Mon, 10th Feb 2020

Consumerism, Hysteria and Class Division in Bong Joong-ho's 'Parasite'

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Larissa Shipton

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Warning – This review contains spoilers.

Bong Joon-Ho’s (2020) film Parasite leaves you with much to ruminate overn. Set against the backdrop of South Korean society, the narrative depicts the deep structural issues of capitalist economies.

The film tells the story of two families that reside on opposite ends of the Korean social ladder, visually exploring these dualisms with a sardonic and almost absurdist tone. The members of the Kim family are all unemployed and live in a filthy basement, stealing WiFi from their neighbours. When their son finds a job teaching English to the daughter of a wealthy family, the Parks , by faking his Oxford University qualifications, the Kim family collectively infiltrate the Parks by artfully and elaborately posing as a driver, house maid and art therapist.

The film neither condemns nor champions either strata, but rather it becomes a subtle criticism of capitalist fuelled dreams, consumerism, and the anxieties of modern life. Bong Joon-Ho portrays a society fractured by extremities; Mr. Kim remarks “They’re rich but still nice,” but his wife pessimistically replies, “They’re nice because they’re rich,” and it would seem that the modernist marble-clad mansion where the Parks live serves as a crude reminder of their bourgeois privilege.

Indeed, the narrative is permeated with deeper commentary, a criticism for the manner in which the capitalist economies function, where the rich are reliant on the poor, but the poor don’t make enough to have decent living conditions. In a hyperbolic sense, the film explores working class frustrations and bitterness at an economy that is engineered to make the rich richer.

Having said that, it would seem that the Parks are portrayed ultimately as naïve, perhaps even unaware of their inherent privileges because their lives are worlds apart. This is evident when the daughter, Ki-jeong Kim takes advantage of Mrs. Park’s ignorance, Ki-jeong poses as an art therapist warning her that her son’s childish scribbles are the quintessential signs of serious mental illness. Mrs. Park, eager to be rid of her problems, agrees to pay Ki-jeong to tutor her son. While it is a comical moment, it reveals sharp divisions between the preoccupations of the wealthy - such as the opportunities around art therapy - and the preoccupations of the working class – looking for a dignified way to live.

In another visually striking scene, the audience gets another glimpse at how something as neutral as rain affects the upper and lower classes differently. The rain in the Park’s back garden looks almost romantic, their son pitches a tent and the parents watch from the vast living room, unoccupied. For the Kims, however, it is that same rain which has flooded their basement house with sewage water and debris, meaning that they are forced to abandon their home and sleep in a stadium. The atmosphere from this point on darkens significantly, culminating in a violent Tarantinoesque scene where Mr. Kim stabs Mr. Park at his son’s children’s birthday party and condemns himself to live in the very basement of the house he served in.

It could be said that this film reveals structural and socio-economic issues rooted in almost any capitalist society; in a sense the subtitles serve as a kind of embellishment that crystallise the film’s subtle details. In the final scenes of the film, which are narrated by Kim’s son Ki-woo as he imagines one day having enough capital to buy the Park’s house to rescue his secluded father, the cinematography uses light and muted colours to portray these moments of a tender reunion between father and son. While the audience feel a sense of false promise, the final scene reveals a Ki-woo, stuck in his basement apartment dreaming of a better life. The shot directly mirrors the opening scene, and thus we conclude bitterly that the Kims, despite everything, are just one of the masses trapped in a dismal cycle of penury.

Parasite thus offers a complex, polyphonous look at class divisions as it makes Oscar history as the first non-English-speaking 'Best Picture'.