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The Crazy Poor Asians of Parasite

South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho's latest film is a darkly comedic economic parable of inequality in East-Asian society.

an illustrated still from the film Parasite featuring the four family members sitting down folding pizza boxes Artwork by Nhatminh Vu

Slabs of sleek concrete shield part of a beauteous mansion. Its modernist sophistication sits airily on top of a high slope within the city of Seoul. The house’s entrance boasts a flight of stairs that leads to a tight set of security systems. As a single door stares deridingly downwards at each of its coming guests, the message evoked could not be more clear. To enter it — you’ll need to ascend. 

Thankfully, it is not here that Parasite begins. 

Instead, it begins underground, in a basement-turned-house where a zero-income family is living, leeching a few bars of Wi-Fi from local businesses. Consisting of the kind-natured patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), whose life advice is well-respected by his son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and cunning daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam). Alongside their mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hyae-jin), the family earns a living by folding a restaurant’s cardboard pizza boxes in their bug-infested, ramshackle home. 

It is the exploration of this family’s absurd and exploitative rise to economic stability that has earned South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho this year’s Palme d’Or. The film, despite being labeled by Bong as a “tragicomedy,” flouts the narrow conventions of genre to present a narrative too preposterous to be real, too stained in satire to be sad. And yet, eliciting both a harrowing sense of social-realism and tragedy, it is all of these things. Like Bong’s previous work, The Host, which carefully critiqued the conditions of South Korean society, Parasite abandons allegorical hints for a straight slap in the face about the detrimental consequences of economic insecurity. As Bong describes, it is “a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains.”

The tragedy’s focus on an impoverished family unit demonstrates a thematic similarity to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s stirring Japanese drama, Shoplifters, which also happens to be last year’s winner of the Palm d’Or. Both Shoplifters and Parasite belong to a rising surge of films representing those in the socially and economically marginal slates of East Asian society. Their significance resides in their exposition of the underground space  — a metaphorical space exhibiting the hidden ugliness that lies beneath the false façade of globalisation. In Shoplifters, these secrets are literally buried underground in the space of a shabby home, hushed between the cracks of a middle-class suburban jungle. Meanwhile, Parasite slowly unveils the underground spaces in which filthy masses of contradictions begin to accumulate, and inevitably (like the monster from The Host) emerge to the surface. This allegory is established by Bong early in the film, with the family staring up from their sunken home into a society that may not even realise they exist, and even urinates onto their windows. 

However, it is this same invisibility that became the catalyst for much of Parasite’s plot. When Ki-woo’s higher-class friend goes to study overseas and asks him to take over his job tutoring the teenage daughter of a wealthy businessman, the underqualified Ki-woo vehemently agrees. After the forgery of some documents, he is now pushed into the world of a marvelous concrete mansion located on the high hills of Seoul. Winning over the confidence of the naive lady of the house, Mrs Park (Cho Yeo-jeoung), the opportunistic Ki-woo quickly concocts a plan for his entire family to con their way into employment at the same mansion. Eliminating the unneeded chauffeur and nifty housekeeper, the wily ménage inserts themselves into the secured space of their money-provider, the Parks. They live in symbiosis with their hosts, and in some ways, even begin to transform into a knock-off version of them. 

Throughout the film, Bong does not let us forget that it is the things hidden in the depths, unexposed to the surface, that control the story. For when all seems to be well for the clan, having found stability in a marvellous space, what ugliness could this wide-open home and its transparent rows of glass possibly harbour? 

With careful steps like that of a chessmaster’s, Bong unveils the layers of dirtiness that both classes possess in an indictment of the country’s broken socio-economic system. 

Portrayed also is South Korea’s ambivalent relationship with the United States. There are repeated motifs throughout Parasite which associate the US with validity and prestige — it is through emphasising a US-based education that Ki-woo and Ki-jung both earn their respective jobs at the mansion. Whenever questioned about the reliability of an item, Mrs Park absently replies “Don’t worry, we got it from the US.” There is also the use of English phrases by the upper class as a means of demonstrating their prestige, and the appropriation of a Native American headdress. Bong once identified his stylistic use and subversion of Hollywood conventions as a sense of “schizophrenia.” This reflects South Korea’s half-respectful, half-cynical attitude towards the US, whose occupation during the 1960’s to early 1990’s is often linked to South Korea’s rapid modernisation. This close alliance (critiqued by some as almost neocolonial) underpins South Korea’s current position as a developed, capitalist state. But as portrayed by Bong, though the system seems grand, it offers no support to those who’ve been kicked down to the bottom of the stairs.

The Kim family, having successfully gained a precarious sense of economic security, then find themselves having to maintain their social position through the most gruesome of means. This hanging anxiety about security can also serve as a reference to the threat of invasion by North Korea. It is these unresolved tensions that underpin the film’s foreboding atmosphere. For perhaps, what we fear most is the disruption of order, as well as its seeming fallibility. 

In Parasite, a powerful final shot points to an inescapable cycle of oppression, tragically unrecognised by its main protagonists. Here, Bong’s comedy becomes a bitter reminder of our wretched reality. Intricately crafted, Parasite evinces a distant dream of social equality that eventually batters you awake. Its raw depiction of Korean society in all of its absurdities spills powerfully onto each frame of the screen. Its hilarity masks a face of anger — one that rejects the fickle sentiment expressed by a character: “Money is an iron, it smooths out all the wrinkles.” After the rain, the wrinkles will just appear again.