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bong joon ho's parasite: on neoliberal gothic comedy and western working-class nostalgia


Bong Joon Ho's Parasite has been globally praised for presenting a new perspective on class conflict and for placing the precarious working class at the center of it. Prestigious awards such the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Festival or the unprecedented Oscar for the Best Film of the Year only corroborate this global consensus. But I think it's the opposite. Parasite is an overworked and convoluted narrative about the impossibility of overcoming, dismantling, or exiting neoliberal capitalism. Literally, the Korean film is a cinematic version of Fredric Jameson's infamous dictum that "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism."[1] Therefore, the interesting thing to analyze is how we all have enjoyed globally, in almost ecclesiastical communion, our last cinematic surrender to the ideology of late capitalism. And at that, it must be admitted, Parasite is a work of genius. 

From British and American Gothic to Global Comedy
The fact that the film breaks genre limits and reorganizes them in a new fashion enhances its global novelty and reception: Parasite mixes violence and slapstick humor à la Tarantino but reorganizes them according to Gothic horror conventions. So, we need a new name for this new hybrid genre: neoliberal Gothic comedy. If it were not too long, I would call it “global oriental neoliberal Gothic comedy.”
If I denounced above Parasite’s "overworked and convoluted narrative about the impossibility of overcoming, dismantling, or exiting neoliberal capitalism," it is precisely because the film is rendered in a Gothic fashion, following the conventions of the British Gothic horror genre of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (The Monk, Melmoth the Wonderer, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Castle of Otranto, etc.). At least since Eve Sedgwick's The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, we know that the main rule of the Gothic genre is precisely that one cannot escape from the castle or the mansion. The Gothic genre uses claustrophobia to generate universal horror. In Parasite too, two unconnected working-class families are trapped, in a very British-Victorian way, by having their respective patriarchs imprisoned in the neoliberal and architecturally fashionable new castle of the global capitalist elite. Thus, the castle emerges again as the center of this new global allegory. But in the British Gothic convention, it is the colonialist-imperialist Protestant class in power that experiences the anxiety of entrapment by portraying Spanish, Irish, and Italian nuns and monks as well as nobility freaks. It is an entrapment anxiety that is further exacerbated in later narratives such as Dracula, as the narrative evolves to what Stephen D. Arata has called "reverse colonization:"[2] Dracula travels from the peripheries of the British Empire in Transylvania to London to eat and colonize the British. In short, Gothic anxieties of claustrophobia (of not being able to leave the castle) are always a sign of hegemony, of power, of privilege and, therefore, of fear of losing an elite status.[3] But, in Parasite, it is rather the opposite: the working class is the one who suffers from anxiety—an anxiety that is presented as the latest sign of the new affective technology of neoliberalism: insecurity, fear of precarization, terror of becoming homeless and destitute. In other words, the conventions of the Gothic genre are reversed in the film so that no one can dream of leaving or overcoming neoliberalism.[4] 
This represents a return to older Gothic conventions, but in a global fashion, as the film goes beyond what could be characterized as the most recent refashioning of the filmic Gothic, the Hollywood horror film of mid-20th century, articulated by Hitchcock as both middle class and North American. In Pyscho, for example, Slavoj Zizek observes a triple middle-class spatial organization, whereby the maternal superego is on the first floor, Norman's ego on the ground floor, and the unconscious, embodied by the mother's corpse, in the basement (The Pervert's Guide to Cinema).[5]

