Movie Review: 'Parasite' Probes the Tension Between 'Have-Nots' and 'Have-Never-Beens'

Bong Joon-ho’s latest drama adds literal and metaphorical layers to the ‘upstairs-downstairs’ genre.

Note: This article was first published on January 31, 2020 and was republished on February 10, 2020 in light of Parasite winning the Academy Award for Best Picture.

The Kim family lives in a semi-basement, suspended between civilisation and oblivion. Their house is high enough to maintain a tenuous link with the world outside: it gets some sunlight, finds free Wi-Fi and experiences the daily annoyances of a run-down neighbourhood – a drunk man often pees right outside. Yet it is low enough for the torrential rains to make it a pool of sewage, for the stink bugs to infest food items. Suffocating in their low-ceilinged dwelling, flitting from one source of income to another, desperate for any kind of freebie, the Kims live on the margins of margins, slightly less ‘parasitic’ than the pests they hate.

Bong Joon-ho’s latest drama, Parasite, is about one such family that seeks to rewrite the story it’s forced to accept. But to scale such a steep incline, the Kims need help; they need a host. Opportunity comes from an unlikely quarter: a friend of Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the son, recommends him for the job of an English tutor for the affluent Park family’s teenage daughter, Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so). Ki-woo doesn’t have a college degree – a prerequisite for the job – but a few mouse clicks and forged certificates later, he lands up at the plush bungalow, ready to experience a different world: the Game of Gentrification, played in the open with sophisticated lightness, where even admonishments materialise with soft whispers and minimum fuss.

The Parks also need an art teacher for their youngest son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). Ki-woo recommends his “cousin’s batchmate, Jessica, a graduate from Illinois State University”. Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), posing as Jessica, gets the job. Similarly, through glib persuasion and deceit, the father and mother from the Kim family replace Parks’ driver and housekeeper. The stage then looks set for the ultimate tussle: between the haves and the have-nots.

That’s when Parasite takes a U-turn.

That plot twist, involving a stranger in the Parks’ basement, is masterful for its economy, uniting the film’s thematic and spatial strands. We’ve been primed to interpret the story of class-divide in stark binaries – the rich and the poor, the chosen and the ignored, the destined and the hapless. But the income inequality has widened so much for so long that there are stories within a story, gaps within a gap.

Also read: The Unfortunate Ironies of the 2020 Oscar Nominations

Parasite adds literal and metaphorical layers to the ‘upstairs-downstairs’ genre. Besides the haves and the have-nots, the world of Parasite, like every other society, has another class: the ‘have-never-been’. In fact, it’s the tussle — and the fast vanishing difference — between the have-nots and the have-never-been that informs the core tension in Parasite. A fight so insignificant that the haves don’t even register, and yet a fight so intense and existential that it is fought with the ferocity of war.

The Kims’ state of suspension is not a coincidence. The visual motif of layered separation runs throughout the movie. Parks’ house, in the posh part of the city, is sprawled on an incline, compelling Ki-woo to literally climb up, an exercise both physically and metaphorically taxing. The Parks and Kims’ houses are further separated by a sloping bridge and four flights of interminable stairs. The lives of the haves, have-nots, and have-never-been find echoes in their living conditions: a bungalow, semi-basement, and basement. Parks’ bungalow opens up in tiers — the main entrance connected by a stair leads to a living room, which further joins two sets of stairs: one goes up, to the bedrooms, the other goes down, to the basement.

The house owners and their employees share a strange bond: they occupy the same space, eat the same food and, seemingly for some time, live the same life. So the delusion of intimacy and sameness is immense. Further, the Parks aren’t hard taskmasters. They’re polite, considerate, and fair, qualities that signal elite and progressive. The Kims, as a result, are fooled; they harbour the illusion that they belong, that there’s no difference between the high and low.

The Kims don’t know the difference, because they can’t see it. They can’t see it, because this social segregation is upheld by invisible barriers: through the use of language, the knowledge of ‘good taste’, and the showcase of aesthetics. Elitism prizes exclusion — the shorter the circle, the better — topped by refinement. You shouldn’t be too loud or flashy or candid — you should know how to play it subtle, how to be just… enough. Besides, a certain kind of modern elitism, fixated on being progressive, encourages performative inclusivity, all in place to enable tight-fisted gate-keeping.

