Through an analysis of the production, plot, and reception of the film, Parasite (Gisaengchung) (2019), this presentation examines the relationship between the globalization of South Korean popular culture and its transnational distribution and consumption in the West” (chiefly, the U.S.). The recipient of numerous international awards, including the 2020 Academy Award for Best Picture, Parasite garnered near-universal acclaim by Western audiences. Most critics hailed the film as much for its imaginative narrative as for its ostensible indictment of neoliberal capitalism. Notably, Western audiences framed their praise of Parasite almost exclusively in class terms—namely, the film as a trenchant (albeit localized) critique of neoliberal-induced class inequality. Such a critique, however, overlooks how class as a category (both within the film’s plot and global reception) finds symbolic meaning via its proximity to an imagined West. For example, characters criticized as “upper class” possess symbolic and material capital relying on assumed Western features (e.g., English language proficiency and homes influenced by European architecture). Thus, the West and its imperial forms loom large, although imperceptibly, within a narrative of ostensible struggle between “rich” and “poor” classes. Parasite’s unsettled quality of class as a classification of local but universalizable difference resembles earlier era discourses forwarded by authoritarian regimes, which helped to reconstruct a specific vision of the nation while strengthening the political legitimacy of the ruling class. In interrogating the transnational politics of representation and reception surrounding Parasite, this talk explores the reconfiguration and reformation of class formation in South Korea, as well as new forms of South Korean sub-imperial, regional aspirations affirmed by the West. Likewise, this presentation follows scholarship that aims to disrupt an assumed sharp divide between the material from the representational by exploring a favored and fraught cultural formation of an increasingly deterritorialized, globalizing South Korea.
Dr. Alex Jong-Seok Lee is an Annette and Hugh Gragg Postdoctoral Fellow in Transnational Asian Studies at Rice University’s Chao Center for Asian Studies. He received a PhD in Anthropology with a minor in Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Focusing on the intersection between economic crisis, gendered mobility, and labor migration, his research has been published in The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, Transnational Asia: An Online Interdisciplinary Journal, Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies, and the edited volume, Cosmopolitanism and Tourism: Rethinking Theory and Practice.