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Argument: ‘Parasite’ Has a Hidden Backstory of Middle-Class Failure and Chicken Joints ‘Parasite’ Has a Hidden Backstory of Middl...
Parasite, the first foreign language film to win the Academy Award for best picture, and the first to be condemned in public by a U.S. president, is a story of poverty and inequality. The movie, which is also the first Korean movie to win an Oscar, is centered on the Kim family, who live in a basement in Seoul. But how did the Kim family end up there? The movie drops only the slightest of hints in the family’s conversation as they retrace the career of the patriarch, Ki-taek. Yet a Korean audience would immediately grasp the implication behind these simple words: “chicken place” and “king castella.” For those familiar with a typical career trajectory in South Korea, those terms reveal a whole world of middle-class failure—reflecting economic hopes and tragedies that still resonate throughout the country.
Korean fried chicken is a delicious dish with a worldwide following. In the streets of Seoul, a fried chicken joint—typically a small, ramshackle operation that relies more on delivery sales than on eat-in service—can be seen on virtually every street corner. As of February 2019, there were approximately 87,000 chicken joints in South Korea, more than double the number of every single McDonald’s restaurant in the world. But its transformation into a staple snack is a relatively new phenomenon. The number of fried chicken joints in South Korea tripled in the decade between 2003 and 2013—and then . The Kim family in Parasite, apparently, was a part of this wave—and, like many other families, lost their shirts in it.
The massive increase in the number of chicken joints was a direct result of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which fundamentally reorganized the South Korean economy in a manner similar to that the 2008 financial crisis did with the U.S. economy. Prior to the 1997 crisis, a typical career path for Korean wage earners, at that point still overwhelmingly male, was to join a company and stay with it until retirement. During the period of employment, the company would often pay for the employee’s housing, car, college tuition for children, and a pension after retirement.
This system, made possible through South Korea’s miraculous economic growth from the 1970s through the early 1990s, was the mechanism that created the country’s prosperous middle class. This middle class pushed the country to transition away from military dictatorship and launched the trend of sophisticated pop culture, including K-pop, Korean drama, and cinematic masterworks from Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Parasite director Bong Joon-ho.
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