Is it me, or does the title of best picture Academy Award from a few months ago now seem weirdly prophetic. ‘Parasite’? I get that it’s a metaphor for the 1% of people who float atop the capitalist wave pool (or the remoras who swim beneath them). But it also works as a label for the microscopic infectious agent that has caused so much personal misery and disrupted the world economy over the last three months. ‘Virus’ might’ve been more accurate but ‘Parasite’ is close enough.
Like a lot of people I was amazed when the movie won, not because it didn’t deserve it but the Academy, notwithstanding its name, isn’t exactly a scholarly guild that trades in ideas about inequality or agitates for social change. It’s comprised mostly of workers in an industry whose purpose is precisely the opposite. Its function is to distract us from thinking about the world and its problems.
Occasionally it gives Best Picture to a movie that shines an inquisitorial light on an important issue. 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight are two recent examples but usually the winners immerse us in CGI fantasies that shield us from painful reality. Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, Gladiator, Chicago. All great movies but your conscience isn’t going to be irretrievably shocked or your brain suddenly aglow with plans to change the world.
So when Parasite won it took me completely by surprise since it was partially a story about class division and exploitation, something LA’s cinema elites are clearly up to their Hermes neckties in. It was as if Dave Chapelle had snagged a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant: the establishment had honored the only movie on offer that stuck a dagger in its heart.
The title wasn’t the only oddly coincidental news hook. Its foreign location was strangely apposite as well. It was produced in one of the first countries to experience an outbreak of Covid-19, South Korea. Here was a movie with a title that foreshadowed its own country’s looming health catastrophe. Go figure.
These two coincidences though are perhaps its least important feature. Its real value lies in its portrayal of loss of trust, of corruption and the dismantling of an important institution, the family — the most basic of all social units. The staff members that sustain the home’s seamless domesticity have their reputations sabotaged by impostors; then those imposters use fake qualifications to get hired by the gullible, dim-witted head of the family. Chaos ensues.
It doesn’t take much of a leap to see this writ large in a neighbourhood near you. The consequences are so obvious there’s little need to expand: corruption, social decay, extreme divisiveness, etc.
Without trust and competence no institution, large or small, can function properly. In Parasite it’s an unexpected natural event — a relentless, overwhelming rainstorm — that reveals the terrible price of losing them. For us, in the real world of Covid-19, the losses have yet to be tallied. I don’t think there will be many awards given out when it’s over.
But if they are, they should definitely go to those whose trust and competence are unassailable: health and community care workers. Best picture, no question.