Precarious Performances: Unplannable Lives of Emotional Laborers in Parasite

By Johanna Isaacson

The following is excerpted from Stepford Daughters: Weapons for Feminists in Contemporary Horror (Common Notions Press). You can purchase this book through Common Notions and wherever books are sold.

The pandemic year of 2020 was the great demolisher of plans and the great generator of memes. The “My Plans vs. 2020” meme was one of life’s reliable consolations to those of us trying to pass the hours in front of our screens. But for many people who had already been suffering from intense precarity 2020 was just another catastrophe in a series of events and precarious circumstances that render life unplannable. The much- memed film Parasite, which depicts the downfall of an aspirational work- ing-class family, shows that the horror of failed expectations is no recent state of exception. The tragedy of failed plans is the norm.

One would expect that a world paved in dashed hopes and broken dreams would put workers in a bad mood. Yet, in a moment where success is contingent on the performance of intimacy and optimism, the reverse becomes true. The more precarity pervades people’s lives, the more they double down on the emotional performances required of them. If one hopes to get a job, let alone keep it, they must not only wear an agree- able mask but also believe, or appear to believe, that mask is their own face. They must engage in what Arlie Hochschild calls “deep acting” and let themselves be guided by the obedient palpitations of their “managed heart.”

The film Parasite, in which workers obtain jobs through their skills at self-presentation only to lose everything, reveals a condition in which precarity is directly tied to affective performance. That is, the more vulner- able workers are, the less they can afford to skimp on emotional labor. We are stuck in a cycle of “cruel optimism,” as Lauren Berlant calls it, where we must invest our desires and hopes in the very system that crushes us. Says Carolyn Veldstra, “the smile is the output of the emotional labour demanded to guard against the threat of precarity, yet it also obscures its precarious underpinnings through the emotion it transmits.”[1] Our smiles, then, are composed of congealed tears.

Without access to the comforts and “plans” that accompany stability, the family in Parasite must not only smile, but they must improvise a range of emotions and performances to accommodate the whims of their bosses minute by minute. Their efforts can be seen as comedic, but by veering from silliness to horror, director Bong Joon-ho shows that affective performance is not just fun and games, it is a means to destroy dreams and lives.

The film begins as a zany comedy, in which characters frantically and hilariously jump through the hoops necessary to their survival. Sianne Ngai claims this zany aesthetic is about “the ‘putting to work’ of affect and subjectivity for the generation of surplus value.” [2] That is, zany comedy is generated by the fact that the work of fun is made visible, when in more conventional comedic aesthetics the labor that goes into the performance of emotions is erased. Though the Kim family are aware of their own wretch- edness they derive humor and fun from ingenuity as they jury rig their lives, cobbling together the means of survival from trash and chance opportuni- ties. Yet we are never allowed to forget the desperation behind these comic scenarios.

This humor relies on a disjunction between expectations and reality. In the neoliberal fairy tales that South Koreans are compelled to subscribe to the Kims live in a utopia. The publicly sanctioned understanding of this world is that technology, economic development, and communication have eradicated old hierarchies and given birth to a modern society guided by horizontalism and connectivity. This myth is instantly busted by the spatiality of Parasite as we are introduced to a family who literally live underground in a semi-base- ment that Kelly Jeong explains is a common “metaphor of poverty” in Korea. [3] As the film opens we share their eye-level view of drunks pissing on the side- walk. As for “connectivity,” the family can’t afford internet service and must squat in their elevated bathroom to steal a signal from a neighbor.

Rather than horizontalism and connectivity, then, the Kims constantly find themselves compared to insects scuttling beneath the feet of the rich, scraping up their crumbs while remaining face to face with human excre- tions. In fact, the expression, “chung,” which means insect, has become a commonplace term in Korea compatible with the era of “Hell Joseon,” a phrase developed to describe the hellish conditions of unemployment and economic precarity that beset young Koreans. Calling oneself an insect has become a wry way to poke fun at one’s own hopes for upward mobility. [4]

At the beginning of the film the Kim family is certainly experiencing social mobility. However, this mobility heads in only one direction—down- wards. They have plummeted from a respectable position as small business owners to taking on low-paying and degrading gig work wherever they can get it. The Kims are hired to fold pizza boxes by a young employee who herself is a precarious worker. When she arrives to collect their work, she finds that many of the boxes are incorrectly folded. She then refuses to pay the family the amount promised to them, showing that the “flexibility” of gig work includes a lack of agreed-upon wages.

