‘Parasite’ and Viewing a Film in One’s Imagination to Overcome Cultural Barriers

By Incheol Son

You may be curious about the Korean movie “Parasite.” The film and its director, Bong Joon Ho, won Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards in February. Bong and “Parasite” also won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film.

Their winning streak began at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival last May by winning the Palme d’Or. Wins followed at the Golden Globe Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Award (for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture), and the British Academy Film Awards, to name a few. “Parasite” became the first South Korean film to receive an Oscar, as well as the first in a language other than English to win Best Picture.

Parasite,” or “Gisaengchung” (기생충) in Korean, was Bong’s descent into the “real world” from his previous films about social inequality such as “Snowpiercer” (2013) and “Okja” (2017). “Snowpiercer” was impressive because well-known Western actors and actresses were cast. I wondered, “Did they follow Bong’s direction with respect in every scene?” Later I learned they respected him a lot.

As Bong said, winning the Best Picture Oscar would not have been possible without the long-running success of the globalization of Korean culture or hallyu (한류, the Korean Wave) over the past 20 years. Especially, the boy band BTS has swept the Western world for several consecutive years. The West is now ready to recognize a new kind of cultural expression. I’m reluctant, however, to say that “Parasite” is from the East. It’s because the movie is rooted in Western culture as a motion picture. It’s like riding in a Hyundai sedan but never thinking it’s Korean.

Bong’s Oscar wins did not surprise me since I first started conceiving that hallyu could matter. It was especially because of the popularity of BTS, whose lyrics have touched global fans including Western women. Likewise, “Parasite” has successfully touched something in common among viewers around the world. K-Film has now made history on top of other big successes such as K-Drama (TV), K-Pop (music), K-Beauty, etc. It’s true that “the most personal is the most creative” as Bong quoted Martin Scorsese in his Best Director Oscar acceptance speech expressing full of admiration for the legendary American director sitting in the audience (competing for the same award).

In many respects a black comedy, “Parasite” follows the four members of a once-middle class family, the Kims, who have fallen on hard times and now live in a cramped, damp, semi-basement apartment. They exploit a sudden opportunity and scheme to become employed as household help by a very wealthy family, the Parks, through infiltrating their home, posing as unrelated, highly-qualified individuals. From there, the plot takes several unexpected and dramatic twists and turns.

Moviegoers should try this approach, which may seem a bit unusual but works well in my experience. Try first watching “Parasite” not on the big screen (or streamed on TV) but in the theater of your imagination. To do so, read the English screenplay of the movie (although the film’s final English subtitles slightly differ as they were directly translated from Korean). The script contains only the dialogue with some scene description. But, soon you will become a director like Bong and set up each scene line-by-line in your mind.

One of the barriers in going forward to universal values is culture itself. Though very attractive to the world, Korean culture may also hinder a grasping of universal value. If so, we would do better to put it aside, to paraphrase Buddha. A unique culture can be maintained as far as it’s helpful to understand what is behind a message. But unique cultural characteristics can also keep you from clearly understanding a message.

In Korea, Bong will re-release “Parasite” in a black and white version in late April. Removing the film’s color is simply an artistic experiment, reminiscent of older black and white movies, but he believes this version will enable viewers to better focus on the action along with the dialogue that bears his messages.

About two-thirds through the movie, it turns from a black comedy into a dramatic thriller. The semi-basement lower-class family members invade the unsuspecting upper-class family by destroying their decent life little-by-little, just like a parasite. The most important sequence in the film is the “Belt of Trust” setup, in which the individual members of the Kim family quickly become employed in the Park household as tutors, chauffeur and housekeeper.

Something reminds viewers of how real trust is created. The parasitic Kims may be a bit exaggerated or over-simplified but the message in describing the family this way is clear: we are all unconsciously interconnected. Actually it’s never easy to excise absolute evil from normality. And so, the poor eventually make us poor as long as they remain poor. That means we live on common ground, the earth, as interconnected beings, as Divine Principle states. A parasite becomes part of one’s bodily system and thus eventually a life form in itself. It’s ironic to feed a parasite for us to enjoy a happy life.

