Social classes tangle masterfully in Parasite
A clash of parasites, and what it means in Asia
By: C Nge
My beloved writing professor Janice Cole used to tell her class that the best way to reach a broad audience through writing is to root stories in specificity. The idea is to pay attention to the particularities of space and place, to ferret out details that show readers the intricacies of a world and in so doing, enable us to imagine the lives of its people. The devil is in the details, as the famous saying goes because details are the bedrock of stories; details make a tale unique and define the contours of its telling.
Korean director Bong Joon-Ho is a details-driven filmmaker par excellence. In fact, his meticulousness is so legendary, Koreans combined his surname with the word ‘detail’ to coin his moniker, Bongtail. His recent Palme d’Or winner Parasite (2019) is a cinematic tour de force worthy of this moniker because the details that obsess Bong are steeped in the visual vocabulary of film. The spatial construction of each scene, the meticulous composition of each shot, the close observation of facial expressions and body language — all these elements are carefully calibrated in service of a story that is instantly recognisable to those of us living in Asia.
Set in present day South Korea, Parasite is a film about two nuclear families — a poor one, the Kims, and a rich one, the Parks — and the ways in which their lives are intertwined in a parasitic relationship, hence the film’s title.
In the first act of the film, we witness how — one by one — every member of the Kim family devises dubious and guileful ways to secure gainful employment in the Park household. The Kim children, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam) masterminded the first ‘infiltration’, faking their qualifications and getting hired as tutors for the Parks’ two children. Through a series of creative deceit, they got rid of the Parks’ driver and housekeeper, and helped install their parents into the new vacancies instead. The Parks are happy to have found replacements for the services that they depend on. Of course, they are also unknowingly bankrolling the Kim clan, who are pretending not to be related.
Bong’s hilarious and laudatory treatment of the crafty ways in which the Kims orchestrate their employment and embody their fake personas is black comedy at its best. But the family is not merely played for laughs. Bong’s painstaking attention to the details involved in each scam is designed to underscore the Kims’ resourcefulness, quick-wittedness, observational skills, improvisational abilities, and excellent teamwork.
One example that is both comedic and revelatory of the Kims’ camaraderie is when Mr Kim (Song Kang-ho) rehearses his role in a con involving peach fruits with his son Ki-woo. The former is so overly excited and gets so carried away with his acting that his son has to rein him in like an acting coach.
One cannot help but laugh in solidarity with the Kims as they plot and scheme; their ingenuity is impressive and their desperation is relatable. They may not be well off financially but they are a tight knit, jocular family and the way the story is told makes it easy to root for them.
By the same token, Bong portrays the Parks as a well-meaning, well-bred and well-to-do family, even if rather gullible. Mr Park (Lee Syun-kun), the CEO of an award-winning emerging technology company, is the sole breadwinner of his family and works long hours, while Mrs Park (Jo Yeo-jeong) is a full-time homemaker who fusses over her children and worries about their welfare, but generally depends on her maid to do the actual home-making.
They live in a bubble of their own making — Mr Park working with augmented and virtual reality tech further alludes to this — and are too cocooned in privilege to have any real sense of the world beyond the creature comforts afforded by their wealth. But this does not make them inherently bad people and Bong is careful never to depict them as such.
Contrary to what we might be led to expect, Parasite is not explicitly a film about the class conflict between the haves and the have-nots. During a BBQ feast to celebrate the windfall of jobs, Mr Kim openly acknowledges how the amount of money coming from the Park family into theirs is immense. He then offers a prayer of gratitude to wealthy patriarch Mr Park. Despite being aware of the great disparity of wealth and privilege between their families, Mr Kim expresses no envy or bitterness. He knows that without Mr Park, they would not be able to better their lot in life so if the latter is a benevolent employer, then what’s the harm in benefitting from his largesse?
Despite the negative connotations of the term ‘parasite’, relationships like the ones between the Kims and Parks are altogether commonplace in Asia and very much accepted as part of life. Very tellingly, actor Song Kang-ho says in an interview that he prefers not to use the term ‘parasite’, but instead sees the film as being about “symbiosis and coexistence”.
