In his posthumously published book, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, the French philosopher Louis Althusser explained that protracted ideological struggles necessarily precede major social changes. This is to say that what people think and how they feel determines what they do, and changing what people do requires as a prerequisite changes to the ways in which people determine what to think and how to feel. In the same text, Althusser writes that people determine their thoughts and feelings through ideological apparatuses. These apparatuses can include but are not limited to social facets like law, education, and most visibly cultural productions like film. Out of all of the films circulated around the globe in the early 21st century, none can be said to be as antagonistic to the global culture of capitalism, as popular, and thus most likely to precipitate major social change as Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite.
In Parasite, a poor Korean family made up of the failed entrepreneur and patriarch Ki-taek, matriarch Chung-sook, and their two children Ki-jeong and Ki-woo, who both voluntarily dropped out of school to work and support their family, forge credentials, lie, and cheat to secure jobs provided by a more affluent family. These jobs revolve around the maintenance of the affluent family’s home and children. In this scenario, the affluent family relies on the labor of the working class to support their lifestyle, and the working family relies on the income provided by the affluent class to live. While both families participate in parasitic social relations, the wealth and esteem of the affluent insulates them from the violence and antagonism that the poor family must both endure and perpetrate to survive. In short, these two families are alike, but they are not the same. The privilege in which the affluent find refuge is eventually the cause of calamity that concludes this story.
After winning the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Parasite went on to be a runaway success. In addition to winning four Oscars at the 92nd Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, critics for RogerEbert, ReverseShot, FilmComment and more all ranked Parasite as among the best films of the year if not the decade. According to Travis Bean for Forbes, by March 2020, Parasite was the highest-earning South Korean film ever screened in United States theaters and the fourth highest-earning foreign film of all time. Given its mass appeal and working class message, Parasite seemed to be the lens through which the global working class could finally reframe their thoughts and feelings about the global culture of capitalism and endeavor to change it for the better until suddenly it wasn’t.
In the United States, capitalism’s affluent profiteers quickly appropriated Parasite. On January 4, 2020, millionaire Chrissy Tiegen tweeted, “Phew Parasite was so fucking good!!” Likewise, billionaire Elon Musk and former president Barrack Obama endorsed Parasite as among their favorite films of 2019. What at first seemed like a catalyst for radical change became an object of leisurely amusement for the same class of people that it explicitly criticized.
Different writers have proposed different explanations for the ways in which these people received the film. In an article for VICE titled “Rich People Love, ‘Parasite,’ a Movie that Roasts Rich People,” Bettina Makalintal argues that oblivious wealthy people enamored by a movie about oblivious wealthy people should simply be taken for granted. Writing for Junkee, Michelle Rennex offers a more pessimistic opinion. In her article, “Rich People Love ‘Parasite’ but Refuse to Learn Anything from It,” she intimates that Parasite fails as a work of art for not being able to convince the elite milieu that praised it of the error of their ways. Contrary to what these writers believe, neither the individual conceits of the affluent nor the individual qualities of the film explain why the class that it is most hostile to received it so warmly, but the ideological operations that Althusser describes in On the Reproduction of Capital can.
In this text, Althusser explains that ideology is neither mechanistic nor explanatory. This is to say that encountering ideological productions like Parasite does not automatically validate or invalidate the ideological lenses through which people decide how to think and feel, nor do people rely on them to explain their thoughts and feelings. Rather, ideology is a lens that distorts the ways in which people conceive of their relation to others and their role among them in a culture. Specifically, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek explains in The Sublime Object of Ideology, people seek ways to enjoy negative aspects of their culture through ideology. For example, while someone may think about consumerism as a negative aspect of capitalism, they may use ideology to frame their own patterns of consumption as ethical consumption so that instead of feeling bad or thinking poorly about who they are and how they compare to others, they can enjoy participating in a negative aspect of capitalist culture. This may take the form of buying shoes from a company that promises to donate one pair to a family in need for every pair sold. This may take the form of buying coffee from coffee shops that promise to donate one dollar for every cup of coffee sold to the exploited families that make the coffee. This may even take the form of supporting a relatively small and independent feature film from a relatively obscure filmmaker from a foreign country like Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite.
Much like the affluent family in Parasite has resources that buffer the negative consequences of their capitalist culture, the affluent people that warmly received Parasite in the United States have resources that buffer critical interpretations of its content. However, before thinking about this reception in terms of aspects of the film or individual aspects of the people that viewed it, the ideological lens through which this film has been received should be considered. The affluent are not the only culpable class of people. They are only as clueless as everyone else enthralled by the ideological enjoyment of capitalist culture, and works of art that pass through it may never be pointed enough to break through without reckoning with it. Much like the two families in Parasite the affluent and everyone else are alike. Fortunately, they are not the same. For the affluent, Parasite represents an achievement from within capitalism. For everyone else, it may still be a revolutionary forerunner for an exit strategy. The point of Parasite is not for the wealthy to figure that out. The global culture of capitalism responsible for the calamity that concludes its story is their solution to the problem, after all.