I am still in considerable pain from watching Parasite, days later. It’s that great of a film. Even the comedy is disturbing, and then the real anguish sets in.
Pay no attention to backlash against it you might encounter on social media. Any film that makes this big of an impact is sure to get dismissed by latecomers maddened by the consensus of early raves. And Parasite was a perfect candidate for initial left-wing love and subsequent left-wing scorn, because now people go in prepared to read it as a political allegory. They start putting together an analysis of the film on these terms as soon as the lights go down. Frankly, they could do it even sooner, based on the reputation of writer-director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer, Okja), plus maybe the trailer.
If Parasite is regarded as a film to be boiled down to a socialist moral, or message, or allegory, it will fail, because it’ll seem too simple and direct. I’ve already been reading the statements of socialist backlash online, and inevitably the complaint is that the film’s message is too obvious and easy to read, and that it gets hammered home in every scene. I’ll quote a pithy one, from my Facebook feed:
[T]he moral is basically that there’s no class struggle without class consciousness, and there’s no class consciousness when the working class aims for nothing higher than to replace the ruling class.
Well, sure. But the power of the film doesn’t lie there. It’s not about the moral, the message, the allegory, the metaphor, any of that. That’s why in the film, the son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), keeps saying, “It’s so metaphorical!” in a comically meaningless way. It’s clearly Bong’s savvy joke, anticipating the kinds of reaction the film will get.
Parasite actually crystallises the experience of being an underclass family grasping at a chance to “make it,” and portrays it in such a way as to hurt you. The director wants you to feel the knife going into you repeatedly at the end and — because of the pain — to remember it. As E. Alex Jung quoted Bong in an interview, the emotional aim of the film’s conclusion, particularly the last shot, is a deadly one: “It’s a surefire kill.”
“Making it,” as I need hardly explain, means arriving at that favoured place reserved for only a few in our society, where you no longer have any real money worries. You live in luxury, stride through smooth open vistas, immense spaciousness, and unobtrusive clean lines literally built into the architecture, so nothing impedes your movement as you flow from here to there. In the film, making it takes the form of a big ultramodern house designed by a famous architect, one of those architects that thrived in the early 1960s and blended indoors and outdoors so that the massive, expensively clean-lined living room seems to run seamlessly out through a huge glass wall onto a vast, perfectly maintained lawn. Making it, in the film, means gliding through this marvellous indoor-outdoor space, murmuring, “The sunshine is so nice.”
This is painfully correct as a way of representing the underclass’s experience encountering how the affluent live. I remember, as a child, visiting the homes of school friends and hesitating on thresholds, amazed at the immense spaces, and so uncluttered! How did they keep it so clean? Nervous about stepping inside, because what if I tracked in dirt or spilled something on the pristine floors? That would be far worse than if a family member or a fellow rich person spilled something on the floor, I knew.
Cleanliness is a big deal in the film. The Kim family, struggling to maintain themselves in cramped quarters in a Seoul slum, is forever at the mercy of filth, waging a continual battle against drunks urinating directly onto the corner of their half-basement apartment at the level of their heads as they eat dinner and watch the malefactors through the dirty window. They throw their windows open to insecticide when the neighbourhood is being fumigated in order to get rid of their bug infestations. At the end of the film, when the family’s plan to better their situation goes wrong, the shit literally flows downhill with a series of flash floods that burst the sewers and destroy their meager home and possessions.
It all starts when Ki-woo, an aspiring university student (if he can ever save up enough money to go), gets a tip on a job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family, Da-hye (Jung Ziso). He knows how important it is to “clean up nice” for the interview. He shrewdly establishes himself as a favourite in the household by flattering Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong), the naive, pampered woman of the house, and flirting with Da-hye.
Soon he manages to wrangle jobs for his whole family. Tough, deadpan sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) does a quick Google search and poses as “Jessica,” a guru-like “art therapist” to the bratty rich son of the Park house, Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun). Sweet, hapless father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) puts on a calm reassuring manner as the chauffeur, and fierce mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) steps into the dignified shoes of the housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun) after brutally maneuvering her out of her job.