People are not born equal at all, as symbolically and so clearly described also in Bong’s “Snowpiercer.” Much like “Snowpiercer” with its segregated train compartments, the contrary setting between the grimy semi-basement and lavish mansion in “Parasite” vertically represents social hierarchy. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but wish to respect director Bong’s plea “to refrain as much as possible from revealing how the story unfolds.”

Meanwhile, we must recognize who stood behind director Bong. Executive producer Miky Lee, a Samsung family heiress, heavily invested in the movie. This is why “Parasite” garnered so many film festival awards since last May. The movie speaks of social inequality. Yet the conglomerate, Samsung, characterized by the notorious term chaebol (재벌) in Korean, has long enjoyed unbalanced and preferential benefits from the national wealth that has been built upon what some see as exploitation of the public. Many critics call Samsung a state in itself, dubbing it the “Republic of Samsung.” Madam Lee will enjoy all the fruits like any other investor. It was her instinct to recognize Bong’s talent and invest in him and his picture. She surely deserved the central spot on stage last month during presentation of the Best Picture Oscar. A movie cannot be created without funding. Capital makes it all possible. That’s an irony behind “Parasite.”

Korean politicians have suddenly jumped on the “Parasite” bandwagon for the upcoming National Assembly elections in April. Koreans ridicule such a tendency with this expression: “Trying to put (just) a spoon on the table to eat,” meaning they are like free-riders. One politician proposed building a museum exclusively for Bong and another suggested preserving his birthplace home. One thing is clear: they know the public is very proud of him and want to capitalize on it.

Ironically, not long ago Bong was blacklisted and put under domestic surveillance by previous administrations, which compelled him instead to spend considerable time in Hollywood, where he befriended famed American directors like Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Nonetheless, Bong refused such treatment proposed by the politicians and requested any commemoration of his work be discussed only after his death.

The official trailer for “Parasite” (courtesy Neon/CJ Entertainment).

Another irony is he was born in Daegu, the epicenter in South Korea for the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic. In a sense, the coronavirus behaves also like a parasite that requires a host. It spread rapidly throughout the country mostly emanating from Daegu, centered on members of a controversial evangelical church called Shincheonji (신천지), literally meaning “New Heaven and Earth.” Its members have been notorious for infiltrating other churches to recruit new members. This time it became an outright physical threat to society. It’s been a long time since such religious organizations have caused worry for the South Korean public. That church has become nationally known as the real parasite. Meanwhile the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in South Korea continues to mount.

A few weeks ago, Unificationists convened the great events commemorating the centenary of the birth of Rev. Sun Myung Moon and the 60th anniversary of the Holy Blessing of True Parents. The events had long been prepared and so the organizing committee was very concerned whether they should go forward or postpone them. Any single confirmed coronavirus case among participants would have caused huge blame to be poured on our movement, causing national disgrace. We reacted proactively and carefully screened all persons entering the facilities to our events. Since they took place in early February, we know of no confirmed case of the coronavirus among the tens of thousands of attendees who gathered at KINTEX, located in northwestern Seoul, and in Cheongpyeong.

Unificationists were entitled to gather last month to live for the sake of others, not to mention to do no harm to others. We are the “people who hope to live with others in a co-existent or symbiotic relationship” and “want to live a prosperous life together” in Bong’s words. We are the dreamers eager to realize that ideal on earth. It’s our strong commitment regardless of our actual capabilities.

As Bong admits, we live “in a world where co-existence is an increasingly difficult ideal to achieve.” It’s all because, as he says, “For people of different circumstances to live together in the same space is not easy.” He laments that “humane relationships based on co-existence or symbiosis cannot hold, and one group is pushed into a parasitic relationship with another.” He seems to be calling for cosmopolitanism by saying, “They are our neighbors, friends and colleagues, who have merely been pushed to the edge of a precipice.”