In response, Ki-woo, the son of the family, manipulates her with his good looks and charm, making a flirtatious and insincere offer to apply for a more a permanent part-time job with her. She is so flustered that she ends up paying the Kims the full amount they are owed. But although Ki-woo is successful at using his skills in emotional labor to his advantage the end result is only that the family treads water, receiving the tiny amount of money that they were promised to begin with. This foreshadows the film’s entire arc. Each virtuosic performance of emotional labor seems promising at first but turns out to be an act of self-exploitation and reconciliation to immiseration.

Ki-woo’s parabular journey is taken to the next level when his friend Min-hyuk recommends him as a private tutor for rich high schooler, Da-hye. The recommendation itself is a testament to the disjunction between Ki-woo’s lowly position and his emotional skills, as he has been able to befriend a rich college student. And with this momentum he esca- lates his affective performance during his interview for the position. Before she hires him, Da-hye’s mother insists on observing a tutoring session. Ki-woo instinctively knows that his knowledge of the subject is not what is being evaluated. Rather, it is his charisma, attractiveness, and appeal. He has already introduced himself as “Kevin,” an American name that improves his value by associating him with global colonial power. During the lesson, he instantly becomes a hybrid of life-coach and sex worker, grabbing Da-hye’s wrist and staring intensely into her eyes. He confidently pronounces plat- itudes—“The heart doesn’t lie. An exam is like slashing through a jungle. Lose momentum and you’re finished.” In a world measured by affective intensities, the answers to the test don’t matter. Instead, the lesson is evac- uated of content and filled back up with emotion, attitude, and allure.

Converting this emotional labor to money, the film cuts bluntly from Ki-woo’s ardent performance to Ms. Park doling out bills. From this moment on she trusts Ki-woo completely, relying on his recommendations to fill other positions in the household. She imagines Ki-woo is now more than a worker, but a friend, forming a link in “a belt of trust,” as she calls it. Her gullibility sets in motion the chain of events that will allow Ki-woo’s whole family to procure lucrative employment, only to culminate in a final explosion of violence that reduces them to a position lower than their start- ing point.

Ki-woo begins by getting his sister Ki-jung (now calling herself Jessica) a job as art teacher to Da-song, the Parks’ young son. Ki-jung is the slickest operator of the Kim family and after a few Google searches on art therapy, she cons the Park family into believing she is a rare and valuable commod- ity, extracting a high price for her services and making it appear that she is interviewing them.

Ki-jung’s brilliance at fitting in with the upper class is an enjoyable joke but also a testament to the amount of pure bullshit that goes into emotional labor. At one point Ki-jung observes Da-song’s painting and proclaims with gravitas that he will need frequent art therapy, as can be seen by the artwork’s “schizophrenic zone” that signifies the boys’ disturbance. “This is all a black box into Da-song’s mind,” she says with a mesmerizing gaze, “Would you liketoopenitwithme?”ThisflourishleadsDa-song’smothertoopenher wallet and yet despite Ki-jung’s unparalleled talent as an affective laborer her story is the most tragic in the film, as she is murdered during her performance. This disjunct became a “My Plans/2020” meme in which her fresh-faced appearance at her interview is contrasted with the knife that is later thrust through her heart.

After Ki-jung is hired, the siblings decide to get their parents in on the action, but their quest takes a cruel turn. Whereas they were simply duping the gullible rich family up until this point, now they begin ousting their fellow working-class domestic workers. Ki-jung aims to get her father hired as the Parks’ driver, but to do this the current chauffeur must be eliminated. Ki-jung accomplishes this by manipulating the Parks’ unconscious sexual desire for their workers and their disgust at this hidden part of themselves, building on the connection, already established by Ki-woo, between emo- tional labor and sex work. Planting her panties in the back of Mr. Park’s car, she only needs to wait until he finds them and constructs a vivid picture of the drug fueled sex parties his employee has been indulging in at his own expense. In a particularly perverse gesture he orders his wife to deli- cately place the panties in a plastic bag— this “evidence” clearly serving as a kinky fetish object. Although he saves the panties, he promptly fires the “immoral” driver without explanation.

