By Guest Contributor: Claudia Vaughan
Bong Joon Ho’s films can be described as a genre in their own right: they play with the fantastical and the extreme to make assertions about society that leave viewers feeling deeply unsettled. While his worlds are sometimes quite outlandish, his characters and their pains are always very real and relatable. Such is the case with his latest film, “Parasite,” which Bong describes as a tragicomedy. Though “Parasite” does not use any supernatural elements, it is a major thrill ride that will have viewers nervously clutching their seats for the duration of the film.
Note: This review may contain minor spoilers for the film “Parasite”.
The story is about the Kims, a poor Korean family whose son, Ki-Woo, becomes an English tutor for an immensely wealthy family, the Parks. Clever Ki-Woo realizes the opportunity he has with the Parks’ deep pockets and schemes to get the rest of his family jobs in their employment, hiding the fact that they’re related and instead passing off his mother, father, and sister as highly recommended workers. The Kims must keep their secret from the Parks, no matter the cost, lest all four lose their jobs and they go back to barely scraping by.
Here Bong uses the concept of physical space to exacerbate the difference between the two families: the Kims live in the basement of an old building where they struggle to make ends meet, so when Ki-Woo first comes to the Park’s mansion for a job interview, he looks around in amazement at the grand size of the property in an otherwise crowded city. (The house is notably walled off from the rest of the neighborhood, a visual suggestion that the Parks claim the area all to themselves). Ki-Woo’s shock and awe are contrasted with the Parks themselves, who don’t seem to think twice about the incredible size of their home, nor the myriad of expensive belongings in it. In this way, the central tension of the film is created: the poor family resents the wealthy family not only for their money, but also because of their attitude of nonchalance towards it. The Parks never once recognize their privilege and instead complain about trivial problems, like rain on their son’s birthday.
In this way, the film establishes a clear correlation between space and happiness. That is, the more physical space you have, the more freedom and contentment you feel. The Kims never seem happier than when the Parks go out of town, allowing the Kims to take over the house, sprawling across the living room couch and making believe it is their own. Just the mere thought of leading such a life of luxury is enough for the Kims to escape reality and put smiles on their faces. By contrast, we find the Kims at their lowest when their basement level home completely floods with sewer water, robbing them of what little space they had in the first place. They are forced to seek refuge in a shelter overnight, where Ki-Woo’s father admits he feels great shame for his inability to plan and provide for his family. Later on, when the head of the Park family makes a comment about Mr. Kim’s smell (a mildew odor, which we learn is from the Kims’ damp quarters). This becomes a symbol of their lower class, and it ultimately drives Mr. Kim to snap back at his employer after holding his tongue for so long.
This manipulation of space to emphasize power dynamics is a familiar theme in Bong’s films. His 2017 film “Okja” is about a mission to save a genetically modified superpig, a breed that is treated cruelly and kept in captivity for slaughter. His 2013 “Snowpiercer” is a dystopian action film about a train sheltering the last of humankind, where its wealthy live in luxury at the front of the train while its poor lives in filth in the cramped caboose. Both reinforce the notion that to occupy more space is to have more control, and having more control means you get to set the rules of the world.
Bong has described “Parasite” as “social commentary [and] a genre element,” noting that in his work, it is often difficult to separate the two. It is indeed reflective of larger issues in South Korean society, where a lack of jobs has led to high unemployment and a very competitive marketplace, as well as an increase in poverty among older citizens; both issues play a role in the tension of “Parasite.” When these two problems combine, older people are often pushed out of their jobs, traded out for “fresher” workers, and ultimately find themselves unable to generate any income.
In this way Mr. Kim becomes the perfect figurehead for these real-life plights: his masculinity and role as breadwinner are put into question when he struggles to find employment. And, while he is all too happy to initially displace the Parks’ young, handsome chauffeur, he also recoils at working for the younger, more successful Mr. Park (though he recognizes he has no other choice if he wishes to stay gainfully employed). This sense of confinement coupled with what he perceives as disrespect from his employer are ultimately what cause Mr. Kim to snap. In a world that has only ever treated him as second class, the only way for him not to sink any lower is to fight upwards – and fight hard he does.
We empathize with this man whose options have been constricted to a point where he feels completely trapped with no escape. Having lost his home and possessions, the only remaining way for Mr. Kim to break out of this rigid system of assigned class roles is by targeting Mr. Park, effectively challenging him for his own space in the world. In this way the mansion becomes a metaphor for social status; he who defeats his enemy is rewarded with freedom (perhaps both physical and mental) and all the luxuries that come with leading an upper-class life. However, with higher social class comes a different type of responsibility, and even the shrewd Kims could never have anticipated the surprises that lurk in the corners of their newfound freedom.
Claudia Vaughan is an entertainment writer and lover of all things TV and film. Originally from Chicago, she currently resides in Los Angeles and is most interested in examining diversity and representation within the entertainment industry, especially for Asians and Asian Americans. Her work has also appeared in Colorlines and Mochi Magazine.
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