After watching the movie in my imagination, a question has since been raised within me: “Are we free from such worries?” Religion can be so blind while chasing monetary contributions, building up new layers of hierarchies, and in effect creating more inequality. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s proposal for a “universal basic income” as the “freedom dividend” may be a potential means of overcoming severe income inequality. It focuses on guaranteeing human decency. No one should die of lack of resources; no one should starve due to lack of money. Society, whether government or civil society, should enable any individual to live a decent life.

In a sense, we may all be parasites to one another: the rich may exploit the poor in a system under the guise of legality. Then religion should function as the anti-systematic medium to take a countercurrent, that is, to encourage the voluntary flow of wealth from the upper-class to benefit the lower-class through various kinds of social capital such as scholarships, donations, mutual trust, etc. It naturally connects to the Universal Peace Federation’s motto: interdependence, mutual prosperity and universal values. UPF has promoted these principles for a long time to bring about peaceful world.

We must look for a commonality that touches most of the globe: universal values. I think that values derive from the reflection of reality. It’s like a hopeful desire which not only comes true in drama, film or religion, but also in the real world. Bong asks us whether “both sides can co-exist in a symbiotic relationship.” It’s our turn to cross the line to escape from remaining merely “local,” as he describes. As one of “Parasite’s” cast members confessed, it’s not “Parasite” that crossed borders but the Oscars, and in so doing saved itself from being “local” or parochial.

Here’s hope for our movement, as long as we can successfully deal with the “question of co-existence,” in Bong’s words, “that could very well take place in the real world,” such as “the impossibility of people of different classes living together in a symbiotic relationship.” As long as we embrace universal values, we can win over people around the globe.♦

“Parasite” (rated R; Running time: 122 minutes). Directed by Bong Joon Ho; written by Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin-won. Main cast: Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Jung-eun, and Jang Hye-jin. See IMDb for full details. “Parasite” can be streamed from iTunes, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube Movies, among others. It is also available on Hulu as of April 8. Bong’s “Snowpiercer” and “Okja” can be streamed on Netflix.

Dr. Incheol Son is the International Director of PWPA International and also works at SunHak Universal Peace Graduate University as a translator. He earned his Ph.D. in public administration from Kookmin University, an MBA from the University of Bridgeport, and his bachelor’s in theology from SunMoon University.

Photo at top: The Kim family folding pizza boxes to earn money in a scene from “Parasite” (courtesy Neon/CJ Entertainment).

9 thoughts on “‘Parasite’ and Viewing a Film in One’s Imagination to Overcome Cultural Barriers

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  1. Dr. Son:

    Full disclosure: I own a Hyundai Sonata.

    I have not seen “Parasite” but I’m intrigued by your commentary, especially with regard to the patronage of Miky Lee. You write: “A movie cannot be created without funding. Capital makes it all possible. That’s an irony behind ‘Parasite.’”

    Of course, this is true of many endeavors, not only art. It takes working capital and financial liquidity to advance any production of goods and services.

    As an artist I’m always confronted with the problem of production funding. It’s one thing to create art, quite another to get one’s art produced and then have the means to have it disseminated to a large audience of potential fans—also known as “the market.” Even groups like BTS rely upon serious financial resources to get their music recorded and then distributed to their fans. The intersectionality (if I may borrow that term) of art and commerce goes back to the patronage of emperors and the church thousands of years ago and remains a part of all artists’ lives.

    Your referencing Hyundai’s “exploitation” by some Koreans is a familiar refrain and we’re reminded of this narrative on a daily basis in the current election cycle in the USA. But we know that motivation is a key issue, whether it’s in commerce, the arts, journalism, education or sexuality. In Cheon Syeong Gyeong (p. 1066) True Father says: “If America is armed with Godism, rooted in head-wing thought, Godism and free-market capitalism will become like inner and outer halves.” This points to the necessity of commerce to be guided by those “universally shared values” that you cite.

    Having an “inner” moral compass that is guided by the tenets of Godism can be a way to get beyond exploitation and parasitic behavior. Our task/mission, regardless of our field of endeavor, is to practice what we preach to the best of our ability and thereby set the conditions for “natural surrender.” If we are not practicing what we preach there is no real witness and Cheon Il Guk remains a kind of neologism rather than a substantiation of our values and lifestyle; something that others are attracted to.

