Just when you thought you knew everything there was to know about Parasite: a video essay which succeeds in showing how camera movement and the recurrence of strongly symbolic images are deployed to demonstrate distinctions between classes in Bong Joon Ho´s Parasite.
The Revelry in the Basement: Bong Joonho’s Parasite and Class discussion in films
With an explicit use of camera language and recurrence of strongly symbolic images, Bong has made a clear distinction between the two classes. I want to examine closely at the oriented camera angles, distinct lighting for each layer of space, meticulous design of spaces (with a reference to Bong’s previously internationally-well-known work, Snowpiercer, which has divided classes into three horizontal layers, while Parasite does the same thing vertically.), and how people’s movements and interactions are limited and altered in the closed environments, leading to a discussion about the borderline between the classes, which Bong refers as smells.
Clothes, language and environment etc. are some of the more commonly used referents to iconographically denote class in film, since smell is a more abstract sense that cannot go through the screen for people to feel, but, in Parasite, Bong consistently brings up the discussion about smell, as a referent of the insuperable gap between the classes, and eventually, what triggers the poor to murder the rich is the simple action of the rich covering up the nose. What is the smell of the poor essentially? Are the characters aware of the smell because there is truly a smell of the damp semi-basement and the crowded subway, or their natural instincts and psychological suggestions imply so? There is more to question about.
While Snowpiercer has a more romanticized ending that a dystopia film could possibly have, in which the extremity of class struggle takes place on a train, isolated from reality, and ends with a destruction of orders, Bong pursues a more realistic and neutral approach in Parasite. Bong himself has described Parasite as “a comedy without clowns and a tragedy without villains.” The name of the film, Parasite, also indicates a more mutualistic and symbiotic relationship between the two classes, rather than an absolute predominance of one over another. There is no overthrow or elimination of any class reached upon the denouement, because the fact of class solidification remains, not just in the film, but as a continuation into the actual social status in South Korea.
Bong uses many class-specified actions to make the audience sympathetic towards the destitute Kim family: Mrs. Kim(Jang Hye-jin) folds pizza boxes for a living; Mr. Kim (Song Kang-ho) , unemployed; their daughter and son cannot afford going to university despite their intelligence; the tramp pees outside their window; the whole family scrambles around the house to find perfect spots to steal Wifi from their neighbors. It seems like the extreme of ignominy, but also the truest and simplest living condition a family in the lower class could possibly have. However, the audience are also unable to stand in total opposition to the wealthy Park family as the poor continuously take advantage of the rich’s innocence and their reliance on nepotistic relationship.
Some critics have described South Korea as a capitalist country in economy, a socialist country in social structure, and a communist country in mindsets, which might provide an explanation to the existence of the third class like the housekeeper of the rich, Moon-gwang (played by Lee Jung-eun), who has stayed in the luxurious villa even before the Park family moves in. She is also the housekeeper of the previous owner, a famous architect. She stays in the house and accompanies the rich long enough to gain an illusion that she also belongs to the upper class, but her husband trapped in the basement continuously reminds her of the poverty and darkness. The sense of in-betweenness might be a more relatable feeling for most of the modern Koreans. Up until 2017, over 860000 people were still living in semi-basements in urban areas. They enjoy a little bit of sunshine from the small windows, but they also suffer from inundation when a storm comes. Shoplifters by Hirokazu Koreeda and Burning by Lee Chang-dong are usually being brought up in discussion with Parasite. As the only few of the internationally recognized Asian films in recent years, these three have a realistic touch on the marginalized group without exception, and the issue of social solidification never seems to be resolved in any of them.
The film’s first significant climax takes place when the Kim eventually occupy the house for a hilarity when the Park are away, which I found an amazing resemblance in Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, in which the beggars also makes the house a mess when Viridiana and Jorge are absent. The social phenomenon of class solidification also seems to osculate in the two cross-time films, both winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Buñuel’s rather aggressive perspective towards the upper class was due to an almost authoritarian control of the church in 1960s Europe.
