Michelle Goldberg: With ‘Parasite,’ class war comes to the Oscars

(Ahn Young-joon | AP) People watch a TV screen showing an image of South Korean director Bong Joon Ho during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. In a milestone win that instantly expanded the Oscars' horizons, Bong's masterfully devious class satire "Parasite" became the first non-English language film to win best picture in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards.

On Sunday night, Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” morphed from a merely great film into a history-making phenomenon, becoming the first foreign-language film to win the Oscar for best picture. It also won best director, best original screenplay and best international feature. Additionally, this South Korean horror-comedy, a radical parable of inequality, won the Golden Globe for best foreign film, the Writers Guild Award for best original screenplay and the best-ensemble prize from the Screen Actors Guild.

No foreign film has ever been so honored in this country. Besides the excellence of the filmmaking, there’s clearly something resonant about its bleak social vision, so different from anything coming out of Hollywood. Its reception is evidence of the same crisis of faith in capitalism that’s making Bernie Sanders into a front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

“Parasite” depicts a world where a chasm divides the rich, who live in airy minimalist splendor, and the poor, who exist — to a degree that becomes increasingly macabre as the film progresses — literally underground. American viewers might get the impression that South Korea is an extremely stratified society, and while they’d be right, it’s by some measures less unequal than our own. That makes the film’s fatalism about social mobility, so foreign to traditional American sensibilities, particularly bracing.

Americans tend to think of class as being about behavior, at least in part — if you can master the mores of the rich, you can get ahead in the world. Consider the much-loved recent film “Knives Out,” a slightly woke version of an Agatha Christie-style whodunit. (Beware, spoilers are coming.) Its protagonist, a saintly nurse with an undocumented mother, triumphs because she understands and outsmarts the venal rich family conspiring against her. By the end of “Hustlers,” last year’s class-war crime thriller about strippers ripping off plutocrats, the central character played by Constance Wu has hustled her way into what looks like the middle class.

Bong’s world, by contrast, tends to be one in which there is no moving up. “Parasite” isn’t even his most Marxist-seeming film. That would be the 2013 dystopian thriller “Snowpiercer,” in which a failed attempt to stop global warming has turned the planet into a frozen wasteland, and the remnants of humanity are stuck on an ever-moving train. The poor live in cannibalistic squalor in the rear, their children fueling — again, literally — the hothouse luxury of the rich. Salvation comes only through blowing up the whole system and starting anew.

The politics of “Parasite” are only marginally more subtle. It tells the story of a poor family, the Kims, who insinuate themselves into the home and lives of a rich family, the Parks. First the Kims’ son, Ki-woo, fakes university papers to become a tutor to the Parks’ daughter. He manipulates them into hiring his sister as a high-end art therapist for the Parks’ hyperactive son. The siblings then get the Parks to replace the family chauffeur with their father and the meticulous housekeeper with their mother.

None of the Kims, who never let on that they’re related, have a problem fitting into their new milieu or doing the jobs they’ve conned their way into. If they lived in destitution before the Parks, it has nothing to do with their abilities. Nor do their new positions seem to raise their station much; they remain in the same dirty, verminous basement flat.

It’s the stink of that flat that comes close to giving Ki-taek, the Kim patriarch, away. The Parks smell it on him. His place in the economic hierarchy is a material reality that has nothing to do with skill or competence; it sticks to him.

Again and again, “Parasite” shows class as a steel trap. The film spins from comedy to grotesquerie when it’s revealed that the original housekeeper’s husband has been hiding in the Parks’ basement for four years, pursued by debt collectors after his small business went bust. That couple discovers the Kims’ scam, leading to a zero-sum struggle for the scraps of the Parks’ lives.

At the film’s end, after a spasm of murderous violence, infamy and grief, the Kims’ son makes a “fundamental plan” to grow rich enough to save his father. There’s a gauzy sequence where this seems to be actually playing out, and “Parasite” briefly dangles the prospect of a Hollywood ending. Only in the last shot is it clear that it’s a fantasy and that he’s stuck right where he began.

According to the OECD, American social mobility is no more robust than South Korea’s. But with a few exceptions like Boots Riley’s surrealist 2018 indie film “Sorry to Bother You,” American popular culture hasn’t caught up to a world where brains and gumption are no match for larger material forces. At least, it hasn’t caught up consciously: “Parasite’s” feting at the Academy Awards — where nominees received gift bags worth more than $225,000 that included gold-plated vape pens — could itself be seen as a decadent satire about inequality.

Recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez elicited spasms of outraged mockery from the right-wing media when she called the idea of lifting oneself up by one’s bootstraps “a joke.” But maybe “Parasite” has struck such a chord because for too many people, inequality is turning modern capitalism into not just a joke but a nightmare.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.