Mr. Park copes with “the intimate but strangely distant relations that structure the domestic sphere,” as Alby Gotby puts it, by insisting that there should be a rigid line that preserves distance between employer and employee. [5] With all of their cunning, the Kims can’t get past this line or even see it. They retain faith, a “cruel optimism,” that their emotional and intellectual talents will lead to upward mobility when all along their act is a futile, frantic dance performed under a glass ceiling. Even when Ki-taek has escaped his semi-basement slum and is ostensibly on the same physical level as his employer, serving as his chauffeur, there is still an invisible line between the driver’s seat and the passenger seat that points to their rela- tionship’s limits. Later, the Parks’ son Da-song points out the tangibility of the “line” between his family and the Kims by detecting a common smell that lurks in the servants’ clothes, a smell that can’t be washed out as it is the result of their dank living conditions.

Safely ensconced behind this line, the Parks can afford to be kind and supportive within limits. When the Parks no longer feel like being generous to their employees, they simply fire them. For the Kims and other work- ing-class people, however, there are no boundaries to protect them. While the Parks are afforded a neat line to protect their self-image, the Kims must contend with cruelty and antagonism stripped bare. We see this as Ki-jung guiltlessly dispenses of the Parks’ former driver and this escalates as they attack the Parks’ housekeeper, Moon-gwang, to secure employment for Chung-sook, the mother of the Kim family.

To accomplish this coup, the family stages an elaborate ruse where they use Moon-gwang’s allergy to peaches to make it seem as if she has tubercu- losis and has been hiding it from her employers. To pull this off the family must mobilize all of their performance skills. The nature of this perfor- mance is made especially evident in the cross-cutting of Ki-taek talking to Ms. Park and rehearsing his speech with his family. Here, the performative component of emotional labor is literalized as Ki-taek’s speech is revealed to have been written by his slick son Ki-woo. As Ki-taek rehearses the scene at home, his son coaches him on how not to overact and to convey the sub- tleties of authenticity. This attention to performative detail pays off, and soon Moon-sook is banished from the Park home.

However, the Kims’ lack of solidarity with other service workers has consequences. Moon-sook returns to thwart their plans, proving that any fantasy of winning the war against precarity and immiseration is a pyrrhic victory built on the corpses of one’s competitors. These undead come back to haunt the Kims in the figure of Moon-sook and her husband Geun-sae, who has secretly lived in a cavern under the Parks’ house for years as a fugi- tive from his creditors. In her role as housekeeper, Moon-sook was able to care for him, but since she has been expelled from the household he has been rotting away below.

While the Parks are away, Moon-sook returns and disrupts the Kims as they luxuriate in the beautiful house’s bounty, eating the Parks’ food and drinking their booze. She begs for the Kims’ solidarity, but the family refuses to recognize their commonalities. They disgustedly ask Geun-sae, “How can you live in a room like this?” allowing their current fleeting lux- ury to lull them into forgetting that they themselves live underground in a semi-basement. Their conditioning as affective laborers lead the Kims to identify with their bosses rather than their natural allies, supporting Dan Hassler Forest’s argument that “The deep tragedy that Parasite makes us feel is that radical love is almost impossibly hard in the time of capitalism—but that it’s also the only thing that will save us.” [6]

The failure of this radical love ensures that all the working-class char- acters in the film will enter a battle that can only end in death and destruc- tion. The transitory nature of pleasure and success in competitive crisis capitalism is captured by another Parasite “MyPlans/2020” meme where the “plans” are depicted by the Kims’ revelry in the Parks’ home and “2020” is captured by Moon-sook’s rain-stained face as she desperately pleads to enter the house, proving that it is not only the virus that dashes our hopes but a fundamental lack of solidarity against our oppressors.

The “cruel optimism” brought on by their virtuosic abilities tethers the Kims to their servitude. But Ki-taek is finally liberated, in a sense, when he recognizes that no matter how expertly he tends to his employers’ psycholog- ical needs he will still be degraded and kept at a distance. The moment where Ki-taek experiences this humiliating freedom is when the Parks come home early from their vacation, nearly catching the Kim family in the midst of their post-party scuffle with Geun-sae and Moon-gwang. Compared to insects once again, Ki-taek, Ki-woo, and Ki-jung scuttle under the living room table while Chung-sook resumes her act as the family’s housekeeper. [7] Mr. and Mrs. Park decide to sleep in the living room to watch their son, who is camping out in the back yard. This forces the family to stay prostrate under the table for hours, claustrophobically intensifying the film’s spatial metaphor by showing both the intimacy and the hierarchal positions of the two families.

