“Parasite” transcends cultural barriers with its commentary on global economics

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Photo by David Swanson / Shutterstock

“Parasite” director Bong Joon-ho celebrates with two of the four Oscar statues his film won at this year’s Academy Awards

John McKimmy, Staff Writer

Last weekend’s Oscars weren’t the first time acclaimed director Bong Hoon-jo had received recognition for his work, but they were significant for awarding the first-ever Best Picture Academy Award to a foreign film, the Korean black comedy “Parasite.” 

While the win surprised many Americans, the film’s success likely came as no surprise to those who watched it. Critics lauded the smash hit upon release for its subversive themes and sharp-witted criticism of modern capitalism. The ingenious  social satire builds its conflict around the vantage points of two Korean families from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Even if the movie had spectacular directing, editing, and acting, it would be reasonable to assume that the Oscar for best picture (or one of the other three that the film won) would go to a traditional movie adapted from a novel (“Little Women”) or based on war (“1917”). This is an especially reasonable assumption given the Academy’s reputation for self-indulgent spectacle in which movies created by studios with massive budgets retread the same hackneyed narratives.

Bong expressed his frustration with Hollywood incontinence succinctly: “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” Hopefully “Parasite’s” Oscars success leads to recognition of films from a broader range of cultures and recognizes universal stories that transcend geographical origin.

“Parasite” may have had great production values and writing, but that still doesn’t explain how it became an international phenomenon. Plenty of critically acclaimed foreign films have been released without any recognition from the Academy, so why did this one capture our attention?

It speaks to economic conditions around the world.

Bong claims that his film’s appeal stems from the relationship between the families in “Parasite:” the Kims, a destitute family struggling to survive in modern South Korea, and the Parks, an affluent family that employs the oldest Kim boy to be their tutor. The rest of the family then infiltrate the Park household pretending that they have loose, vague business connections. 

The symbiotic relationship between these families is jeopardized when the Kims discover another labor-class family inhabiting the Park household. In short, chaos ensues after the Kims throw a birthday party for a member of the Park family on the weekend they’re supposed to have off. 

But beyond “Parasite’s” watchability and humor, what has allowed the film to truly transcend cultural barriers is the familiar class conflict at its core. The relationship between the Kims and the Parks serves as a microcosm for class disparities around the world. The rise of economic globalization has driven class divides even further between workers of different nations. The World Inequality Report found that the top 1% of “earners” received 27% of new wealth garnered in 2017 while the bottom half of people took 12% of all growth.

Bong speaks to this phenomenon in an interview taken after his film’s release: “I think that’s because, while on the surface the film features very Korean characters and details, in the end, it’s as if we’re all living in this one country of capitalism.”