positions politics

Parasites in the Time of Coronavirus

Parasite became the first foreign film to win Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards, while China became the first country at the epicenter of a viral outbreak. As celebrities walked the red carpet on the evening of February 9, 2020 in Hollywood, it was the morning of February 10 in Wuhan, which turned out to be the deadliest day of the epidemic there thus far. The world is not as integrated as it might appear. Like the cascading waves of an invisible tsunami in slow motion, the spread of the virus across the globe has peeled back layer by layer the structural unevenness by which different places are exposed and impacted.

Next to such grim realities, a film, no matter how critically acclaimed, may be an afterthought, but art can give form to unsettled feelings, often inarticulate and subliminal, to make meaning out of our innermost fears and desires. In that sense, the Oscar-winning South Korean film poses a critical question about contemporary reactions to various forms of crises including the pandemic. In the face of multiple split screens with conflicting realities dominating our mediascape, the question confronting us is: what is the reality to which we must respond? If the rise of right-wing populism in the era of Trump had already begun to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction, then the policy turnabouts based on a polarized politics and as yet evolving science behind the virus only aggravate the sense of anxiety about what is real, as uncertainties abound.

'Parasite' movie poster and scene with self-portrait

Like the haunting self-portrait in the film with a symbolic dark spot that forebodes an unraveling of the orderly facade to reveal demons lying in wait, the virus throws back at us all our disturbing realities through its very surreality. The surreal, in this case, is not the unreal but the hyperreal, as originally intended by the artistic movement that gave birth to the concept a hundred years ago. Upon the terrifying experiences of World War I and disillusionment with human rationality, surrealism took inspiration from Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxist critique to subvert conventional thinking with jarring juxtapositions. Such is the moment now, from the playful memes of life imitating art to the tragic stories behind the macabre tally of the infected and the dead. Rather than a call to action, however, the surrealism of our time seems paralyzing, stuck between urgency and uncertainty, between our entangled vulnerabilities unmasked by the virus, and yet far from any political consensus on how to proceed.

Similar to the politicized virus, Parasite also treads a fine line between realism and surrealism with a double effect, leaving viewers questioning the reality, not only behind the film, but also of our own. While the film was taken as somewhat of a bolt from the blue, followers of New Korean Cinema saw it coming with a whole generation of renowned writer-directors, including Parasite’s Bong Joon Ho, who came of professional age in the South Korean cinematic renaissance of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Bong’s prolific career includes domestically celebrated psychological thrillers like Memories of Murder (2003) and Mother (2009), as well as the blockbuster The Host (2006), before the internationally recognized collaborations with US producers and actors, such as Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017). While the critical edge of the latter three films was delivered through the genre of science fiction allowing for easy distinction between social commentary and entertainment, Bong has been clear about his intentions with Parasite described by some as a Gothic drama, in which he “wanted to reflect the truth of current times.”

As if to signal the unsettling surreality of the film, viewers often ask “Do those kinds of housing and living conditions really exist in South Korea? Are South Koreans really so afraid of North Korean attack that they all have bunkers? Does poverty lead to such explosive rage and violence?” For a picture praised for its treatment of social inequality, its polished form risks rendering an all too serious reality into mere spectacle. Its high production value was backed by a long list of financial supporters including CJ Entertainment, the top studio and distributor of films in South Korea with global ambitions. This allowed Bong to fully exploit his creative fusion of multiple genres as he is known to do, from dark comedy and satire to horror and action, steeped in the stylized aesthetics of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, both of whom Bong thanked in his Oscar acceptance speech. So much elegance fictionalizes and sensationalizes the real, quarantining the very smells and pains of vastly different worlds, comfortably to the space of the screen for voyeurs to gaze at from a distance. Isn’t this the kind of detachment, disbelief, and disconnect playing out now across the world with the pandemic? This unnerving distance that positions the viewer as voyeur mirrors the current paralysis in which our sense of reality and self seem ever elusive. 

Ju-Hyun Park’s critical reading of Parasite through the lens of colonialism—a parasitic project of exploitation par excellence—provides far greater insights into South Korea, not as a “decontextualized tale of rich and poor,” but as the dysfunctional outcome of South Korea’s unequal position vis-à-vis the US Cold War in East Asia. As the film makes clear, any semblance (even fake) of English language and connections to the US are major advantages, undergirded by the military alliance with 28,500 US troops still stationed in South Korea. All of the characters in the film feigning upward mobility have English names to stand in for their Korean ones, and the youngest protagonist loves to play “Cowboys and Indians” but always in the stereotyped costume of Native Americans as if to foreshadow his demise. In one brief yet telling scene, his self-portrait is misidentified as depicting a monkey, a nod to the dehumanization of native populations, including that of the Koreans by US troops, first deployed to Korea in 1945. Although first welcomed as liberators who defeated the Japanese, the US simply replaced the previous colonial power to become yet another occupying force, exterminating self-rule by people’s committees. In that sense, the conspicuous divergence (rather than convergence) of South Korea from the US, not only in its handling of Covid-19 but also in its engagement toward North Korea, must be understood as the result of hard-won achievements of the South Korean people through decades of struggle for social justice and government accountability, rather than any “miracle” or US patronage.