There’s no worker solidarity here, obviously — it’s a dogfight among the working poor, battling for the scraps from wealthy tables. And the Kim family knows through both instinct and bitter experience how to make themselves acceptable to the wealthy — how to dress, wear their hair, talk, walk, move — all quietly, smoothly, cleanly. And yet they’re in danger of being found out because, according to the Park family, they have a distinctive — and presumably unpleasant — smell.
The bratty Da-song announces it first, running up to rudely sniff each of these four supposed strangers before announcing, “They all smell the same!”
The Kim family are confused and alarmed at this mysterious identifier they hadn’t known to guard against: “What can it be?” They hastily agree among themselves to start washing with different kinds of soap. But that doesn’t solve the problem. The father, Ki-taek, especially, is in danger of losing his job as chauffeur, because even though he “never crosses the line” in his manner while driving his employer, the slick and monstrous rich father, Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), says, “His smell crosses the line.”
This is the almost unbearably painful juncture of the film, when the Kim family has seemingly achieved a miracle of infiltration into the posh environs of the rich, and we know it can’t last. It’s only a question of what will bring them down.
“Not passing the sniff test” is a familiar horror of any working-class person trying to move up in the world — a sense that there’s some essential part of you that will always give you away, no matter how elegantly you dress or how artfully you imitate the manners and attitudes of the privileged and powerful. This fear is well founded, because it’s long been embedded in upper-class beliefs that there’s something inherently, physically inferior about the lower classes that justifies class stratification.
George Orwell wrote about it in The Road to Wigan Pier, when he was assigned to study the living conditions of poor miners in Northern England. He went rogue and expanded his project to make a public confession of what he knew about upper-class attitudes toward the poor, to the horror of his editor, Victor Gollancz. The belief that the lower classes smell and are fundamentally unclean in a way no amount of washing could ever eradicate was a bedrock value he’d been raised with, even as a mere “upper-lower-middle class” person in the insanely obsessive English class hierarchy. (According to Orwell, this class status meant he’d been trained how to treat servants he’d probably never be able to afford.)
The other most devastating aspect of the film, for me, also concerned the luckless father Ki-taek. At a particular low point, when his family is all waiting to hear what his plan is to get them out of their predicament, he confesses to son Ki-woo that “the best plan is no plan.” That way, you see, you won’t feel even worse when things inevitably don’t work out.
The idea that nothing works when you’re a lower-class person is one you fight against realising as long as you can. What’s keeping you going is presumably the determination that you can always try something else, try better, and no matter how many times you fail, try yet again to rise somehow. Bong Joon-ho ends the film by representing this cruel fantasy, that we recognise as a fantasy, as Ki-woo vows to salvage what’s left of his family, go to the university, earn big money, and make it somehow. Then he’ll buy the Park family house where the Kims will live in the sunshine.
It’s a great gift of socialism that you finally see how the dream of “making it” on your own, or with your little beleaguered family unit, is crazy in a capitalist system set against you. Before I wised up, I used to look back compulsively with regret, thinking that my family might’ve made it if only we’d been smarter, or tougher, or more aggressive. We did okay, considering. But we were so gifted — surely we should’ve been able to scale the heights. Why didn’t we, what held us back, how did we fail?
Bong Joon-ho knows this syndrome well enough that he makes his struggling family smart, tough, and aggressive, so that there’s no room to think they might’ve done better. We’re forced to contemplate the trap of this kind of thinking. And if you’ve lived through any version of this process, I don’t know how you avoid wincing from old wounds while watching Parasite. As E. Alex Jung argues, “Hope is the emotional parasite in the film: the thing that keeps us going but sucks our marrow dry.”
The title is the one thing about the film that’s worth interpreting in the symbolic way that afflicts criticism: “It’s so metaphorical!”