Parasite won the Oscar for Best Picture. Do those now celebrating the film understand its critique of their own station and privilege?
*Note: spoilers, for a considerable amount of the movie ahead
It’s been a week since I indulged in viewing the film Parasite (2019 Dr Bong Joon Ho) and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Part of the reason is that the cinematography and the acting are amazing and are plenty of reason to watch the movie, but then there are the outlining themes and meanings laid out before the audience. This Oscar-winning motion picture, entirely in Korean, offers an inside experience into the lives of one poor South-Korean family.
I mean ‘poor’ as in they live in the slums and they see their way out of poverty by conning a rich family and becoming their servants only till their lives become increasingly more complicated. The family in question is the Kim family—father Ki-taek (Song Kong Ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin), daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik)–and they’re all struggling and working odd jobs to make ends meet. They encounter the rich family the Parks, lavish and sophisticated, and through a string of lies, they all work together to get hired by the family, posing as strangers. By working together they manage to frame the chauffeur of having sex in the family car, use the long time maid’s peach allergy to their advantage; Ki-Woo is recommended to the family as an English tutor, while Ki-jeong is recommended by her brother as an art therapist. I don’t even know what an art therapist is.
The relationship between both families is set as strictly work related (if you ignore the relationship between Ki-woo and his ‘pupil’ Park Da-hye). The most intimacy that you see is between the two fathers of the family, in the scene before the climax, where Ki-taek and Lee Sun-kyun are hiding behind a bush planning a surprise, and Ki-taek expresses his belief that the other is a good father. I only have one critique of that scene, but it is played with emotion and probably one of the most memorable (considering it’s only moments before Ki-jeong is killed, and Ki-taek kills Lee Sun-kyun) that I’m willing to forgive the critique I have on it.
They cannot be kind or generous, because there is too much at risk to be kind and generous to others, especially when the world they know has never been kind or generous to their ‘kind.’
But that’s not the scene that really, truly sets the stage. I believe the key is a much quieter, yet crucial part of the movie, right before the first climax, when the Park family is off on a camping trip, leaving the Kim family to take over for the weekend. We see the Kim family drinking in celebration, talking, joking and arguing over their recent accomplishments. This interaction between Chung-sook, and Kim Ki-taek, with bottles of liquor in hand, is the reason I can’t stop thinking about this movie. Ki Kim-taek says in reference to the Madam of the house, “She’s so naive, and nice. She’s rich, but still nice.” and his wife responds with, “Not ‘rich but still nice.’ Nice because she’s rich. You know?”
She goes on to explain that the madam is allowed to be nice, and naive, because consequence can’t hurt her as badly as it can the Kim family. They cannot be kind or generous, because there is too much at risk to be kind and generous to others, especially when the world they know has never been kind or generous to their ‘kind.’
There are other scenes that reinforce this idea of thought as well. Ideas like global warming are more catastrophic for those least responsible, that sunlight is only accessible to the rich, that efforts of the working class are invisible to the exploiters, that water is cleanest for those who can afford it to be clean. The real parasites are the rich. The rich, are allowed to forget and ignore, because when it comes down to it, they are on a hill and they are untouchable. While we scramble below, fighting and struggling to survive among each other, they will reside up above living carelessly and free.
While the Kim family is dealing with the after effects of the storm that turned their house into a flood zone and waking up in a gymnasium to rifle through clothes, the Park family is calling them to tell them to come to work. They are filtering through their endless clothes in their gigantic closet, making plans and preparations for the party, which is being thrown to celebrate the rain that brought them fresh air and the Kims destruction and uncertainty.
I know change between classes can’t happen overnight, but was a blind eye turned onto the motif of the movie?
That is what makes this all amazingly, and ridiculously, ironic. I mean almost stupidly ironic. So ironic that it’s infuriating. So ironic that I needed to write a very long article explaining how infuriating it is. Because that is real life!
Parasite deserved the award it got, and Parasite deserved the large audience it has, but the irony is all on who exactly is promoting this film and who was clapping in the audience when director Bong Joon-ho and his cast walked up to receive their awards. On Twitter, you can see a good handful of well-known celebrities giving their compliments to the movie. People like David Dobrik, Rian Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and more. I’m not saying celebrities can’t enjoy movies, like obviously they can, but . . . did the message not land? Sure, they can be choosing to ignore the ‘political’ aspect of the film and enjoy the story, but the story is political. The story is a callout to the gap of the working class and the rich.
South Korea has one of the largest gaps between the rich and the poor, and the most seen living in poverty are from the older generation. Older people in their sixties and above are often the ones forgotten about, and who populate the slums as seen in the movie. In an interview with John W. Smith, a writer for the YouTube channel Birth.Movies.Death., director Bong Joon-ho talks about the universal emotion of his film:
When directing the movie, I tried to express a sentient specific to Korean culture, and I thought that it was full of Koreanness if seen from an outsider’s perspective. But upon screening the film after completion, all the responses from different audiences were pretty much the same, which made me realize the topic was universal, in fact. Essentially we all live in the same country called capitalism, which may explain the universality of their responses.
When asked what inspired him to explore the theme of class struggle, Bong Joon-ho says, “As a matter of fact I didn’t set out to deal with the theme of class struggle. When we look around, however, we can identify both the poor and the rich, and this disparity can be seen everywhere. In depicting their unique stories and situations this topic emerged organically.”
It’s an interesting statement. This movie, about a poor family struggling under the weight of the rich family, received multiple awards at the Oscars. And each cast member in this movie was given a gift bag that was worth $215,000. The people who attend the Oscars are rich, wealthy, and don’t face any sort of financial struggle. They don’t live the same life as we do. So that’s what makes me ask if the message was received loud and clear. I know change between classes can’t happen overnight, but was a blind eye turned onto the motif of the movie? Not entirely. The movie’s meanings didn’t go invisible, a majority of talk online directing to the same things I’m saying, lots of talk happening on Twitter and Reddit and such, but nothing that makes an impact of course.
Other than class warfare that I am calling upon the rich, the movie Parasite was an amazing experience. The scenes and the colors were delightful, the actors gave wonderful and convincing performances, and the music written by Jung Jae-il was fitting and beautiful and moved each scene forwards. My only critique is that they used warbonnets to play ‘savage indians.’ I mean, as a native, of course this is going to hit me the wrong way. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. The lighting and sets were beautiful and despite audiences’ negative reaction to watching a movie with subtitles, I wouldn’t prefer it any other way.
This movie was about class struggle, and what it means to survive, something we are all doing every day, and the rich are only surviving as well. Perhaps I should have more mercy, perhaps I should understand that they ‘earned’ their wealth. Perhaps I should ignore the way they lift and pinch their nose at me, even when I’m as equal of a human being, as they are.