    We often say that politics is downstream of culture, but we can also say that culture is downstream of religion. Artists don’t create in a vacuum. What they put before the public has consequences. One danger is to remove spirituality from art and creativity and having art become merely a commodity. That remains an issue for Unificationist artists to continually take into account.

    1. Mr. Eaton,

      Let me repeat your saying, “If we are not practicing what we preach there is no real witness and Cheon Il Guk remains a kind of neologism rather than a substantiation of our values and lifestyle; something that others are attracted to.”

      Art is a form for such “practicing” and “substantiation of our values”. Fortunately, properties like funds have never been a taboo to the UC movement, but rather been thankfully promoted as the third blessing. As long as wisely used, they’re really a blessing for humankind.

      I believe that the earth has enough resources with which no one needs to die of deficiency. But the polarization of income has been a real threat to the globe these days, incurring a fear that we could be extinct because of the inequality, not because of nukes or viruses. Our task is therefore significant “regardless of our field of endeavor”.

  2. Dr. Son,

    Your review of “Parasite,” without being a spoiler for those who have not seen it, delves into the important question of social injustice. I want to highlight this phrase: “In a sense, we may all be parasites to one another: the rich may exploit the poor in a system under the guise of legality.”

    In the movie “Parasite,” it was not only the Kims who were parasites but the people they replaced and even the wife of the software producer who has earned enormous wealth apparently through the creation of widely-used software.

    I would like to add to your discussion about human nature that people might be parasites or producers. A producer creates something that did not previously exist that enables people to live better or more comfortably — a house, a car, medicine, a smartphone, and farmed food. I say “farmed food” because more animals, fish, vegetables, or whatever, come into existence through farming than hunter-gatherer mentality — where one is a parasite on the earth God created. The hunter-gatherer mentality was described at one of the ICUS conferences as humans who behave like maggots on a carcass — they all get fat until the carcass is eaten, and then they have to find another carcass or die.

    I would argue civilization began in ancient Mesopotamia because of farming — producing, and the productive behavior might lay at the foundation of human civilization. Civilization got another bump with the Protestant Reformation and the idea of producing “for the glory of God” motivated entire populations to become producers rather than parasites — creating surpluses of food and other things human beings need to live.

    I would also argue that parasite mentality is something that all human beings are born with, for a helpless infant cannot live without its mother’s milk, diaper care, etc. It is through the stages of growth and development in the Divine Principle that we all should be transformed from parasites to producers — co-creators. A parasite can thus be viewed as an incompletely developed person and not an “adult” having reached the perfection stage.

    From this perspective, communism can be viewed as a parasite, because it does not produce anything but, like a hunter-gatherer, seeks to take over the “means-of-production” and redistribute that which was seized to its loyal members, rather than creating a way to produce enough for all. The Russian economic system collapsed under the weight of its own bureaucracy trying to live off of the “workers” who always had goods rationed and in short supply. Russia under Brezhnev was in many ways similar to the caste system in India, where an elite lived well (as parasites) while the masses suffered.

    So, as Dr. Son points out, the rich who have a parasite mentality might seek a way to live comfortably off of the work of others and not be producers themselves. This is the essential idea of “crony capitalism,” in which laws are created that give some companies monopoly advantages government favors that limit the number of producers, and thus the competition that would normally prevent high profits (like the artificially raised prices of pharmaceuticals in the U.S.). People that invest in such companies thus can live as parasites — which was one of the points raised in Thomas Picketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Picketty looks at the problem of inherited wealth — ironically like the heiress of Samsung who funded the “Parasite” movie project — and shows that many of the children of producers who earned wealth, can live off of that wealth without being a producer.

    The Divine Principle’s stress on the fact that all human beings should be co-creators (producers and caretakers — true parents) is the fundamental basis for the “ideal world.” This was the underlying basis of civilization since farming and craft development in the ancient world, greatly aided by science and the Industrial Revolution. But production should not be controlled either through communist elites and their five-year plans, nor hedge fund managers who control production through mergers and acquisitions (both groups tend to act as hunter-gatherers).