As the Parks lie on the sofa, just above the table, Ki-taek overhears Mr. Kim describe Ki-taek’s smell, “like an old radish” or “when you boil a rag.” Following this, the couple have sex, arousing themselves by talking dirty about the “cheap panties” Ki-jung left in their car. At this point, the Kims’ humiliation is complete. They are objects of disgust and sexual fantasy at once, supporting Jason Read’s point that “in the age of service jobs and emotional labor the servant has gone from being a remnant of feudal era to the closest one can get to a universal figure of alienation.” [8]

After a night crouching under his employer and absorbing his insults, Ki-taek can no longer fake friendliness. Even before the murderous events that follow, it is hard to imagine him going back to his old persona. His rage is reflected in the breaking storm that surrounds him. When Ki-taek and his kids finally escape the living room they run home, downhill all the way, through torrential rain only to find that their entire semi-basement apartment is flooded and they must spend the night on the floor of a gym with hundreds of other refugees from the storm. They are awakened in the chaotic refugee center by the phone calls of their employers who have decided to throw a last-minute birthday party for Da-song and are insisting the Kims work through the weekend.

As Jason Read notes, the “line” Mr. Park draws between employer and employee is “fundamentally asymmetrical.” While the Parks can assume that the family is always there to serve them, “the slightest hint of impro- priety on the part of the Kims risks overstepping the boundaries imposed by the Parks.” [9] This asymmetrical demand in the film is the source of both comedy and tragedy, as we see Mrs. Park calling Ki-jung’s cell phone from her spacious walk-in closet to demand that she attend the party. Ki-jung responds professionally as she sifts through piles of dry clothes that have been donated to the flood refugees, never dropping her pleasant mask even as she has become homeless and lost all of her belongings.

It is during this stark moment of contrast when Ki-taek admits to his son that for the precariat there is no point in making plans—“Ki-woo, you know what kind of plan never fails? No plan at all. . . . If you make a plan life never works out that way. . . . And if something spins out of control, it doesn’t matter. . . . None of it fucking matters.” Here, Ki-taek predicts what the “My Plans/2020” meme has driven home for many of us. In a soci- ety that doesn’t offer supports or security for its citizens, “planning” and class mobility are myths put forward to keep us performing our work for the profit of the few.

When Ki-taek gives up his illusory plans he also stops performing as the agreeable and congenial servant. In another much-memed moment we see him driving Ms. Park with a bitter expression on his face as she blithely chatters in the back seat. In the film, she is rhapsodizing about the clear weather for the party, made possible by the previous night’s rains. Of course, she neither knows nor cares that the same storm destroyed Ki-taek’s home along with those of many others.

For Da-song’s birthday party, the Parks plan a performance in which the boy will play a cowboy while Mr. Park and Ki-taek play Native Americans in full headdress. Ki-jung is to perform as a damsel in distress whom Da-song will save from the “Indians.” Da-song’s obsession with (a caricatured) Native American culture consistently reminds the viewer that the class antagonism in the film is not unique to Korea but a metonym of social relations under global, neocolonial capitalism. As Joon-ho said in a much-memed interview, the film reflects the fact that we all now live in a “country called capitalism.” [10]

When Ki-taek refuses to enter the spirit of the “cowboys and Indians” game, Mr. Park becomes annoyed, expecting his servant’s constant emotional compliance. He is finally reduced to explicitly saying what has been suppressed throughout the film, that Ki-taek’s emotional labor is paid for and required and that “fun” is work: “You’re getting paid extra. Think of this as part of your work, okay?”

Though Ki-taek still refuses to perform for his boss, this withdrawal of his emotional labor comes too late to save his family from their tragic fate. At this point, they have already accidentally killed the former house- keeper Moon-gwang and now her husband Geun-sae will take his revenge. During the Kims’ final performance as servants, Geun-sae emerges from underground and smashes Ki-woo over the head, leaving him for dead. He grabs a kitchen knife and runs out onto the lawn, where he thrusts it into Ki-jung’s chest. When Mr. Park reacts by recoiling from her smell Ki-taek stabs his boss, killing him, and runs off, finally retreating to the same base- ment where Geun-sae had been hiding for years. In his final act of insur- gency, Ki-taek has broken free of his humiliating position, but, as Carolyn Veldstra argues, in our moment of neoliberal precarity, giving up emotional labor leads to an exile from social belonging altogether. [11]

In staging this ending, Joon-ho turns his film from a comic exhibition of the “zany” performances required of contemporary precarious laborers to a horror film that speaks to anti-colonial theorist Franz Fanon’s under- standing that only violence will purge those who have been psychologically subjugated. As in domestic Gothic works like the classic South Korean thriller The Housemaid and Jean Genet’s play about vengeful domestic work- ers The Maids, servants rid themselves of internalized oppression through an eruptive, violent act. Not only do they kill the boss, but they also kill the “managed heart” within themselves.

