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We all live in the same country now: that of capitalism - Parasite review

Faline Bobier

February 25, 2020

The biggest surprise of this year’s movie awards season came at the Oscars – the pinnacle of Hollywood success and lavish life-styles on display. South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s film Parasite took not only best director, best international film (Bong spoke approvingly of the recently effected change in the name of this category from ‘foreign’ film to international film), but also best film, the first time a non-American production has won that honour.

But maybe this is not so surprising. As Bong himself has said in interviews he has found the response to Parasite very similar in different countries around the globe: “The film talks about two opposing families, about the rich versus the poor, and that is a universal theme, because we all live in the same country now: that of capitalism.”

And, in fact, the inequality gap between the top 1% and the rest of society is actually bigger in the US than it is in Korea, which might go a long way to explain the film’s potential for increased popularity with American audiences.

Parasite is brilliantly multi-layered. When the film begins we might think what we’re going to be watching is a comedy about a down-and-out family (the Kims) living in one of South Korea’s notorious underground apartments, who manage to weasel their way into the lap of luxury by becoming servants for the wealthy Park family.

We might also think that the film’s title refers to this family: Kim Ki-taek (the great Korean actor Song Kang Ho) and his wife who eventually worm their way into becoming the Parks’ limo driver and house-keeper, respectively.

Their insinuation into the Park household is skillfully orchestrated by the Kim children -  by their son Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik), who presents himself as a college student (with an intro from his more affluent friend who is actually a student) to tutor the Parks’ teenage daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ziso) and by the Kims’ daughter who falsely and very convincingly presents herself as an art therapy specialist in order to become tutor to their young son, who is definitely a handful, as he plays at being an ‘American Indian’, a theme which will come back to haunt in one of the movie’s final scenes.

However, the comic overtones are overshadowed as the film begins to reveal the multiple meanings behind the title. The true parasites are not the Kim family, struggling to survive on the margins of society, folding pizza boxes to make pitiable wages or keeping their windows open when the exterminators come through their neighbourhood in order to ‘benefit’ from this free extermination of the pests in their cramped apartment, as it poisons them at the same time.

Mr. and Mrs. Park (actors Lee Sun Kyun and Cho Yeo Jeong) seem on the surface the perfect couple, perfectly civilized, living in their pristine-lawned, expansive mansion, which also resembles on some level a concrete bunker. But this is a mask of civilized behaviour, which rests on the labour of those who they see as creatures who exist only to serve their needs.

Kim Ki-taek marvels at one point that Mr. Park is “rich, but still very nice.” His wife, the more practical and hard-headed partner, responds, “He’s nice BECAUSE he’s rich. If I had all that money, I would be nice too, even nicer.”

His niceness extends only as far as his convenience is affected. He remarks at several points that he finds there is an unpleasant odor coming from his driver: ‘It’s like people who ride the subway.’ Kim begins to feel self-conscious about this smell and it will be the final indignity that precipitates his act of violence later on in the film.

The New York Times review concludes with the notice, “Rated R for class exploitation and bloody violence”. The class nature of society is highlighted in Bong’s film by the difference between the subterranean depths where the Kims and their neighbours struggle to survive and the light-filled, spacious home of the Parks.

Things come to a head when the Kims take over the Parks’ home when they go away for a camping weekend. Luxuriating in unlimited food, drink and the ability to pretend for a while that this is their reality, they are startled when the former longtime housekeeper (terrifically played Lee Jung Eun) reappears on the scene.

The Kims were instrumental in getting her fired so that Mrs. Kim could take over as her replacement. This is another prevalent theme in Parasite – the lack of solidarity between those who are on the sharp end of capitalism’s barbarity. It is about fighting over scraps doled out from the likes of the Park family, meanwhile having to remain obsequious in order to continue receiving their ‘beneficence’.

The reappearance of the housekeeper reveals a horrific secret that the Parks are completely unaware of. There is more going in the lower depths of their home than they could know or guess.

The Parks return home sooner than expected because of torrential rains, which occasions much scurrying around to hide the revels that have been happening in their absence. The Kims manage to scramble to hide the celebrations. Their return home down and down again through several levels of stairs is like Dante’s descent into the circles of hell.
When they finally get home drenched, they find that rain and flooding has made their basement dwelling, along with those of their neighbours, uninhabitable, and they end up having to stay in a shelter with hundreds of others.

Returning the next day for the birthday party of the Parks’ son, Ki-taek endures Mrs. Park’s prattling on about how the rain has cleansed and made everything fresh, as he follows her around the grocery store, being loaded up with delicacies and alcohol for the party for her other pampered, privileged guests.

It is fitting then, that the party is the scene of a complete unravelling and eruption of the rage of those who are on the bottom of society. But in fact the whole film is about laying bare the class inequality of the system, which is mirrored in reality by the eruptions of class anger we have witnessed in places like Chile, France and here at home by the ongoing blockades and support rallies for the Wet'suwet'en.

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