It is, perhaps, atypical of a Palme d’Or–winning film that among its most resonant images is one of a young woman sitting despondently on a toilet, staring at her phone, as sewage spews out of it like a cursed Willy Wonka contraption. Such is the earthy subversion of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), a chattering social satire of wildly oscillating tones in which a family of hustlers insinuate themselves into the household staff of a renowned South Korean businessman’s bourgeois family.
Bong’s latest excoriation of the ruling class and their attendant power is as cynical as his 2014 film Snowpiercer, which presents a dystopian future vision of humankind’s hierarchy compressed into the grim confines of a looping locomotive. But what distinguishes Parasite is its careful observation of the everyday inhumanity of being counted among the financial Other, and the mundane trickery that the poor must employ merely in order to survive. Critiquing a world marked by an ever-widening gulf between the rich and the underprivileged, skyrocketing costs of living, and ever more drastic impoverishment, Parasite excavates the humour in that inhumanity before exposing economic marginalisation for the deeply melancholic, and potentially soul-rending, experience that it is.
If the film’s conceit is Dickensian in design, Bong’s deconstruction of it is reminiscent of the work of Kurt Vonnegut in its nihilistic absurdism. Small, empty mercies like finding a single bar of free wi-fi in order to access WhatsApp, or the benevolence of a rich friend in gifting the family a scholars’ rockThe term ‘scholars’ rock’ refers to gongshi (more accurately translated as ‘spirit stone’): rocks that are prized for their natural beauty and philosophical significance, and turned into ornaments for the home – a practice that became popular in eleventh- and twelfth-century China. See ‘The Wisdom of Rocks: Gongshi’, The School of Life website, <https://www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/the-wisdom-of-rocks-gongshi/>, accessed 9 August 2019. that represents wealth, feel akin to Vonnegut’s ideas about the obliterating nature of war – how only birds interrupt the silence following the devastation. ‘And what do the birds say?’ asks Vonnegut’s narrator in Slaughterhouse-Five. ‘All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”’Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, Dell Publishing, New York, 1991 , p. 19, emphasis in original.
Parasite’s great deception – which is to say its great strength – is how relatively cleanly it initially progresses, as though the massacre in its third act won’t happen. From the film’s perspective, indigence is the great battle of our time, and will lead to the greatest suffering – if we even get there. The world has never been wealthier, and yet so many within it effectively have nothing to show for it. ‘So it goes,’ sighs Parasite, much like Slaughterhouse-Five’sBilly Pilgrim does, with the same weariness and irony and resignation that Vonnegut’s well-known phrase conveys in relation to death.While Billy does utter this phrase, he first learns of it through an extraterrestrial species, the Tralfamadorians; see ibid., p. 27.
Of course, although Vonnegut is remembered primarily for his anti-war sentiments, he was also frequently and characteristically pithy about the reality of wealth inequality. In Slaughterhouse-Five, he pinpoints the notion of the poor blaming themselves for their hardships:
[Americans’] most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.
Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor.ibid., pp. 129–30.
Indeed, in a 1990 interview with the Los Angeles Times around the release of his novel Hocus Pocus – the main character of which is named after prominent American socialist Eugene V Debs – Vonnegut, in true unstuck-in-time Tralfamadorian fashion,The Tralfamadorians experience time differently, being able to ‘see in four dimensions [… They] can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains […] and they can look at any moment that interests them.’ See ibid., pp. 26–7. even seems to have name-dropped Bong’s film from three decades in the past: ‘It’s quite exasperating. This totally alien idea has been transferred to this country. The lower social orders are parasites; the people at the top with the nice manners are the most highly evolved animals so far.’Kurt Vonnegut, quoted in Elizabeth Venant, ‘A Doomsayer in Paradise’, Los Angeles Times, 26 August 1990, <https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-08-26-vw-486-story.html>, accessed 8 August 2019.
The reasons Vonnegut’s words feel like such a potent Western forebear of a text like Parasite go far beyond tone. It is, in part, because it seems difficult to think of another contemporary film more elementally attuned to this particular subject, nor one more acclaimed for being so. Parasite is laden with a crudeness that feels abject in the context of its premiere: the extravagant, haughty prestige of the Cannes Film Festival. With its subject, comedy, shit-spouting toilets and grim comic violence, Bong’s film bears all the hallmarks of ‘low culture’. Yet it is low culture with upward mobility, already ascended to the echelons of ‘high art’. This contradiction would be far from lost on Bong – nor the irony, presumably, on Vonnegut.
