Parasite: Survival in Unequal Times

Parasite: Survival in Unequal Times by Ajsal E. A.

As the clamour at Dolby theatres settles down, the best picture at Oscars, Parasite, reminds us to relook the class warfare and social inequality unleashed by global capitalism. This South Korean film transcends generic boundaries; it cannot  be classified under a particular genre. The fluidity it exhibits makes it Shakespearean. The tragicomic elements blend well with the comedy of manners1. Gritty and unsettling, Parasite portrays the grim class inequalities entangled in greed more than hunger. Bong Joon-ho’s ingenious and distinctive filmmaking style etches out the scabrous lives of the ultra-rich and the underdogs. The tone is farcical, with multiple layers of discussion — aspirations, social mobility, patriarchy, and class complexes.

Social life is always riddled with aspirations and longings. Parasite’s grand motif is this aspirational longing which forms a circular trajectory without a definite end. The movie title also raises the question — Who is the Parasite? The parasite in question is provocative, to think about the real parasites which leech out of the host in a capitalist society.

The complex layers of social realities are woven into a metaphor of social mobility - that is, stairs. As Bong Joon-ho said elsewhere: “this is a staircase film.” It is depicted through the relationships between the two households central to the movie — the Kim family and the Park family.  One set of stairs descends to the basement apartment of the Kim family, which welcomes public fumigation, urinating drunkards, and sewage waters rather than fresh air or sunlight. The other set ascends to the luxurious multi-storeyed house of the Park family. Apart from that, a set of stairs connects a secret underground bunker to Park’s household from within, where the husband of the former housekeeper lived in fear of loan sharks.

Parasite Movie Alternate Poster Art by Andrew Bannister
Alternative UK poster for Parasite. Art by Andrew Bannister. Picture Courtesy: Notebook Column.

The basement squalor of Kim expresses hope for upward mobility as well as despair for further deterioration. The residence of Park is an architectural marvel, which the director engagingly demolishes brick by brick as the story unfolds. The stairs from bunker to Park’s house is a quasi string way between darkness of hope and luxury of light. The director shows the infiltration of Kim’s family into Park's household as different, unrelated workers to gain economic prosperity, thereby moving upwards in the socio-economic hierarchy. The film, therefore, evokes these questions — Are they parasites? Or the Park family who squeeze out their labour?

Being nice to the workers and paying them well does not help them to overcome the hurdles in a hierarchical social order like capitalism. In an exchange of conversation, Chung-sook (Kim’s wife) blurts out that “She (her employer) is nice because she is rich,” encapsulating the unsettling divide between the rich and working-class poor. The director brilliantly captures these divides and rifts between different social classes through various symbols. The olfactory symbol evoked at multiple junctures of the film reminds the impervious boundaries between classes at the two extremes of the spectrum.

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Similarly, a heavy rain became a ‘pollution’ remover for the Parks while a menace for Kims, flooding their basement apartment. The mutual distrust resulting from the capitalist system, which enlists people into the reserve army of labour, prevents the Kim family from cooperating with Moon-gwang (former maid at Park’s house) and her husband to keep their secrets from the Park family.

Bong Joon-ho constructs the denouement as an unpredictable mixture of rage and tragic elements to form a metasymbolic Penrose staircase where the end meets the beginning. The conclusion is, therefore, a sure-kill attempt to show the dystopian worldview of the capitalist system, where efforts to upward mobility often end up in futility. The director succeeded in imparting a bleak, anxious, dreaded world view and the reality of widening inequality between the rich and poor through the ending scenes. Therefore, Parasite starts again from the ending, essentially qualifying everyone as parasites in a capitalist system.

1. Form of comedy that satirizes the manners and affectations of contemporary society and questions societal standards.

Ajsal E. A. is an MA (English Studies) fourth year student at IIT Madras.