2019 was a major win for progressive film. In just one year, American cinema released The Irishman, Just Mercy, When they See Us—the list goes on. All of these works received critical acclaim for their emotional depictions of issues ranging from police brutality to union busting.
Perhaps most notable is how honestly they contend with income inequality. These titles go beyond the superficial sentimentality of Oscar-bait by explicitly addressing the widespread danger of neoliberalism. They resonate with audiences through their critiques of capitalism, tapping into the nation’s dissatisfaction with establishment politics.
Arguably, the most influential leftist film right now didn’t come from America. South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite centers around a destitute family who lives in one of Seoul’s many low-rent basement apartments. Their luck changes, at first for the better, when the son Ki-woo gets a job tutoring the daughter of a wealthy real estate tycoon.
The unique success of Parasite defies the trend of non-English films performing poorly at the box office and awards shows. It is the first South Korean movie that the Academy Awards has nominated for Best Picture and the fourth-highest grossing Palme d’Or winner of all time in the US.
So beloved is its story that whispers of an American remake recently made rounds on the internet. Backlash from members of the #BongHive, a name derived from Beyonce fans’ Beyhive, made me wonder: Is the root of Joon-ho’s success a familiarity with American neoliberalism, a force informed by white supremacy? Or an obfuscation of it?
My friend and I saw Parasite at E Street Cinema. The movie theater sits in the heart of downtown DC, surrounded by glassy high-rises and hip restaurants. Members of the audience were mostly like us: college-educated twenty-somethings with office jobs and progressive ideals.
When I took my seat, I scanned the audience for anyone who wasn’t white. There was my friend who’s Korean-American, a black woman a couple of rows in front of us, and me. I tried to focus on the trailers, all of which advertised European films with exclusively white ensembles. Meanwhile, the white man next to me bragged to his date about teaching English in Korea. I rolled my eyes when he claimed that his former students were smarter and more studious than the public school kids here. (68 percent of DCPS students are African American, 18 percent Latinx). He said this was his third time seeing the film.
His words reframed my initial viewing. Throughout the showing, I thought about the model minority myth and its role as a propagator of anti-blackness. In my head, I counted the numerous instances of American awards shows ignoring black talent. In 2018, the overwhelmingly white Academy chose not to nominate The Hate U Give, a film about racialized police violence, for an Oscar in spite of its critical and commercial success. Green Book, a prime example of a white savior movie, won Best Picture that year. Then in 2019, the Golden Globes snubbed When They See Us, a gut-wrenching limited series that tells the true story of five low-income black boys falsely accused of rape. The winner for its category wound up being an all-white historical thriller that takes place in Soviet-era Russia.
When I compared Parasite to past lily-white award-contenders, I wanted to feel relief. At least this movie had people of color in it, I thought. That was a good thing—right? My stomach twisted itself in knots.
In her 2016 book The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority, sociologist Ellen Wu explains that white politicians across the political spectrum manufactured the stereotype of the hard-working Asian American immigrant during the Civil Rights era in order to discredit concerns about wealth inequality and anti-black oppression. At the same time, US foreign policy allowed for capitalist economies in the far east to grow, closening Asians’ proximity to whiteness. Colorism only aided in the success of these countries, the media of which portrays their inhabitants as light-skinned.
Today, as capitalism further convolutes the true meaning of liberation, there are white supremacists who fetishize East Asian women and use Japanese anime characters to disseminate fascist propaganda. Many white separatist groups cite the ostensible financial development of racially homogenous countries like South Korea when advocating for the genocide of non-white people, including Asians, in their home countries.
Parasite is a masterpiece of cinema, but its success in a white supremacist state is not wholly pure. Like Joker, an anti-capitalist origin story of the titular comic book villain, Parasite spends no time pondering racial inequality. While critics have already pointed out how Joker promotes white male rage by allowing white men to process their own financial victimhood while also ignoring their relative privilege, Parasite-mania in America has gone largely unexamined.
I don’t believe that a South Korean director should feel obligated to address whiteness in a country where 99% of its people identify as ethnically Korean (though South Korean neoliberalism exploits migrant workers from poorer, browner countries in South and Southeast Asia). However, the financial success of Parasite is due in part to white supremacy’s use of Asian media as an escape from the groups it views as inherently inferior and, by extension, itself.
Parasite goes one step beyond Green Book, allowing white viewers to feel down with a universal cause by not portraying whiteness at all. White people can safely project themselves onto Ki-woo, a good-natured man whose alabaster skin and Korean nationality place him at the perfect narrative distance: recognizable enough to be relatable on a superficial level, foreign enough to seem nonthreatening and exotic.
The meteoric growth of Bong Joon-ho’s influence parallels that of dirtbag leftism, a dangerous ideology that attempts to separate identity from class. In the fight against conservative economic policies, American leftists must embrace anti-racism and intersectionality if we want to progress as a nation. As a writer, I believe in weak theory, which refutes rigid hierarchies and interpretations of ideas. Forms of oppression do not supersede each other by order of importance. They are a network that works together to inflict harm.
South Korean capitalism is neither a perfect equal to our own capitalist system nor an irrelevantly foreign concept nor something in between. It is one part in a destructive framework, one that will never go away until we face our own inequalities issues directly. While the general conceit of Parasite could easily take place in Los Angeles or New York, treating its setting as a far-away corollary of the US erases the harm of the American racial caste system.
After the movie, while I was walking home from the metro, I saw a homeless man. He’d fallen asleep on a heating vent, his possessions splayed out around him. He was like most homeless men in the city: black, elderly. Invisible. As I passed by him, I wondered what the white man in the theater would think. Had Parasite finally imparted its themes of love and hope finally to him? Would he be able to connect the Ki-woo’s struggle to that of black and latinx communities, groups disproportionately affected by austerity?
When I made it home to my parents’ house, I cried. I didn’t care what the racist man chose to believe. I cared because his views impacted people like me and the homeless man regardless of what I thought. With the growing likelihood of a recession and the rise of fascism, my already tenuous financial situation becomes more uncertain.
By Megan Howell
Edited By Caleb Zimmerschied