It is very easy to quantify the concerns underlying Parasite. The year 2018, for instance, saw the biggest wealth gap in South Korea in a decade.Wooyoung Lee, ‘South Korea’s Income Gap Continues to Grow as Domestic Economy Slows’, United Press International, 22 November 2018, <https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2018/11/22/South-Koreas-income-gap-continues-to-grow-as-domestic-economy-slows/9281542870360/>, accessed 9 August 2019. On top of this, nearly half of the country’s population aged over sixty-five live in relative poverty, and South Korean society’s reliance on the Confucian tradition of children looking after their elderly parents has inhibited the establishment of a welfare system that can sufficiently support the country’s vast ageing population.Justin McCurry, ‘South Korea’s Inequality Paradox: Long Life, Good Health and Poverty’, The Guardian, 2 August 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/aug/02/south-koreas-inequality-paradox-long-life-good-health-and-poverty>, accessed 9 August 2019. That ageing population includes individuals who were forced into labour or sexual slavery during World War II by Japan, a country with which South Korea finds itself locked in a trade dispute following court rulings decreeing that reparations be paid by Japanese companies like Mitsubishi.Danny Crichton, ‘W(hy)TF Are Japan and South Korea in a Trade War?’, TechCrunch, 13 July 2019, <https://techcrunch.com/2019/07/13/whytf-are-japan-and-south-korea-in-a-trade-war/>, accessed 9 August 2019. And the South Korean economy is rapidly slowing, and its exports, contracting – it is narrowly avoiding recession – thanks in part to the trade dispute between China and the US.Edward White, ‘South Korea Exports Fall for Eighth Month in a Row on Trade Angst’, Financial Times, 1 August 2019, <https://www.ft.com/content/d7902944-b3f9-11e9-8cb2-799a3a8cf37b>, accessed 9 August 2019. All the figures exist for us to be able to reduce Parasite to the simplicity of an infographic, in the same way that the stark poetry of Slaughterhouse-Five could be flattened by simply citing the estimated death toll of the real-world atrocity in Dresden that it references: 25,000.See ‘Up to 25,000 Died in Dresden’s WWII Bombing – Report’, BBC News, 18 March 2010, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8574157.stm>, accessed 9 August 2019. The novel itself cites an earlier reported figure of ‘about one hundred and thirty thousand’; see Vonnegut, op. cit., p. 165.
Because Bong refuses to approach his characters with the grave, po-faced sombreness that so often burdens portraits of class, which inevitably twists their examination into exploitation, statistics feel inadequate in encapsulating the resonance of his ideas. And they certainly mean little to a family of four living hand-to-mouth in a sub-basement dwelling, assembling pizza boxes to survive. As patriarch Kim Ki-taek (long-time Bong muse Song Kang-ho) notes at one point in the film, a recent opening for a security-officer position attracted 500 applicants who had graduated from colleges to which he could never afford to send his children, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam).
This is, of course, prior to the Kims inveigling their way into employment with the Park family. It all starts when Ki-woo is offered the chance to take over as private tutor to elder Park child Da-hye (Jung Zi-so). Ki-jung forges a university degree for her brother, thereby granting him legitimacy, only for dippy, gullible housewife Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) to say she doesn’t care about qualifications. Ki-woo is hired, and renamed ‘Kevin’. Soon, Ki-jung comes on as ‘Jessica’, art therapist to the Parks’ hyperactive young son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), who is obsessed with deeply stereotypical Native American imagery. Finally, Ki-taek and his wife, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), come on board as the family’s driver and housekeeper, respectively.
All of this takes place in a sleek, modernist home ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest. In one of many echoes of Bong’s past work, the house was designed and originally occupied by a famed architect named Namgoong; it is fitted with a bomb shelter, the ghost of the wealthy’s self-preserving paranoia over attacks by North Korea. ‘Namgoong’ is also the name of Song’s character in Snowpiercer, the technician who devised the train’s security mechanisms. It’s more than appropriate that the Kim family infiltrates what is functionally a fortress, designed to keep its occupants ‘safe’ and thus, in essence, to keep people like them out.
It is not until Parasite’s second act that the film’s true nature reveals itself. The unusual proximity of its Cannes premiere to its Australian theatrical release gave the film a rare immediacy here – not only did this timing make it accessible in the contemporary, genre-centric manner of, say, a Jordan Peele thriller, but the speed with which it hit cinemas, and the atypical cultural currency that such immediacy affords, made it a viable recent text through which to encourage discussions of class. The mid-film pivot – the word ‘twist’ feels overly reductive – pushes the tone from sly class comedy to an increasingly bleak meditation on the millstones around humanity’s neck: social inequity, environmental uncertainty, technological and media fractiousness, and the encroachment of American global capitalism that has exacerbated it all.