Grossing over $250 million worldwide with a relatively modest budget of just over $10 million, Parasite is now the top fourth on the list of all time top-grossing foreign-language films in the US. Hollywood generates over $40 billion annually in the US alone while celebrating films like Parasite, and the real life slum turned into memorable mise en scène becomes a site of tourism with souvenir photos that consume poverty as quaint rather than the harsh reality of the urban poor. It’s a disturbing way of being “entertained” by human suffering, but the film was expressly not about black-and-white verdicts as the director explained; Bong Joon Ho wanted to maintain a certain neutrality so as not to depict any one side as totally innocent or guilty. But it was this gloss over social reality in which parasite serves as a metaphor for both the rich and poor that led Richard Brody of The New Yorker to write a sharp review. The film, he writes, “falls short of greatness,” because “its images are more like realizations of a plot point or a premise than events themselves” so that the film is in the end “a conservative movie, looking with bitter dismay at an order that falls short, a sense of law and of social organization that functions efficiently but misguidedly—that needs, in effect, more and better order.” It falls short, Brody argues, because of “its inability to contend with society and existence at large.” The same could be said of the reactions to the coronavirus.

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With predictions that more Americans could die from the virus than in all foreign wars of the last century, the pandemic is frequently described as a “war against an invisible enemy.” But this is a dangerous analogy that conveniently swaps one reality for another. It romanticizes war as a time of collective sacrifice, eliding wartime’s many horrors of sexual violence, genocide, and indiscriminate killings. By idealizing sacrifice, the analogy also evades government responsibility to take appropriate public health measures, which require entirely different kinds of practices (caring not killing) and tools (medical supplies not weapons). The focus on American casualty numbers also callously ignores civilian deaths, disavowing accountability for deliberate acts of mass killing. In the Korean War alone, an estimated 3 million civilians died, due in large part to US carpet bombing.

Much like the disproportionate effect of military conflict on civilians, many have raised the alarm about the unequal impact of Covid-19, exacerbating prevailing inequalities. Even before the global pandemic, as much as a third of all premature deaths were linked to social inequality as one study in England found. Such structural health inequities are striking when viewed from a global perspective. While the developed world is in an unprecedented tailspin, developing countries have long faced dire conditions from communicable diseases compounded by nutritional deficiencies. They accounted for more than half of all deaths—some 10 million people—in low-income countries in 2016. In India, one million children die every year from diarrhea, malnutrition and other preventable health issues. These are the realities coming into sharper focus as the pandemic underscores our entangled vulnerabilities. What then is the reality to which we must respond, if not precisely these contradictions that formed the parasitic structure upon which the status quo stood, long before the virus ever arrived?

There is no shortage of observations that the virus will test our way of life that has become so dependent upon global interconnectivity. But this is not new; environmental disasters have long challenged the global developmentalist paradigm, most acutely felt among the vulnerable populations of the world. In places like North Korea, limits to industrial development have constrained its way of life since at least the 1970s, and parasites are not just a metaphor but a living reality. As chemical fertilizers reliant on the import of petroleum became increasingly scarce after the 1970s, North Korea has had to resort to animal and human waste for food production, contaminating local water sources amid a lack of adequate sanitation facilities. We are told that automated algorithms and integrated supply chains have dramatically heightened efficiency in the 21st century, and yet at a time of acute food shortages to meet everyday needs, food in the US is being trashed in the tons because supply chains cannot be shifted from wholesalers to consumers. So-called efficiency has made the world much more unequal and much less resilient as each locale is immediately impacted by the ripple effects of what goes on elsewhere, even as the resources to address such effects are unequally distributed. As the virus spreads in disregard of geopolitical borders and poses public health risks in North Korea as elsewhere, North Korea continues to be shut off from global markets by the broad sanctions regime, limiting access to medical and agricultural supplies, and financial institutions that can address the current pandemic, as well as improve the country’s long term prospects.

Meanwhile in South Korea, April 16, 2020 marked the six-year anniversary of the sinking of the ferry Sewol, in which 304 people, the majority of them high school students, died due to failed rescue operations. In addition to corruption charges, it was the repeated evasion to properly address state mishandling of the disaster that led to the historic candlelight protests in 2016 and the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, now serving a 32-year sentence. The current government was ushered into power with the express mandate to restore public trust with policies focused on collective wellbeing. This in part explains the successful South Korean response to Covid-19, giving the incumbent party a landslide victory in the April 15 parliamentary elections. Rather than celebrate these victories and achievements however, President Moon Jae-in solemnly mourned the anniversary of Sewol by thanking the deceased children for leaving behind a legacy of empathy. He attributed the renewed sense of social responsibility and emphasis on the public good to the painful lessons of state ineptitude:

We’ve cried together about the Sewol and acted to take responsibility collectively. That tragedy has also taught us how deeply interconnected we are. In the course of striving to overcome the COVID-19 outbreak, we are confirming our interdependence once again…with the mindset “We will not let anyone die helplessly.”

Condolences to the families of the victims of Sewol in front of Seoul City Hall, May 2014.
Yellow ribbons became a symbol of sympathy for the victims of Sewol at Seoul Plaza, May 2014.

Rather than moralizing finger-pointing and passing blame, this crisis is a call to truly see the reality behind the veneer of normalcy. Even before the pandemic, Greta Thunberg and her generation of climate activists had already urged an immediate rethinking and change in the way we live. While ignoring the horizon of climate disaster in our field of vision, the coronavirus has managed to halt our way of life in its tracks. We are out of excuses. As Thunberg forcefully reminds us, “nature doesn’t bargain” and “change is coming whether you like it or not.” Parasites in the time of coronavirus are doubly unsettling for laying bare our surreality and giving form to our hidden ailments and anxieties. What is to be done with the parasites remains an open question. Rather than panic or shrug at the current crisis, now is the time to correct our mistakes and chart a new path. No more bargaining, no more excuses.