Working Class Compulsion, Picaresque, and Spectatorial Gothic
Parasite's reversed Gothic logic—the hegemonic ideology of neoliberalism—is integrated into its filmic narrative core to such an extent that, once the son of the working family becomes an English teacher for the rich daughter, the rest of his family has no choice but to follow suit compulsively—as if guided by a mysterious but infallible Gothic logic—and enter a castle that they do not know yet they will not be able to leave. This working class acts with an "unethical logic" and a "universal dishonesty"[6] that aligns the poor family with the Spanish picaresque genre of the 16th-17th centuries, rather than with any subsequent social discourse (socialism, anarchism, solidarity, etc.), so that the castle becomes the Gothic-uncanny space the entire family thinks can invade parasitically and leave unscathed at will. Here again, picaresque is combined with a comic and ironic touch that, nevertheless, does not become social commentary or critique.  
Yet, it is precisely at that point, when the neoliberal elite owners of the castle leave in a camping trip to exorcise the haunting that even they can indirectly perceive through their youngest child, that the working-class family meets their future fate in the form of the husband of the previous caretaker whom they have managed to have her fired. From this point on, the film goes into a violent frenzy of narrative accidents, coincidences, and fortuitous encounters that are simply designed to entrap the audience, so they cannot leave the film either. This is the most manipulative and forced part of the film, where coincidences are piled up with the sole objective of making the public feel the ghostly effect of neoliberalism at the cinematic level: I, as a spectator, felt manipulated and forced, pushed into the dungeons of the film, so that even I could not leave a manipulative and affectively painful film that was clearly going nowhere. The film manipulates even nature, the weather, so that the working family cannot return home: after the initial fiasco, the whole family manages to escape from the neoliberal Gothic castle unscathed, but torrential rains flood their underground home and, as a consequence, the next morning, they have no choice but to return to the neoliberal castle. Only the birthday party and its surreal and violent celebration of working-class resentment, always attenuated through comic touches of hilarious excess à la Tarantino, liberates the audience from their cinematic-Gothic entrapment, and finally allows them to watch the movie for what it is: a celebration of the neoliberal Gothic, which shows a working-class family trapped in a distant land, in the new global Orient of Hallyu (Korean popular culture).   

Deplorables, Racial Working-Class Resentment, and Progressive Orientalism
But, the film also creates an effect of distance, so that the audience can view and enjoy working class entrapment but ultimately walk away from it, unlike the film characters, unscathed, i.e. as if the entrapment ultimately was that of an Other, of another class elsewhere. In order to do so, the film relies on a sophisticated system of affectivity and neorientalism.
Since Parasite introduces the new (South Korean) neoliberal elite class, at best, as naive, gullible, narcissistic and, ultimately, as not even intelligent enough to defend its status and wealth (represented primarily as female through the role of the credulous wife), the film creates a sense of anger, of resentment, which is not articulated politically but affectively. It is no accident that the son of the working family, at the end of the film, fantasizes about amassing a great fortune to buy the house in order to free the imprisoned father. The film gives rise to the same affectivity that the neoliberal right of the West (with Trump as its epicenter) has been able to deploy successfully against what Nancy Fraser has called "the progressive neoliberal elite," from Bill Gates to the Hollywood liberals.[7] But Parasite has done so, in a very subtle way, mixing picaresque comedy and Gothic horror violence, so that class resentment is codified in a very benign, intelligent, and humorous way, and, as a result, a global progressive audience can celebrate and enjoy it without guilt. Deep down, this respectable audience tells itself, "this is a satire, it is dark humor." That is, the film is a global fetishistic representation of the class conflict, so that the audience can identify with the poor working class, feel their resentment and entrapment, enjoy their violence, but, at the end disconnect from them, without realizing that the film places the viewership in the position of neoliberal progressive elite that supposedly attacks.
It is no coincidence that Parasite represents a South Korea devoid of immigrants and, therefore, as ethnic and/or racially homogeneous, for this allows a global progressive audience to enjoy class resentment through a very old-fashioned working-class representation that no longer is prevalent in the West: "a working class constituted by a traditional, racially homogeneous, heterosexual nuclear family with two children." Thus, the film ends up creating, in Europe and North America, a nostalgia for the old white national working class that has nothing to do with the new precarious class of the present, where postcolonial immigrants, racial minorities, or non-nuclear families headed by working women are becoming the new norm. It is not a coincidence that, at the end of the film, father and son, separated by the house-prison, resort to one of the oldest instantaneous forms of long-distance communication: the Morse code, an anachronistic form characteristic of incipient Western industrialization. This would explain the universally acclaimed sense of class vindication that everyone has enjoyed in the film: as a spectator, you can become—or identify with—the entrapped and outraged precariat (racially homogeneous and morally conservative) whom Hilary Clinton dismissed in the United States as “deplorable” and, yet, you can remain part of the progressive global upper middle class viewership who can enjoy the spectacle of a political film about a "real working class" without North American or European postcolonial-migratory-precarious-feminized conflictivity. It is no coincidence that the father of the elite family despises the chauffeur and father of the working-class family repeatedly by referring to the latter’s "deplorable low-class odor," so that, in the final scenes of the film, when the "deplorable" working-class father knives his “deploring” Clintonesque elite employer-father, the audience celebrates this murder, motivated by class resentment, in all its abject violence. The viewership enjoys class resentment (that is, the resentment of a racially homogeneous, traditional low class, always on the edge of racism and hatred against any ethnic, sexual, or gender minority). It feels good to be class-resentful. 
In short, this film allows the audience to enjoy the conservative Trumpian resentment of the working class in a deplorable way and, at the same time, to hate (and stab) the neoliberal elite from the distance that the couch and the television set create, thus, ensuring that the viewers  remain progressive and liberal enough to see and enjoy "real" class conflict and entrapment, as it has not been represented before in the West. This is the political enjoyment (sublimation) achieved by Parasite through a global neoliberal version of progressive Orientalism: we believe we recognize ourselves in an oriental mirror of Gothic class entrapment and resentment better than in any Western reflection. In my analysis, Bong Joon Ho would be the native informant (Asian, Oriental) who simulates or imitates the racially homogeneous patriarchal[8] representation of the (South Korean) working class for the global West, for its main audience, by resorting to nostalgic Trumpian resentment coded as Gothic entrapment.[9]

