How the Movie ‘Parasite’ Confronts Native Stereotypes

Although director Bong Joon-ho wants to expose naivete toward Native American history, the representation is unevenly handled

Song Kang-ho as Kim Ki-taek in “Parasite” (2019). Photo: NEON

Editor’s Note: This piece contains movie spoilers.

EEveryone is talking about Parasite. For weeks, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances who know I’m into movies would excitedly ask, “Have you seen Parasite?” then give a disappointed sigh when I answered with a polite, “No.” It wasn’t until a few pals asked how I felt about the use of Native American imagery that the film really caught my interest. The first time this occurred, I paused. I hadn’t seen any trailers or read any reviews so I had no clue what Parasite was even about but I definitely wouldn’t have guessed that there would be any mention of Native Americans in a South Korean thriller.

Now that I’ve seen it, I get the hype. Parasite’s plot focuses on two families, the Parks and the Kims: The former is extremely rich while the latter is overwhelmingly poor. The Park family is gullible yet wealthy, making them susceptible to the unfortunate Kim family’s clever scheme to take over their lifestyle. The Parks are not only ignorant to hardship but they detest it, complaining about everyday tools utilized by the working class, such as public transportation, while the Kims huddle around in their tiny basement apartment, hoping to leech a Wi-Fi signal off a nearby neighbor. Since its release, Parasite has won the Palme d’Or — the top prize — at the Cannes Film Festival, received incredibly positive reviews, and broke box-office records worldwide. This globally successful blockbuster proves that the entire world is hungry for a clever critique of social issues, especially surrounding the class experience.

One major symbol that Bong places in the film to illustrate the absolute ignorance of the upper class is the young Park boy’s obsession with what the film calls the “American Indian.” As Da-song runs around the Park’s home, he wears a cheap replica of a Native American headdress and shoots arrows all around, while imitating a war chant. His mother explains that he has a “fanboy personality” and probably inherited this obsession with Native culture from his Cub Scout instructor, who is also a fanatic. She goes on to explain that she imported the arrows, and the teepee (the family calls it a “tent” throughout the entire runtime) on an American website.

This misuse of Native culture is continually brought back to the screen as the plot becomes more tense, highlighting the embarrassing appropriation.

This introduction to Da-song’s enthusiasm about a stereotypical version of Native American culture is casual, as if his mother is stating her son is obsessed with James Bond or pirates. The Park family seems to think he is just playing pretend, the way any child would. This misuse of Native culture is continually brought back to the screen as the plot becomes more tense, highlighting the embarrassing appropriation. For example, halfway through Parasite a glimpse of Da-song’s room reveals his infamous “tent” as it sits in the exact center, surrounded by dreamcatchers and replicas of actual Native regalia. Of course, the chaotic birthday party scene toward the end of the film, which is the climax of the tension between the families, features both of the patriarchs in extravagant war bonnets as they hold plastic tomahawks and plan to make an attack. The Park father’s hope is to let Da-song stop them so he can be the “Good Indian” on his birthday.

TThe “American Indian” theme spread throughout Parasite is intentionally placed in the story by the filmmaker. Bong said in an interview that “for the son and the mother they’re just fancy decorations — very surface-level decorations.” Basically, Natives aren’t an actual group of people to the Park family but exist as more of American folklore that can be recreated with plastic imitations purchased off Amazon. Bong also stated that the use of stereotypical Native pieces that have been imported from the United States is symbolic, further explaining the Park family’s ignorance as they reduce the long and complicated history of all the different Native American communities to something trendy, a sad reality for many elements from underrepresented cultures that have been featured on a mannequin in a fast-fashion display window.

The common stereotype of the “American Indian” is based on what has been seen in movies, like the classics belonging to the Western genre. These cartoonish figures that saturated movie theaters in the 1940s and beyond are complete with a war bonnet, loincloth, and a peace pipe or flute.

Though clever in the execution, this element only works if the audience, from any cultural background including Korean or American, are educated on the historical oppression and legal genocide that has occurred in the United States. When looking at the United States specifically, it is evident that the general population isn’t taught about Native American history beyond the whitewashed history books that are still actively distributed to classrooms across this country.

The common stereotype of the “American Indian” is based on what has been seen in movies, like the classics belonging to the Western genre. These cartoonish figures that saturated movie theaters in the 1940s and beyond are complete with a war bonnet, loincloth, and a peace pipe or flute. Most of these plots have the Native characters as the antagonist, the enemy, who invade and kill families including women and children. Instead of being seen as diverse, we are reduced to a scary villain or a make-believe trope—furthering the narrative that Native Americans are unable to exist in humanity.

The United States was founded on land that was already occupied and the original residents were a diverse tapestry of people, varying in cultures and traditions with their own languages, rituals, and beliefs. The ancestors of those same people exist today and make up more than 570 tribes, each one having their own individual customs and culture that is different from their neighboring cousins. Not only was our land stolen but our ancestors were forced into assimilation through sinister techniques which have left many languages at risk of extinction in the next decade. What remains of each and every tribe’s rituals today is an element left behind by our resilient ancestors. We thank them for their tenacity and mourn those who are less represented or totally forgotten due to acts of colonization.

This is an abbreviated summary of the complicated history Bong is referring to in his interviews but the brutality against Native Americans is far from over. According to a study published in 2018, 62% of Americans that live outside of Indian Country (the land in or around a recognized reservation or jurisdiction) reported being unacquainted with Native Americans. Since we make up about 1% of the population, this is somewhat understandable on one level but definitely not excusable in the modern age in which we live. Plus, despite our small numbers Native youth have the highest rate of suicide among all ethnic groups in the United States and the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirited crisis is hurting all Native communities, including the 71% of urban Indians who dwell within various metropolises. Even with new investigations and studies that are evidence in documenting the reality of being a Native American in this country, two-thirds of United States citizens think Natives do not receive any extreme racial discrimination or mistreatment. Numbers and statistics can only say so much for a diverse group of individual cultures that struggle to survive every day.

PParasite and its dense criticism of class inequality open up tremendously when the facts behind the use of Da-song’s arrows and tomahawks are understood. The American imported toys and their appearance become nuanced, disgusting, and proof that money cannot buy the respect that knowledge and understanding can bring. This still leaves a very big question unanswered: Do worldwide viewers know enough about Native American history to fully understand Bong’s critique? My assumption to the answer is no, which is yet another sad reality on many different levels. Hopefully the use of the Native imagery that exists in Da-song’s hypothetical toy box will open up this discussion worldwide, giving a platform to the Native writers, thinkers, filmmakers, and other artists that are continually pushing for better representation in the media.

Parasite is a good film with a purpose. The cinematography and performances that are beautifully executed are topped with moments of humor that showcase the writing. Even with all the cinematic elements that are at play, the most impressive aspect is Bong Joon-ho’s dedication to bringing attention to the class war that is hurting the lower classes around the world. I just hope enough audiences will seek to understand the meaning within Da-song’s obsession with the “American Indian” rather than allow the lack of knowledge to further the invisibility of our cultures.

Brooklyn-based Cherokee Nation citizen & writer who focuses on film representation. Coffee drinker, Rogue One defender, and Oklahoma City Thunder fan.

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