Social Immobility: Class in Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite.
Before the storm that has been COVID-19, I heard good things about Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Specifically, my grandparents emailed me to ask if I had seen it, watching the trailer gave me airs of Park Chan-wook’s 2017 erotic thriller The Handmaiden - which is one of my favourite films - and it won the most Oscars at this year’s ceremony, to the great displeasure of certain world leaders. A pandemic later, I found myself with some time to spare, and decided to watch it. Parasite exceeded my expectations. In the film, the struggling Kim family lives a socioeconomic world apart from the wealthy Park family, but when fate opens the Parks’ door to them, they concoct a plan to achieve social mobility by infiltrating the household. Throughout Parasite, Joon-ho employs a set of subtle yet accessible cinematographic devices to deliver his jab at the hierarchical class structures that define the modern, financialised capitalist order. In this review, I will discuss some of these. Spoilers ahead.
One of Parasite’s most striking features is its deliberately designed set, which works as a visual metaphor for class and the difficulty of social mobility. The Kim family are basement dwellers in an impoverished downtown city neighbourhood. Their apartment is subject to constant penetration because it is on the downwards end of a slope, eventually becoming flooded. The top of this slope is inhabited by the Parks, who own an isolated property at the top of a suburban hill. As an audience, we never see the Parks walking outside of their castle; they seem to simply appear in places, transported to and from them by domestic workers in luxury cars. Contrastingly, we see the Kims walking up to the Park house, and understand the implication when their attempt to stay in the house ends in them having to clamber back down - one can try and run up a slope, but slipping down is only natural. The Kims’ starting position means they must stay where they are, while the Parks’ allow them to go anywhere.
This is not to say that the Kims do not try. Parasite’s protagonists are witty and cunning enough to almost entirely fool the Parks into believing that they are the unrelated, exclusive workers that they say they are. What gives them away is not some dramatic accidental reveal, as Joon-ho teases will occur throughout the movie. Almost every member of the Park family makes a remark about the Kims’ smell, which they describe as somewhere in between that of radishes, the subway and damp. Instead of a stain that we could see or a slip of the tongue that we could hear, the director chose to use smell to denote the Kims’ poverty. This is an interesting choice. Smell is not something you do but something that reveals what you do, a lingering air of how you live. While the Kims can change their clothes and the way they speak, the smell is seemingly unshakable, because it is attached to their bodies, a part of them. Only the wealthy can decide what they smell of, starting with a blank slate; infer from this what you like about what they do. Moreover, the rich are the arbiters of who smells “right” and “wrong”, as the Parks are the arbiters of the Kims’ smell for the audience throughout Parasite. Even the Parks’ infant son has the power to mark the Kims as outliers for their smell.
The youngest member of the Park family, this little boy provides an interesting foil to the Kims’ youngest, Ki-jung. The Park boy, Da-song, is an artist. That is, he is a child who doodles and who feigns moments of silent artistic reflection to get his mother to leave him alone. Despite just pretending to be an artist, the child gets a private art tutor. Ki-jung takes on this role. She is a young woman in her late teens with genuine artistic skill. However, because her family cannot afford for her to develop these skills in formal settings, she has to pretend to have a degree in art to gain the opportunity to become Da-song’s tutor. While Ki-jung has to resort to scamming her way into using her talents, Da-song is every bit as much of a con-artist (pardon the pun), but he will likely be raised to become the artist he acts like he is - purely out of chance. Many of us would look at his doodles and praise their artistic flair if they were up in a gallery, as the Kims’ older son does sarcastically. We never get the chance to see Ki-jung’s art, as we likely wouldn’t in real life. This is because what we consider art is what is structurally groomed to end up on those walls, and being born wealthy is the golden ticket to becoming who we consider an artist.
Hence, this is where I am obligated to point out that the title of Parasite does not refer exclusively to the Kims and their schemes to become wholly reliant on the Parks. It also refers to the Parks, and how they so willingly become wholly reliant on the Kims. Pretence is a constant practice in the Park household, and it does not take much scratching to reveal this fact. Both families perform their dishonest enactments of class, one for survival and one for comfort, while pretending that all is entirely normal. It is no coincidence that we discover a man in the basement right after the Kim mother, Chung-sook, directly articulates that the Parks are only able to be kind because they are rich. Ultimately, it is unsurprising to find out that there is something disturbing hidden under the literal surface of the house, because we are well aware that a spectre is haunting both the Kims and the Parks.
As the man rises to the surface, so do the tensions that have gone unspoken in the household. His presence at Da-song’s birthday party propels the dishonest equilibrium into crisis, giving us a glimpse of the truth. When the intruder stabs Ki-jung, prompting her father Ki-taek to prevent her from bleeding out, the Park patriarch Dong-ik orders him to drive the shocked Da-song to the hospital, and then makes a visibly disgusted face at the man from the basement’s smell. This straw breaks the camel’s back, bringing the class conflict between the two families to the forefront in a moment of total chaos, and Ki-taek responds by killing Dong-ik. Viva la revolucion. But despite this, nothing changes; the Kims’ smell, and destiny, remains the same. As Adam Curtis points out in his 2016 documentary Hypernormalisation, when no alternative is presented to fill a vacuum, no momentary disruption to the status quo can successfully decenter it. Ki-taek is sent into hiding, and the surviving Kims back into squalor, while another wealthy family moves into the pristine murder house. Capitalism’s longevity lies, after all, in creating and re-creating itself in a constant cycle of crises.
During a time when Teen Vogue has taken to proposing that we eat the rich for singing Lennon’s “Imagine”, this message is particularly pertinent. In Parasite, when the city is flooded, the Kims’ home is destroyed while the Park family complain about their camping trip being interrupted. This is as tone deaf as comparing self-isolating in a middle class house and missing festival season to experiencing a pandemic in poverty. Parasite does not necessarily advocate for any radical restructuring of the class structures that shape our social experiences of the world, but rather holds up a mirror to them, revealing an ugly reflection. Joon-ho’s Parasite led me to reflect, making for a very enjoyable lockdown watch. We may be broken, but at least we can watch beautiful films and pat ourselves on the back for being self-aware.