What an unbelievable coincidence! Should we become superstitious? In February 2020, Bong Joon Ho won four Oscars with Parasite, a black comedy thriller film. Parasite also won the Golden Palm (a first for South Korea) at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival in May 2019. This particular parasite came to us from Asia. People locked up in houses is a central theme in this film. Only a couple of weeks later, another parasite, Covid-19, came to us from the Asian continent. In next to no time, a large part of the world was locked up. People can no longer leave their house. Should we join the conspiracy theories about this virus that are now circulating on the internet?
Maybe psychoanalysis allows us to do something else with this contingency. One of the main questions that comes up when we look at this movie concerns what kind of parasite Bong Joon Ho is dealing with. Especially when you notice that parasites are the main theme of all his films. It is as if his whole oeuvre is a way of dealing with parasites. In Host, for example, people have polluted a river with an industrial chemical, which produces a terrible monster that spreads a virus throughout the city. If you watch this film, you will notice scenes that show up nowadays in every newspaper: face masks, hospitals, isolation of contaminated people, disinfection programs and so on.
Film critics have already given a first answer to the question about Bong Joon Ho’s parasites. Human beings are the parasites of this world! His films are a geopolitical and sociological critique of the way mankind is spoiling the planet. In Snowpiercer, a chemical substance has been dispersed in the air to try to reduce global warming. The result is that the whole world freezes over. The only survivors are all aboard the Snowpiercer, a train that never stops, which can be seen as a modern version of the Noah’s Ark. In Okja, the food industry is run by a mafia that has created super-pigs by genetic modification. In Parasite, the gap between rich and poor in capitalist society is the main theme.
I do not contest this socio-political answer, but I do not think it is the kind of truth that interests us in psychoanalysis. Let us see what Bong Joon Ho says about himself in the many interviews that are circulating. “I no longer know who the enemy is,” he says.[i] Before the Korean War it was clear who the enemy was. But after the war, when the dictatorship was gone, it was no longer so clear. Are the poor the parasites infiltrating the house of the rich people in Parasite, or are the rich people the parasites who abuse the poor? Or maybe still something else? He leaves it open. When the leader of the suppressed in the last section of the Snowpiercer train arrives at the head of the train, where the suppressors are, he discovers his own, hitherto ignored, desire to suppress, after having killed a lot of people himself. Who is the parasite?
In all Bong Joon Ho’s movies, the Other fails to deal with these parasites. In Host, the state doesn’t succeed in managing the virus or saving the family. In Snowpiercer, the strange train that can be interpreted as the never-ending chain of signifiers with its very clear order, fails to stop the obscene violence. In Parasite, the father is a man who has no plan, and in Memories of Murder the police fail to stop a serial killer. The film ends with the anxious look on the face of the policeman staring into a tunnel. The serial killer, one version of the parasite, is still out there somewhere!
So the whole oeuvre of Bong Joon Ho seems to be a sinthome to deal with a parasitic jouissance that is irresoluble. His films are structured like a Moebius strip. In Parasite the poor try to get out of their basement by infiltrating a rich house only to find themselves back in the basement. There is no inside or outside. The most extimate is the most intimate. Asked about why he is so interested in horror scenes and fascinated by basements, tunnels and sewers, he answers that people shouldn’t think that he experienced a psychological trauma in the past. Indeed. It is not a psychological question!
A bit later he tells us that when he was a child his mother has forbidden him to go the cinema. He wasn’t allowed to enter these dark rooms full of bacteria that could contaminate him! So, he became addicted. Nowadays, we might call it binge watching. He looked at all the films he could on a black and white TV at home. He became a collector. His collection now contains more than 60,000 DVDs and Blu Rays now. He says he is fascinated by thrillers and science fiction, but he is breaking all the conventions of these genres in order to establish his own style. He is especially attracted to claustrophobic spaces. Because science fiction-like scenery and claustrophobic spaces are both very suitable for penetrating with cinematographic vitality into what man is really like.[ii]
Bong Joon Ho shows us that the parasite that human beings are dealing with is language. Language, instilled by the discourse of the mother––lalangue.[iii] Bong Joon Ho created a whole oeuvre to deal with the real of the bacteria in the cinematographic spaces that appeared in the discourse of his mother.
[iii] Lacan J., “Geneva Lecture on the Symptom, 4 October 1975”, Analysis, No. 1, 1989.