It seems to be a mutual false fantasy of the poor to enjoy the transient indulgence, and it generates a sharp contract with the birthday party of the Park’s little son in the latter part of Parasite. The rich always try to remain a superficial elegance, while the lower class often do their utmost to threaten and trample on each other if possible. They mock and despise the rich, because of their impuissance to break the boundary between classes, and they pry into each other’s secrets, and treat each other with malevolence.
Regarding a more general theme that the two films share, I’d like to cite Pam Cook’s idea of gendered power relations, not just within family structures, but in a broader context. Maternal figures, although seem to be apotheosized or given a priority in a societal sense, ironically still being the vulnerable ones, and this is mainly due to their disadvantage in sexual relationship. Viridiana, although being introduced as a Mother Maria-like figure, trying to bring redemption to the homeless, becomes a victim, who is almost being raped by who she offers food and job, to indicate the collapse of religion. Mrs. Park, as the hostess of the family, is almost in charge of everything, while her husband is absent from the kids’ education and daily life or the management of different housework, but when they are having sex on the couch, she begs Mr. Park to buy her drugs. Both female figures are innocent and powerless, and unable to take part in a bigger struggle.
Last but not least, Bong uses many symbolisms throughout the film, and they further serve the idea of class struggle. The smallest son of the Park family, Park Da-song, is the first to recognize the similar smells of the Kim family and the first to decipher the Morse code from underground, and such sensibility and consciousness are attributed to his experience as a boy scout, and such experience has made him almost obsessive with the Indian icons. Ostensibly, it is Bong’s salutation to his idol, Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 film, High and Low, in which a similar Cowboy and Indian’s game is played among the kids. Being put in the content of Parasite, it seems more like a metaphor of imperialism. The process of gradually replacing ‘the natives’ is similar to colonization, and in a broader sense, capitalism and class distinction that the upper-class advocates is a result of globalization.
The rock that Ki-woo’s rich friend gives him as a gift also changes from a meaningless decoration, to a symbol of luck, to a burden that reminds them about the poverty, to a threat to their own life and eventually becomes the weapon to kill, but what it essentially means is still a question I want to explore.
Bui, Hoai-Tran, Bong Joon-Ho Breaks Down That ‘Mission Impossible’ Scene in ‘Parasite’, https://www.slashfilm.com/parasite-scene-breakdown-bong-joon-ho/?fbclid=IwAR3S6o6ALxiVacDvlNCnRtc7tjtmLGhjKnh4k4t_FSa1IwRMfixs6k8U1Jk
Chen, Brian X., ‘Parasite’ and South Korea’s Income Gap: Call It Dirt Spoon Cinema, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/18/movies/parasite-movie-south-korea.html?module=inline
Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 1985
Hayward, Susan, Class, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (2017), p.85-87
Lovelace, Grace, ‘Parasite’ Is ‘Snowpiercer’ For Families Across The Economic Divide, https://www.romper.com/p/parasite-is-snowpiercer-for-families-across-the-economic-divide-19198994
O’Falt, Chris, Building the ‘Parasite’ House: How Bong Joon Ho and His Team Made the Year’s Best Set, https://www.indiewire.com/2019/10/parasite-house-set-design-bong-joon-ho-1202185829/
Seong-kon, Kim, Is Korea a capitalist country? http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20141118001115
Snowpiercer. Dir. Bong Joonho. South Korea. 2013
Parasite. Dir. Bong Joonho. South Korea. 2019
Viridiana. Dir. Luis Buñuel. Spain, Mexico. 1961
Shoplifters. Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda. Japan. 2018
Burning. Dir. Lee Chang-dong. South Korea. 2018
High and Low. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Japan. 1963
 Chris O’Falt, Building the ‘Parasite’ House: How Bong Joon Ho and His Team Made the Year’s Best Set, https://www.indiewire.com/2019/10/parasite-house-set-design-bong-joon-ho-1202185829/
 Susan Hayward, Class, Cinema Studies : the Key Concepts(2017), p.85
Kim Seong-kon, Is Korea a capitalist country? http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20141118001115
 Brian X. Chen, ‘Parasite’ and South Korea’s Income Gap: Call It Dirt Spoon Cinema, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/18/movies/parasite-movie-south-korea.html?module=inline
 Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 1985