Having watched a lot of Coen Brothers movies lately, I’m starting to see their kind of purposefully aimless plotting as a norm, and when watching other films in which narrative incident seems arbitrary, it’s easy to ascribe them the same kind of inexplicability. Shit happens. Random happenstance springing from shambolic and incompetent attempts to steer sequences of events is an important structuring principal of Coen Brothers films, and of life. However, it is not the only structuring principal in life, and it is not the only source of arbitrary and disruptive events. Bong Joon Ho is a much more politically aware film-maker than the Coens, and once you get past the chaotic and confusing surface of his narrative, it’s possible to observe that the events in Parasite are structured as much by inequality as they are by chance. Where the Coens seem to take a formal interest in the narrative possibilities of the arbitrary, Bong seems to look at the arbitrary in ordinary lives, and to take a social interest in why it is present.
Of course an arbitrary experience of life has been ascribed to the injustices of capitalism for as long as critical accounts of it have been in circulation. ‘All that is solid melts into air’, is how Karl Marx characterised it in 1848: ‘uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation’ were for him precisely what distinguished the ‘bourgeois epoch’ from earlier periods. When tech-entrepreneurs talk proudly about ‘disrupting’ traditional industries, the novelty they think they are claiming is something that has been identified with capitalist production for centuries. This arbitrary experience, which is inflicted on those unfortunate enough not to be capital owners, is the experience which is represented in Parasite.
The film tells the story of a family of working-class Koreans who by various underhand means insert themselves as employees into the household of a wealthy couple—maintaining a pretence that they are not related or previously acquainted. In order to bring this about they orchestrate the dismissal of some of the couple’s existing employees, so this is clearly not a rosy tale of proletarian solidarity. Instead, the protagonists are the random happenstance that disrupts the lives of other characters, just as they are the victims of the capricious behaviours of their employers, and the world at large. They live in a basement flat, which is subject to flooding in bad weather, an unpredictable circumstance which they clearly lack the capital to guard against. While they take advantage of their employers’ wealth, making free with their luxurious home when they are away, their access to this luxury is entirely dependent on the happenstance of their employers’ whims. The intentionality of one group of characters’ actions becomes the unpredictable, random occurrence of another group’s experience, as unfathomable as the weather.
This mutual non-comprehension, in which only a kind of two-dimensional surface of behaviour is visible to characters outside a given group, is used to construct an elaborate and ultimately inconclusive plot. Nobody really understands what anybody else is doing, seeing them as though projected onto the screen of a shadow-play, sometimes literally like ghosts. The chains of causality, visible only to the audience, are so convoluted as to frustrate any sense the characters may have of the consequences of their actions, the rich as much as the poor. The results are both tragic and comedic.
Clearly, the only way such a narrative scheme can be effectively established is by constructing a plausible set of characters and situations. The above discussion describes the film’s ‘high concept’, but that’s all so much guff without clever, humane writing, committed performances, and a narrative structure that draws the viewer in and makes them invest emotionally in its unfolding, even if it ultimately withholds anything as facile and self-indulgent as poetic justice or ‘closure’. The film has all that in spades. Bong is apparently a meticulous planner, who shoots very little footage that won’t be used in the final edit; he presumably learned that frugality as an independent film-maker, but it serves him well in constructing the intricacies of this precisely structured movie. There are few characters with whom the audience will be unable to empathise, even when the stakes of their mutual-antagonism are at their highest, and although the film does not tie up its loose ends, it careers forwards in the manner of a narrative that knows where it’s going.
A less nuanced cinematic essay on these themes might have made the term ‘parasite’ an unambiguous one. A moralistic socialism would characterise the wealthy couple as the parasites, and ascribe the chaotic behaviours of the working-class characters as coerced, as the unavoidable consequences of their exploitation. Bong’s more sophisticated take shows how behaviours of dependency, exploitation and coercion are structured by the inequalities and partial perspectives of all the characters, and he portrays none of the characters as being wholly victims or wholly exploiters. All the characters have some agency, and all their behaviours are structured by their economic and social relationships, and by the circumstances in which they find themselves, none of which are of their own making. In the words of the production’s English tag-line, they all act as though they own the place, but clearly none of them actually do.