This film is an affirmation of this very real yet ordinary characteristic of contemporary Asian life. In Asian societies, the rich and the poor feed off of each other and have done so for thousands of years with few instances of outright rebellion. Even today, many middle and upper class Asian households have live-in maids and hired help, and chauffeurs are not uncommon among businessmen and CEOs. Tuition classes are the norm for Asian kids, with private home tutors the preserve of the well heeled. Within the domestic sphere, such employees share living and working spaces with their employers on a daily basis without question; they also sometimes have conversations that are intensely personal, which makes it tough for an employer’s private life not to be known to his or her domestic help.
Parasite is indisputably a Korean film set in South Korea that reflects the specific issues and concerns of its time. Yet the genius of Bong Joon-Ho stems from his ability to burrow so deep into the very core of Korean culture that he unearths muck so complex, it reeks of familiarity. By zooming in on the details of his culture, Bong has managed to share with his Asian viewers a set of lens we can now use to focus on our own.
True to its title, this is a film about a unique type of organism that cannot exist without a host, yet — scientifically speaking — parasites are not homogenous. According to the CDC in the US, there are three main classes of parasites with varying degrees of dependency on their hosts. In short, parasites are complex and not altogether alike. Similarly, in Bong’s film, there exist more parasites than we realise.
NO-TURNING-BACK MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
There is a pivotal scene in Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite that neatly demarcates the first act from the second and serves as a premonition for the calamity that is yet to come: the Parks are away for a camping trip and the Kims finally have the Park house all to themselves. The Kims nap, chill, watch TV and enjoy a bubble bath, sample the food and drink of their hosts, and luxuriate in being surrogate Parks for a day. Everything is just so darn idyllic, we can just foretell that shit is bound to happen.
Without warning, lightning and thunder jar the Kims from their reverie before the buzzer to the security entrance resounds through the house. The housekeeper they had earlier successfully displaced — Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun) — is at the door and she asks to be let in, claiming she had inadvertently left something behind when she was dismissed so quickly by Mrs Park. The re-emergence of the housekeeper then sets off a chain of events that spiral quickly out of control, resulting in mayhem, violence and eventually, death.
A new character is introduced: it turns out that Moon-gwang has returned for her husband, Geun-se (Park Myeong-hoon), who is trapped in the nether regions of the Park residence. Both husband and wife have been leeching off the Parks for more than four years, the latter having no knowledge of Geun-se’s presence. While Moon-gwang keeps house above ground, her husband spends his days holed up in the sub-basement, a place that is even deeper underground than the basement where the Parks store their stuff.
Namgoong, the architect and original owner of the house, had constructed this subterranean space as a refuge from creditors or North Korean nuclear attacks. But he was so embarrassed of having done so that he did not tell the Parks when he sold the property to them years later. Moon-gwang is privy to this information because she was Namgoong’s housekeeper before she was bequeathed to the Parks. Later on, when her husband fell into financial straits and was on the run from loan sharks, she squirreled him away in the safest place she knew: the Park’s secret bunker.
The introduction of Moon-gwang and Geun-se — whom I shall call The Couple from here on out — complicates the idea of parasites in the film because there are now two sets of parasites and they are far from alike. For the purposes of my analysis, I shall classify the parasites in the film into two types: aspirational parasites (The Kims) and legacy parasites (The Couple). What separates the two is how they envision their future.
The Kims are most assuredly parasites of the first type because they are parasites with dreams and ambitions. In the pivotal scene mentioned earlier, after the Kims round off their evening with hard liquor and raucous banter, trash-talking leads to wishful thinking. Ki-woo imagines himself married to the Park’s daughter and Mr Kim envisages his son living in Park’s huge house as a member of the family. In this scene, they are clearly not content to just live off their host; they aspire to advance beyond parasitism. This is why I consider them to be aspirational parasites.
Legacy parasites, on the other hand, would not dream of disrupting such a mutually beneficial relationship with their host. If there were to be any disruption, it would likely be initiated by the host (as when Mrs Park laid off Moon-gwang) or caused by rogue parasites (such as the Kims).
Legacy parasites generally worship their host and hold him or her in high regard. This reverence for their host either stems from a shared value system and/or deep respect born of years of complete dependency. The Couple, for instance, feel that they are closely connected to their original host (architect Namgoong) because they share their host’s “creative spirit” and are able to appreciate his artistic genius, as reflected in the house he built. The Couple sees themselves as a different kind of parasite from the Kims, whom they deride as being “scumbags”, “cretins” and “Neanderthals” — clearly suggesting that the Kims are immoral, uneducated, and uncultured.
