The Exploration of Dystopian Spatial and Cultural Trajectories in Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’

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By Anwesha Paul

Perhaps, I am 365+ days late to the party, but, to quote Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither her (it) nor custom stale her (its) infinite variety.” The much-feted 2019 black comedy thriller Parasite deserves every accolade that it has received, prompting cinema critics and aficionados to turn and return to its folds and frames for that illuminating detail which aids things to fall into place in this complex, creative and challenging modern classic which teases, provokes and amazes cine-goers of all hues.

The film opens with a languorous still of the outer world through a basement window against a lilting score by Jung Jaeil, evoking a cinema verite stylization only to be rudely awakened from the reverie by the first sentence: “We’re screwed, no more free Wi-Fi” (A translation which nevertheless catches the spirit of the original words spoken in Korean). The juxtaposition of a lyrical atmosphere with a banal dialogue subtly prepares us for the paradoxes that are to follow. In the first five minutes of the exposition, Bong dexterously establishes the personalities of the key characters – the members of the Kim family – their close knit bond and their penchant for being well, freeloaders, and in less than ten minutes into the film, the key object to aid chance and destiny is introduced namely a wealth inducing riverine rock supposed to bring luck to the Kim son Ki-Woo and which like several existential ironies in the film becomes later a fateful weapon.

Armed with a photoshopped certificate, courtesy the artistic wizardry of the sister, the son Ki-Woo sets out for the wealthy Park family household to tutor their daughter in English. From the outset, the markers of class are delineated (along with the inevitable contrasts suggested by them) through still long shots of Ki-Woo’s retreating back in dilapidated alleyways to him entering the spacious wealthy world of the Parks. The introduction of two notes of a slightly ominous score subliminally attunes us to danger; but danger from and to whom? The impersonal coldness of the wealthier class is portrayed through absence as Ki-Woo speaks to a disembodied voice over the speaker. The automatic gates to the Park residence open and Ki-Woo peers diffidently before hesitantly making his way around the unfamiliar spaces. The middle class audience finds a resonance in Ki-Woo mistaking the well kempt housekeeper to be the mistress of the designer house. The housekeeper herself gives off an authoritarian air as she schools Ki-Woo on the famous architect who built and lived in that house. This is a clever ploy used by Bong, at once establishing the class divide and  introducing the house which will be the film’s setting, point of contention, site of resistance and polarization over the next two hours, going on to develop into one of the main characters in this thriller.

As the film progresses, the director introduces Mrs. Park who makes it clear that though Ki-Woo has his degrees, she lays store by recommendations more than anything else, in a sense laying the foundation of the trust-betrayal interaction which is the backbone of the plot. Significantly, Bong also makes Mrs. Parks interject English phrases when she is trying to make a point just as the nouveau rich Americans drop French phrases to sound more sophisticated. We, as South Asians being fully aware of the use of English to denote authority and cultural superiority, immediately pick up these cues and chuckle inwardly at such affectation. Our reverence for the West is again highlighted when Ki-Woo pronounces Illinois correctly, enunciating and emphasizing it in the film, impressing the gullible Mrs. Park who immediately gets sold on the idea of hiring the sister albeit rebranded as the unrelated Jessica – a graduate from Illinois State University, whose foreign education makes her a suitable art therapist for their bratty child “genius.”

References like these are strewn throughout the film, notable ones being English names for the Park family. Nathan Park, for example, who runs an augmented reality tech company, has a Western first name. There is, additionally, an article about him in the New York Times which is expected to enhance his image in local eyes. Certain other cues like a lapdog and the classy design of the visiting card, craving for pork ribs among others, reinforce the little, carelessly casual markers of wealth, which run like a leitmotif through the film creating their own narrative of differentiation. Going overseas, most students adopt English names, which is why Mr. Park also goes by the name of Nathan and later Ki-Woo goes by that of Kevin and Ki-Jung by that of Jessica. A farcical element may be traced in the history of such a natty nomenclature. And, foreign brands emit a consciously cosmopolitan vibe. Tellingly, even the dog food is Japanese. When her husband is worried that the waterproof tent will leak, Mrs. Park visibly annoyed, retorts, that it is of American make implying its superior provenance, thereby sealing the argument. Is Bong ironizing through the image of the tent the tendency to locate America as a universal patron providing shelter to all?

Class and gender politics are rife in the film with Mrs. Park exhibiting the South Asian predilection for the son with its corresponding indifference to the daughter. The Park daughter, however, naive seems to be the only likeable character in the entire film with no ulterior motive and a willingness to cross the class divide by performing the action that saves Ki-Woo’s life. By keeping both the family structures the same, the Korean auteur hints at the ascension ambitions of the Kim family. The entire film is heavily polarized along class lines but, interestingly, positive and negative energies swamp both sides of the divide questioning one’s assumption that economic disadvantage, perforce makes one morally right and material abundance generally corrupts its possessor. The genius of Bong lies in his perfunctory dismissal of such conventional moral codes.