When the Parks head away on a camping weekend, leaving the Kims with the run of the house, a spectre emerges. Having binged on food and drink, they discuss Yeon-kyo, remarking on how nice she is despite her wealth. Chung-sook insists that, if she had all that money, she would be nice, too – before pushing one of the Parks’ dogs away from her. But then, during a torrential downpour, the former housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), who was dispatched through a canny exploitation of a fruit allergy, appears at the front door. She says she left something behind in the rush of her sudden, manipulated firing. The family immediately adopt the same suspicion towards Moon-gwang that they have so often been subject to – a microcosmic manifestation of mobility. As they adopt the airs of the upper class and revel in their apparent privilege, a materialist thrill burrows under their skin.
Bong, in conjunction with cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (who recently shot Lee Chang-dong’s obliquely simmering class parable Burning, which premiered last year), gives the house the feel of an organic entity. So it’s more than fitting that Moon-gwang’s husband, Geun-se (Park Myeong-hoon), is the thing left behind: an unnoticed creature quietly draining the blood of his hosts. Geun-se has been living there, in hiding from debt collectors, and emerging only at night. In his confinement, he has come to idolise Mr Park (Lee Sun-kyun) as his benefactor. Under the worst of conditions, it seems, aspiration can become inspiration of an often-damaging kind – when Mr Park comes home, Geun-se turns on each light hanging over the staircase sequentially, like a ritual of obeisance.
After Moon-gwang learns that the Kims are related, she videos them in order to blackmail them, but they eventually overpower her and her husband and return the couple to the bunker as the Park family comes home. Ki-woo, Ki-jung and Ki-taek become stranded in the house as the Parks sleep on the couch to monitor their son, who has erected a tepee outside in the rain. As they lie on the couch, they begin to pleasure each other, spurred on by role-playing fetishised stereotypes of their less well-to-do employees. Eventually, the Kims are able to escape, and they run back to their sub-basement home to find it, and the surrounding properties, flooded with rain and sewage – a literalisation of trickle-down suffering. The watery motif of this sequence harks back to Bong’s 2006 hit The Host in both its environmental themes and, by extension, criticism of American influence.
Ki-woo saves the scholars’ rock during the deluge, but his family are made homeless. Yeon-kyo soon calls them back to help prepare a party for Da-song as recompense for the truncated camping trip, fully ignorant of the Kims’ predicament. Ki-woo attends, carrying the rock fatefully into the house’s underground to discover that Moon-gwang has died of wounds sustained when, as she was running upstairs to alert her former employers of the Kims’ subterfuge, Chung-sook kicked her back down the stairs. Discovering that his wife has died, Geun-se attacks Ki-woo and hurls the rock – designed to bring fortune – onto the head of the young man, who collapses unconscious.
Geun-se takes a knife and cuts a path through the revellers. Upon noticing him, Da-song has a seizure, realising that Geun-se was the eerie apparition that he had seen years before, causing a panicked trip to hospital. Geun-se then stabs Ki-jung, ignoring the wealthy around him whose empires were built on the subjugation of people like him. As the young woman lies on the ground dying, Mr Park screams at Ki-taek to throw him the car keys, which land near where Geun-se is struggling with Chung-sook, who eventually manages to kill him. She rolls him off her body and onto the keys, forcing Mr Park to lean forward and retrieve them himself. As he does, he holds a finger to his nose, flinching at the dead man’s scent.
Ki-taek sees this and remembers that Da-song pointed out that Ki-woo’s and Ki-jung’s clothes smelled the same. He remembers an overheard conversation in which Mr Park says that the smell of Ki-taek’s clothes from the back seat of his car was almost unbearable. And so he picks up the knife and plunges it into Mr Park’s chest.
With little choice but to hide in the bunker in the ensuing pandemonium, Ki-taek becomes the new subterranean resident of the Namgoong-designed home. He manages to communicate with his son through Morse code via the entranceway lights, the latter promising to one day earn enough money to buy the house (now owned by a German family with no knowledge of its tragic history) and free his father from captivity. Bong shows us a glimpse of what this might look like, and builds up a sickly sense of hope in the viewer that it could truly come to pass – before returning to the grim reality of Ki-woo sitting in the sub-basement dwelling.