The final message that the film leaves us with is that the acrobatic stunts performed all along by the Kims have served to maintain their oppression rather than giving them a chance to cross the “line” into prosperity and comfort. However, because of his deep conditioning, Ki-woo can’t absorb this lesson, even after his sister is killed and his father disappears. Amidst the total ruination of his family his heart remains subordinate, managed by the dictates of emotional labor. This is symbolized by his physical reactionto the brain surgery he must undergo after his head injury. When he finally wakes up, he can’t stop laughing. He is never allowed to grieve the death and disappearance of his family members. Even in his lowest moment, his body automatically performs the joviality of a servant. His heart is not his own.

Ki-woo is part of what Cho Hae-joang calls the “spec generation,” a Korean word used to abbreviate specifications and meant to point to young people who spend their time chasing elusive secure employment, sacrificing liberty and free time to engage in resume-building activities.27 With this conditioning, he can never escape the throbbing control of the managed heart. When he figures out that his father is now hiding under the home that once belonged to the Parks, he does not rebel but retreats to the fantasy of upward mobility, devising an unachievable plan to become rich and even- tually buy the house. Late at night in his squalid semi-basement, he dreams of the day he and his mother move into this elegant mansion. In this reverie his father emerges from the shadowy basement and the family reunites in the sunny yard.

And yet, even as we witness this tender reunion the camera shows it through a long shot that renders the figures indistinct, revealing the whole scenario to be an impossible delusion. Ki-woo can dream of owning the house but even in his fantasy he can’t envision the exchange he will have with his family when he finally has the luxury to experience emotion free from capitalist competition and anxiety. The hazy figures drenched in far-off bucolic sunbeams remain sketchy and vague. We are left with the question of how in a moment where intimacy and authenticity are lucrative commodities to be bought and sold can we imagine love and intimacy that exists for ourselves, our families, our communities?

[1] Carolyn Veldstra, “Bad feeling at work: emotional labour, precarity, and the affective economy,” Cultural Studies 34, no. 1 (2020): 4. 

[2] Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, (Harvard University Press: 2012),188. 

[3] Kelly Y. Jeong, “Gender and Class in Parasite,” The Soft Power of the Korean Wave: Parasite, BTS and Drama, edited by Youna Kim (Routledge, 2021). 

[4] Jeong, “Gender and Class in Parasite.” 

[5] Alva Gotby, “Crossing the Line: Parasite and the Horrors of Bourgeois Domesticity,” Blind Field Journal, March 16, 2020, crossing-the-line-parasite-and-the-horror-of-bourgeois-domesticity. 

[6] Dan Hassler-Forest. “Bong Joon-ho: Love in the time of Capitalism,”
Los Angeles Review of Books, May 1, 2020, bong-joon-ho-love-in-the-time-of-capitalism.

[7] Or rather, she again becomes the housekeeper. As Jason Read argues, “As much as Parasite is a kind of con it is a con in which the work of the illusion is virtually indistinguishable from actual work.” Jason Read. “We Are All Servants: On Class and Subjectivity in Parasite and Knives Out,” Unemployed Negativity, November 30, 2019, http://www.unemployednegativity. com/2019/11/we-are-all-servants-on-class-struggle.html. 

[8] Jason Read. “We Are All Servants: On Class and Subjectivity in Parasite and Knives Out,” Unemployed Negativity, November 30, 2019, we-are-all-servants-on-class-struggle.html.

[9] Read. “We Are All Servants.” 

[10] The critique in the film is ruthless, but when the film proved widely popular and won the 2019 best picture Oscars award, some capitalist critics were at a loss. They had to acknowl- edge this profitable film existed, but how were they to explain it? For your pleasure, I include here the full quote of a writer for Forbes magazine, who turns the film into its opposite in his contorted description of Parasite as having a basically pro-capitalist message: “So maybe Ki-taek is wrong. Maybe it’s not about refusing to make a plan because you know it’ll fail— maybe it’s about being okay when the plan does fail. Because rising to the top of a capitalistic system isn’t easy. There’s bound to be failures and shortcomings. But if you can push yourself past those moments? Pick yourself up by the bootstraps and march forward? Then you can make it in society.” Travis Bean, “Capitalism Gone Wild: The Ending of Parasite Explained” Forbes Magazine, January 30, 2020, capitalism-gone-wild-the-ending-of-parasite-explained. 

[11] Veldstra, “Bad feeling at work,” 9. 


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