This is evident from the start when the Kim family is shown to be secretly using other people’s Wi-Fi. Not in itself a major transgression, perhaps, it yet introduces slowly but surely the intensity of the subterfuges which propel the action. The lies get more outrageous as do the methods, with Ki Jung turning a simple favour of being given the family car for a home drop to her greater advantage. She drives destiny according to her will by planting soiled underwear under the chauffeur’s seat in a subversive bid to terminate the services of the driver, ensuring the hiring of her father in his place. By this time the audience has gleaned enough information to understand that Moon Gwang, the stentorian housekeeper, is the next target of the intrepid interlopers.

As the plot thickens and the tempo rises, we, the audience wait with bated breath as to what audacious concoction the Kim family will next brew specially as Moon Gwang seems quite a resistant character with reserves of stoicism. True to our expectations an elaborate TB scandal is set up and consequently Moon Gwang is fired hurriedly and surreptitiously. South Korea does have the highest tuberculosis rates in the developed world and the director weaves in an actual statistic (a fact which the government is trying to downplay) into the plot which accounts for the dubious and speedy dismissal of the housekeeper.

At this point, however, the audience is conflicted; we cannot help but sympathize with the lone figure of Moon Gwang walking down the pathway of the house she was so evidently proud of. The colour tones of this shot are blue departing quite a bit from the rest of the film and the somewhat plaintive background score tugs at our heartstrings. She walks closer to the camera from a long to a mid-shot and we can see the bewilderment on her face as she looks back at the house frequently. The Kim family, initially regarded as if not heroic, smartly outwitting gullible rich folks with their glib talk and razor sharp wits now seems to have overstepped the line.

The meaning behind the title ‘Parasite’ gains a little clarity now. The Kims are determined to make it in life no matter how ruthlessly. Their searing sense of “injured merit” is palpable as they repeatedly call Mrs. Park stupid and gullible. It is roughly in the middle of the film that the Kim family’s takeover of all the subservient roles in the Park household is complete. It is at this point that we get a glimpse into the more insidious succession plans of the said family as its parasitic members collectively dream to be the usurpers of the property while the Park family is away on a picnic. This dream, as we see steadfastly stays till the end, the fantastic twists and turns notwithstanding. Ironically it remains a dream not reaching fruition.

It is from this fulcrum that the film spirals rapidly into a completely different trajectory, leaving behind its light-hearted black comedy to develop into something far more sinister and comically grotesque, at the same time. With the return of Moon Gwang to feed her hostage husband who lives secretly in the basement, Parasite widens in scope to include political commentary tragicomically alluding to a tell all photo of the pretenders that is likened to a missile by North Korea. The existence of the basement in itself shows the collective national fear of North Korea. The couple represented by the previous housekeeper and her husband and the Kim family grapple in a power struggle as each side tries to wrest dominance from the other perhaps mirroring the internecine Korean imbroglio. This drama is heightened by the unexpected return of the Parks and their capricious demands. With the fugitive in the basement, we realize that there is more than one leech in the titular imagery of this film.

The geographical spaces in the film bear testimony to the class divide. While the Kim family lives in the basement with the frequent odour of urine in their nostrils (the olfactory sensibilities I shall come to later) the Park family lives above the ground in a house built by a famous architect. Just as there are stark differences between the employer and employee families, there are hidden similarities as well. As pointed out earlier, the familial structure of the two families is the same with the twinning of the offspring in terms of number and gender. Similarly, the Park family house has a basement like the basement shelter of the Kims, the ironical difference being that for the latter their basement was their abode and not a subterranean utility as it was for the Parks. The Parks, ensconced in their wealth can afford to live in ignorance of their basement. Mrs. Kim succinctly points this out (I paraphrase her words) – Mrs. Park is not nice and rich, she is nice because she is rich; wealth irons out the creases. The basement becomes a potent metaphor in the geometry of spaces that informs so much of Bong’s cinema with the levels within the house coming to symbolize the class and cultural stratifications affecting not only South Korean society but the world at large.

The positioning of the events at this point is very interesting. A poignant social commentary is occasioned by a deluge which sweeps through the city and the basement accommodation of the Kims is inundated with water. The father, son and daughter who have just managed to sneak out of the Parks’ house, having battled and probably killed the previous housekeeper (though this possibility is yet not entertained) have to endure terrible living conditions, with their house being fully submerged in water, an overflowing toilet and most of their belongings unusable. These scenes of miserable proletarian existence are intercut with the Parks’ enjoying the rain and whimsically arranging for a party which all the members of the Kim family are required to service because they are being paid over-time for it. Whatever moral anguish that we, as an audience, had felt over the Kims’ usurpation ambitions is quickly replaced by sympathy for their very real and morbid living conditions. At this juncture, if we return to the title of the film, we cannot help but wonder who is the parasite? Is it the Kims who are literally striving to keep their head above water or the Parks, who, though less energetic and driven than their domestic staff, have the temerity of wealth to leech off the system?