The entry passes to these enclaves are handed over to those who can prove their citizenship: through right answers about their choice of books, movies, music, restaurants, even interior décor — every small signal matters. This game is built on some rules, and the rules are only known to those who understand this game. It’s an exasperating paradox: you need to be in first to gain entry. But more than anything, what really matters is not what you say, but what you don’t. And the Parks — polite, polished, smooth — are the masters of this game.

When Mr Park first meets Mr Kim (Song Kang-ho; a phenomenal performance, a pity that it was ignored by the Academy), he asks to be driven around, assuring him that this isn’t some kind of a test. Yet, sitting at the backseat, Mr Park intently looks at his coffee mug, gauging the ripple to judge the quality of driving. Later, when Mr Kim hands him the card of a housekeeping service for VIPs — with a sleek minimalist design — he gets visibly impressed, saying it “looks high-class”.

He says several times that he “can’t stand people who cross the line”. Mr Kim, likewise, tries his best to match up: he wears a sharp suit, smiles frequently, speaks softly. But he can shed his skin for only so long. Every now and then, the mask falls, and he comes near the line — asking a question too personal of Mr Park; dropping a stray, stinging comment. When a car suddenly overtakes, he blurts, “Son of a bitch”, thereby revealing himself — getting let down by his use of language.

But no matter how hard the Kims try, they’ll always fall short, because of who they’re, where they come from. Bong exemplifies this divide through something that transcends language and training: smell. Coming to work from a cramped semi-basement, the Kims’ smell upsets Parks — “the smell of people who ride the subways,” as Mr Park says. The Kims execute their plans to the minutest of details, but it didn’t occur to them to guard themselves from themselves.

Bong understands a critical facet of the societal structure — that every group, no matter where it’s placed, strives for upward mobility. The Parks are no exception. A level-up in the plush confines of a South Korean household means only one thing: scaling the peaks of American capitalism — a prominent motif present in another masterful Korean drama about class divide, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018). The icy façade of the Parks is stirred whenever there’s a reference to the US or, its quasi-national language, English.

When Ki-woo mentions Jessica’s credentials, Mrs Park takes note of the university’s name, saying, “Illinois… Tell me more.” The Kims gain entrance to Parks’ house through Ki-woo, who has been called to teach… English. Da-song, an “Indian fanatic”, got his arrows “ordered from the US”. Da-song is also “an artist by nature” — someone with a “Basquiat-esque sense”. The card of the elite housekeeping service, which impresses Mr Park, has just two words printed on its face, in English, “The Care”. On a rainy night, when Da-Song is playing in the front lawn under a tent, Mr Park gets worried that it may leak. To which Mrs Park replies, “We ordered it from the US, it’ll be fine.” All of this hides in plain sight though. What is out in the open is Parks’ ‘progressive’ worldview: Da-song, constantly flinging arrows and hiding in a tent, embodies the patronising story of Native-Americans’ ‘success’.

Also read: ‘Parasite’, a Window Into South Korean Neoliberalism

“In an age like ours, when an opening for a security guard attracts 500 university graduates, our entire family got hired,” says Mr Kim at one point. The world of Parasite is not different from India, where unemployment rate is at a 45-year high, where, in 2015, 23 lakh candidates (including 2.22 lakh engineers and 255 PhD holders) applied for 368 posts of peon in the State Secretariat. Two years later, 73% of the wealth generated in the country was cornered by 1% of the population. Or the US, the Parks’ aspirational land, where, in 2017, the three richest Americans owned more wealth than the bottom 50% of the country.

In a climate of such egregious income inequality, the rich are automatically seen as benefactors, and the poor dependents, the leeches. Right from the film’s title and the Kims’ actions — they depend on the Parks, Mrs Kim calls her husband a “cockroach” who would start crawling on the ground if Mr Park came home (like the scattering of cockroaches at their house when the light is switched on) — Bong’s masterpiece deliberately fools us in buying that thought. But the rich behave as if everything is owed to them: material comfort, prestige, niceties. And if they can’t get it, they’ll buy it, topped by of course a smile and a perfunctory thank you. The real parasites don’t crawl on the ground when the switch is flicked; the real parasites control the light itself.