There is room to interpret Parasite’s ending as gently optimistic, but so little of Bong and Han Jin-won’s screenplay suggests anything but a chaotic cycle of dehumanisation, leavened only by superficial pleasures – lavish baths, expensive bottled water, Ki-woo placing the scholars’ rock in the clear water of a stream, returning it to nature. Bong seems to suggest many things: that the brutal artifice of our instrumentalist economic systems and the societies built around them go against an innately human way of being; that the toxicity of class mobility as an ideal is among our least confronted predispositions; that a film like Parasite, with its willingness to ask the audience to laugh and gasp at human suffering for entertainment, is, in many ways, implicated in its own critique.
In that vein, the film’s gender politics seem under-examined – with Chung-sook, a former champion athlete, and Ki-jung, whose brilliance rests far outside the confines of South Korean expectations for a young woman, positioned in contrast to Yeon-kyo, a kind-hearted but oblivious trophy wife rewarded for becoming a child-bearing cipher. Da-hye, for her part, immediately falls for Ki-woo, just as she did for her previous tutor, but she also jealously exposes Da-song for feigning his ‘troubled genius’ schtick – which is unquestioned due to his gender – to get special treatment. The latter’s fixation with a cartoonish, commercialised version of Native American culture represents the early manifestation of the conqueror’s mindset held by his father – who goes by the Western name ‘Nathan’ – who, in turn, learned it from the damaged Americocentric archetype of notional prosperity.
After being knocked out at the party, Ki-woo wakes up with a head injury that causes him to laugh uncontrollably. In the silence following the massacre, laughing is all he can do. In a sense, this is the moment when he, like Vonnegut’s Billy, comes unstuck in time. Perhaps, when he sees himself buying the house and freeing his father from parasitic existence, he is actually experiencing a moment that has yet to happen. Or perhaps, like Slaughterhouse-Five, Parasite is simply an artistic vessel through which the possibility of wealth healing wealth, just as Vonnegut imagined death curing death, can be entertained. As humanity hurtles towards likely dystopian extremes, Parasite encourages us to fathom a solution to all those problems – and then to laugh at the very idea that one exists.
|1||The term ‘scholars’ rock’ refers to gongshi (more accurately translated as ‘spirit stone’): rocks that are prized for their natural beauty and philosophical significance, and turned into ornaments for the home – a practice that became popular in eleventh- and twelfth-century China. See ‘The Wisdom of Rocks: Gongshi’, The School of Life website, <https://www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/the-wisdom-of-rocks-gongshi/>, accessed 9 August 2019.|
|2||Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, Dell Publishing, New York, 1991 , p. 19, emphasis in original.|
|3||While Billy does utter this phrase, he first learns of it through an extraterrestrial species, the Tralfamadorians; see ibid., p. 27.|
|4||ibid., pp. 129–30.|
|5||The Tralfamadorians experience time differently, being able to ‘see in four dimensions [… They] can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains […] and they can look at any moment that interests them.’ See ibid., pp. 26–7.|
|6||Kurt Vonnegut, quoted in Elizabeth Venant, ‘A Doomsayer in Paradise’, Los Angeles Times, 26 August 1990, <https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-08-26-vw-486-story.html>, accessed 8 August 2019.|
|7||Wooyoung Lee, ‘South Korea’s Income Gap Continues to Grow as Domestic Economy Slows’, United Press International, 22 November 2018, <https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2018/11/22/South-Koreas-income-gap-continues-to-grow-as-domestic-economy-slows/9281542870360/>, accessed 9 August 2019.|
|8||Justin McCurry, ‘South Korea’s Inequality Paradox: Long Life, Good Health and Poverty’, The Guardian, 2 August 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/aug/02/south-koreas-inequality-paradox-long-life-good-health-and-poverty>, accessed 9 August 2019.|
|9||Danny Crichton, ‘W(hy)TF Are Japan and South Korea in a Trade War?’, TechCrunch, 13 July 2019, <https://techcrunch.com/2019/07/13/whytf-are-japan-and-south-korea-in-a-trade-war/>, accessed 9 August 2019.|
|10||Edward White, ‘South Korea Exports Fall for Eighth Month in a Row on Trade Angst’, Financial Times, 1 August 2019, <https://www.ft.com/content/d7902944-b3f9-11e9-8cb2-799a3a8cf37b>, accessed 9 August 2019.|
|11||See ‘Up to 25,000 Died in Dresden’s WWII Bombing – Report’, BBC News, 18 March 2010, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8574157.stm>, accessed 9 August 2019. The novel itself cites an earlier reported figure of ‘about one hundred and thirty thousand’; see Vonnegut, op. cit., p. 165.|