‘Kim’ and ‘Park’ are two of the most common surnames in South Korea. The two families bearing these names in the film have a shared ethnicity and language. The wealth, in the case of the employers, too seems to be recent, enjoyed perhaps for a single generation and hence precarious. Both sides eat instant noodles, yet only one can afford to have it with beef, a telling aside on economic disparity dictating diet.

The antipathy and proximity which the working relationship between the two classes necessitates lie at the core of Parasite. As an English tutor Ki-Woo can enter the daughter’s bedroom, while Mrs. Kim is allowed to overhear the family gossip. These intrusions into private spaces, though accepted by the Parks and enjoyed by the Kims create certain tensions and anxieties within the liminalities of their liaisons which both parties are well aware of. Mr. Park, for instance remarks once, how Mr. Kim always seems to be overstepping his boundary or designated role and space in the family/professional hierarchy but he never actually does so. While negotiating the spatial and its concurrent cultural hierarchies and due to an apocalyptical turn of events, the Kims were privy to a private conversation between the Parks which reinforced the class and power dynamics in the film. During that darkly humorous situation Bong tellingly places Mr. Kim under the table with his children listening to Nathan Park above on the couch disparagingly talk about the obnoxious smell of the former. The human composition in this frame admirably conjures up the social positions of the characters, the privileged ones being at the table and the underdogs remaining under it.

The use of the social marker of ‘smell’ is a crucial aesthetic, as also a structural tool in Bong’s interrogation of class. Mr. Park, in the scene mentioned earlier goes on to elucidate, in no uncertain terms that people who travel in the subway have a peculiar smell. His wife romanticizes travel by subway saying it has been ages since she has ridden one. The conversation around smells is a strong one in Parasite with little Master Park being the first and only one to detect a peculiar and common odour which comes from all the Kims, a dead giveaway of their actual identities as members of a single family which they have been desperately hiding all the while. He is, of course, innocent and in a child’s guileless manner he goes around sniffing Mr. and Mrs. Kim commenting that they all smell the same. Though socially polite, Nathan Parks’ heightened sensitivity to the smell of poverty displayed insensitively at inopportune times literally cost him his life.

The rapid scaling of action in the denouement is signature Bong. One can draw parallels with one of his earlier films Memories of a Murder, which is a scathing dark comedy on police incompetence. The native American Indian costumes of Mr. Parks and Mr. Kim in the anti-climactic party scene adds a surreal touch to the proceedings, foreshadowing the eventual victimization of both. The almost unreal bizarreness of the last fifteen minutes of the film brings to mind his Ghibli-esqe escape fantasy film Okja, though the plot of Parasite  turns quickly from a conman’s fantasy to a notorious nightmare since it involves triple rapid murders by the two enraged basement dwellers and Mrs. Kim.

The turn of events with a sudden flurry of violent action with five people tentatively dead, leaves the audience baffled. However, we have acquired enough empathy and insight into Mr. Kim’s life to understand the provocation behind his grossly violent skewering of Nathan Park. Not only did Mr. Park order Mr. Kim to drive him to the hospital while his daughter lay dying in his arms, which would have been reason enough for the latter to turn against him, he had fastidiously crinkled up his nose in utter insensitivity to the situation around as he picked up his car keys from under a dead man. The pacing in the second half of the film appropriately is considerably different and devilishly fast with too many things happening at once, almost as if karma is in fast forward mode.

The motif of the Morse code, secrets and ghosts runs throughout the film and in the denouement we see that the house is sold to unsuspecting Germans (Here Bong takes a dig at the Germans in his trademark tongue-in-cheek style commenting on their dietary habits) but now the Morse code light signal is employed by the second basement hostage Mr. Kim who is shackled to an underground life forever much like his ghostly predecessor. Bong admits in his own words, “Both feelings—life and death—are present in basements,” to a journalist, revealing his fascination with underground bunkers and incarcerated realities. It is then that we are confounded by the horrible truth that we are ultimately unable to deny our class moorings and possibly our eventual destiny in the world. The words of Mr. Kim ominously reverberate in our ear, “With no plan nothing can go wrong, and if something spins out of control it doesn’t matter / whether you kill someone or betray your nation.”

The film ends on a positive note, but I feel it jeopardizes the overall tone of the film’s realism because we are convinced that Ki Woo can perhaps never fight the system again to free his fugitive father trapped in the basement of his own undoing. Here, as in the rest of Bong’s film violence serves only as a brief respite, a catharsis you may say, ultimately upholding the status quo but leading us to scrutinize the social system and class polemics which dehumanize people.

Bio:
Anwesha Paul is an animation film-maker and user experience design specialist working as a Manager with PwC to create original visual content. She has ten years of experience in visual design, storytelling and scripting for the screen. She is also a writer and speaker having contributed pieces to The Statesman since her childhood and conducting design workshops in Rwanda, Kathmandu and La Martiniere for Girls’ School, Kolkata in addition to her own workplace PwC. She is an award-winning animation film maker with screenings in several film festivals across the world. She has designed book covers for Routledge and Orient Blackswan, and has illustrated and designed for UNICEF, Rwanda and Room to Read.

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