    Some form of production (whether as goods or services) should be the right and the responsibility of all adults — the achievement of the first blessing. Both the communist and the crony-capitalist (and welfare-capitalist) systems seek to co-opt that right and responsibility from the masses, essentially preventing them from growing to maturity and putting the control of production, and the ability to be a co-creator into the hands of a few.

    Thus I applaud the use of the controversial term “parasite” in the title of a movie. I hope it can promote the advancement of what I consider to be a major point of the Divine Principle — everyone becoming a co-creator — in a global society.

    1. Dr. Anderson,

      I think you’ve successfully applied the notion of the first blessing.

      Your suggestion not to be a “parasite” but to be “[a] producer [who] creates something”, “co-creators” and “true parents” is very bridging and fills the gaps up to the notion.

      So, I fully agree with you are saying, “The Divine Principle’s stress on the fact that all human beings should be co-creators (producers and caretakers — true parents) is the fundamental basis for the “ideal world.”

  3. The word “parasite” to denote human beings reminds me of Lenin’s description of inconvenient groups as “insects.”

    1. Yes, this quotation is still true: “Under communism, man exploits man. Under capitalism, it’s just the opposite.”

      I understand that one of the few contributions communism has ever made in history is to point out that “exploitation” has been rampant in capitalist society since its earliest beginnings. It was a warning as Marx bitterly observed and Lenin sarcastically cried that if a society cannot overcome the “exploitation” problem it would face public rage, which is a universal attitude toward any parasitic thing.

      1. Dr. Son,

        Regrettably “exploitation” goes back long before there was any notion of “capitalism” or free markets. Slavery, subjugation and pillaging have gone on for eons back to the time when Asia and the Near East were dominant. Think of Egypt and the Hebrews. It happened in Africa, South America and among Native American tribes as well. There were no “noble savages” living in harmony as brothers as many contemporary idealists (and historians) would like us to believe. The American Revolution was fought to free the colonies from British exploitation.

        Moreover, the early corporations in the United States in the early 1800s were largely non-profit entities that focused on raising capital to help in the the development of local infrastructure and institutions — roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, etc. The problem of greed and the evolution of “crony capitalism” was the result of fallen nature as we know. In his book “Conscious Capitalism,” John Mackey references Adam Smith’s view that capitalism had self-purpose and whole-purpose aspects and that attaining a virtuous balance between these aspects was an essential factor.

      2. Human history since the Fall has been, not only a history of class struggle but a history of exploitation. Marx’s bitterness gives the lie to both his belief that he discovered the science of history and his expressed belief that capitalism was a necessary stage on the road to the realization of the classless society.

        We can decry the ongoing exploitation of man by man, but to give today’s socialists any kind of support is to continue the illusion that increased government power is the key to human happiness.

  4. Although the craft of filmmaking on “Parasite” is some of the best you will see in any country, the movie itself is disgusting.

    It is not disgusting because of the gore or horrible things that happen, but because of its silly and sophomore socialist message.

    The movie dehumanizes the “rich” family and lazily doesn’t even bother establishing the reason they are made to suffer by the writer/director. The director, Bong Joon Ho, as with the ridiculous “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” just assumes that it’s a given that if a person or family is well-off then they must be victimizing those who are not well-off. And of course, as with Hollywood hypocrite Michael Moore, he pontificates on this socialist class agitation message in his films while being a multi-millionaire himself.

    We are not led in the film to have even the slightest sympathy for the rich family, nor are we shown why we should not have sympathy for them. From the director’s point of view, it’s just enough that they are well-off and live in a nice house. He shows both the husband and wife to be quite dopey and somehow just float around in a life of wealth when in fact the husband obviously built a well-paying career for himself in the tech industry making people’s lives easier with the things he develops, so contributing greatly to society.

    Bong Joon Ho is quite racist and anti-Western in his films.

    As with Park Chan Wook, Bong Joon Ho is a master craftsman when it comes to filmmaking. But do not be blinded by his sublime craft or his Oscar wins. He is a nasty piece of work and his works themselves are always nasty.

    “Parasite” has a beautiful body but a very ugly soul.

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