success through the investment in tutors. What might be thought of as abstract economic relations are bound to material social correspondents sustaining the economy. The economy takes flesh in the universal figure of the parasite. We all find ourselves feasting on one-another.
What Parasite points us to—just a year before we find ourselves in economic crisis—is the way that economic relations are never just about the exchange of goods and money, they are heavy laden with the social bonds and fissures that sustain them. Parasitism can become a way of life. Money is a way we think about the time of the employee condensed, coagulated, clotted into solid form. When we make money from money—what we used to call usury—when money produces money without work, we begin to live an undead life. Voltaire talks about these figures of extraction as Vampires. They are "stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces." When we plug this into the global flow of money and the extraction of value from colonised and oppressed nations, the consequences are horrifying.
The lesson of Parasite is that there is no outside to this system of parasitism. This means the system itself has to be challenged. The present moment intensifies this dynamic. We see bankers and corporates at the top of the system requiring infusions of blood/money in order to sustain them in the absence of the ability to extract, and at the other end we see those who have found themselves without the means to exchange their work for money. Often in our political culture we identify both with a kind of parasitism. This moment is then a moment of clarity, where we can catch a glimpse for a moment of how money flows when we see it ceasing to flow. It opens up the possibility of changing some of the directions of that flow, and contesting what makes it move. It is a moment to recognise that we are contingent upon one another. It is a moment to think.