Geun-se, in particular, is so grateful to his host for housing and feeding him that he proudly shouts out that he loves and respects Mr Park, in front of Mr Kim. To show the depths of his deference, Geun-se even turns on the lights for Mr Park with switches in the sub-basement when the latter returns home from work each day, and sends cryptic messages of thanks to him using Morse Code. The Parks think these lights are sensor-operated but in fact, they are controlled by the ever-dutiful Geun-se. Legacy parasites like The Couple are comfortable being parasites and don’t have any plans to be anything else.
In contrast, aspirational parasites are planners; they are not content to be parasites for life because they were not born parasites and in fact, spent some years as free-living organisms, bolstered by jobs and financial ventures. From the Kims’ earlier conversations, we know that Mr Kim used to work as a driver and a valet; he also got involved in failed ventures, like the Taiwan king castella cake business — which was a real cake trend in South Korea around the time Bong wrote his script. Ki-woo was no slouch either, re-taking his university entrance exams not once, but four times.
Like the Kims, Geun-se used to be free-living too; he also got caught up in the same Taiwan cake business trend as Mr Kim, with dreams of striking it rich. When the South Korean economy faced a downturn withrecord-breaking unemployment rates, the Kims and Geun-se suffered similar fates. While the Kims eked out a living doing odd jobs, Geun-se borrowed money from loan sharks. When he was unable to repay them, his wife helped him disappear. To survive, he evolved to become a legacy parasite.
Legacy parasites are a unique class because they have evolved — often out of necessity or a lack of choice — to see their parasitic behaviours as part of their identity and even heritage, something to be proud of and to value. The world beyond the host world means nothing to them because they can no longer separate themselves from their host, and any memory they may have of a former life free from parasitism is permanently erased.
Geun-se’s evolution from being a hunted free-living man to a legacy parasite is best exemplified by the way he has set up his living space underground. He has filled it with photos of world historical figures and nostalgic paraphernalia that affirm his origins as a subterrestrial. He even tells Mr Kim he feels like he was born in the sub-basement and had his wedding here too, even though we know this cannot possibly be true. Geun-se has clearly reimagined a life for himself that is steeped in a history of his own making; he could never dream of leaving because to do so would mean a negation of his sense of self and his birthright.
Ultimately, legacy and aspirational parasites are trapped — whether willingly or not — but are unable to fathom that the root cause of their problems is the system of parasitism itself. They will never forge an alliance to dismantle a system that they have become too invested in and that gives them so much meaning and purpose. In the end, the death of one host — even if it is at the hands of a parasite — does not foretell the end of parasitism; it merely ensures the rise of others.
Watching this film made me reflect on my own country and marvel at how many parallels I could draw between Malaysia and the South Korea envisioned in Parasite. Broadly speaking, both our cultures are built upon the normalisation of social hierarchies and an acceptance of varying manifestations of parasitism. Call it what you will: patronage, cronyism, nepotism, corruption — these are practices cut from the same cloth. And all parasites need a patron, a benefactor, an influential figure with powerful connections — a host.
Political leaders make excellent hosts because their ascension to power necessitates the presence of a diversity of parasites. In Asia, in particular, such hosts have been known to support millions of parasites for decades — that is, if they are clever about maintaining a healthy balance of legacy and aspirational parasites. If Bong’s film taught me anything, it is this: the moment an aspirational parasite decides to see himself as a host, the entire ecosystem is bound to eventually unravel.
Disruptions to the ecosystem are imperative if we are to redress the imbalance of power resulting from decades of unquestioned parasitism. Indeed, aspirational parasites have an important role to play to this end. Yet, disruptions are merely that; they do not signal the end of parasitism per se. Instead, the ecosystem just realigns to allow for new hosts and new parasites to flourish — I learned this all too well, from observing Malaysia’s overthrow of a 61-year old political regime through the ballot box in 2018, followed by the creation of a new coalition government comprising aspirational and legacy politicians.
Unlike in the film, no blood was spilled this time.
Originally published at DeconRecon. Visit our site for more reviews, analyses and measured fangasm on pop culture through Asian spectacles.