Hallyu and Bong Joon Ho’s Globalization
In short, Parasite allows the viewers to feel all the thrills of class conflict, but without being contaminated by them, in a film that is ultimately an oriental mimicry of Western old-fashioned white working-class conflict.[10]
Bong Joon Ho was known for two of his previous films, The Host (2006) and the Hollywoodesque blockbuster Snowpiercer (2013). It seems that what in The Host was a clear denunciation of US imperialism and the complicity of the South Korean government against a working class that had to fend for itself, but managed to prevail in the end, once it has been filtered by the Hollywood conventions of Snowpiercer, has ended up becoming, in Parasite, a very sophisticated vindication of global neoliberal capitalism.[11]


[1] “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” (“Future City,” New Left Review 21 (May-June 2003): 76. 
[2] “The Occidental Tourist: ‘Dracula’ and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.” Victorian Studies 33 (1990): 621-45. 
[3] See my "Geo-bio-politics of the Gothic: On the Queer/Inhuman Dislocation of Spanish/English Subjects and their Others (For A Definition of Modernity as an Imperialist Geobiopolitical Fracture)." 1616: Anuario de literatura comparada 4 (2014): 153-67.
[4] At the end of the film, the main tension and fantasy is reduced to an old-fashioned (Morse) dialogue between father and son. Women (the mother and the dead daughter) as transitional and secondary characters are dismissed or pushed to the background. 
[5] The Freudian triad, now, would have to be posited geopolitically, so that the superego is the global audience and film industry (including festivals such as Cannes), the ego would be the narrative and images of the film, and the Id would be located at the level of all the protests and revolts that have emerged since the Arab Spring of 2011, unleashed by a middle-class on the verge of precarization and by the precariat itself.
[6] I owe the expression to my colleague Elizabeth Scarlett.
[7] And as I will argue below, it has also been deployed against any non-national alien (racially or ethnically marked minorities, domestic, il/legal, or migrant). 
[8] Only the youngest kid of the rich family experiences the Gothic conventions in the correct historically way. 
[9] I have not looked into the reception of this film in China or India yet. It would be important to compare the reception of the film in South Korea before and after the awards it has received in the West. 
[10] The references to the Western film genre and to “Indian” representations (from the teepee in the yard, to the murderous toy-size tomahawks) are the sign of an intelligent native who inscribes the West as a childish game that eventually turns traumatic and murderous. 
[11] Further analysis would require a comparison with films such as The Joker (2019), I, Daniel Blake (2016), Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) as well as the latest Tarantino film Once upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). For a short history of previous foreign films nominated to the Best Picture Oscar category, see Sara Aridi, “These 10 Foreign Language Films Have Been Nominated for Best Picture.” The New York Times. Feb. 3, 2020. www.nytimes.com.  

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