Parasite

21/05/2024

Mostly, a house in a film is just that: a place to eat and sleep and spend some time. Many a film can’t avoid the social implications of the dwelling it shows us, but that doesn’t mean it cares to dwell on the specifics of the house itself. It may reflect the class of the characters but we needn’t assume it must become, so to speak, a property of the story, or better still its theme. There have been many elegant homes on screen fetishising the wealth and comfort they offer, just as there have been plenty showing us houses that look like great places to live -until the characters realise the reason it was half the expected value rests on them now sharing the home with a ghostly presence. Real estate meets real terror and the viewer sees that the elegant, often remote place at the beginning demands a hasty retreat by the conclusion. Whether we think of the swanky houses in Gone with the WindThe Great Gatsby or Knives Out, or the terror homes of The Amityville HorrorThe Others or The Conjuring, this isn’t quite the type of house we have in mind, though perhaps Rebecca might come close - a space somewhere between the luxury of Gone with the Wind and the horror of The Conjuring. They don't quite convey a thematic purpose within their narrative focus.

   The films which do include, SafeLost HighwayTheoremViridianaThe Exterminating Angel, DogtoothThe ServantZabriskie Point, Le Ceremonie and Exhibition. Here we have houses that contain luxury while hinting at a metaphysical quality that cannot be reduced to the horrific, and Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho wouldn’t be oblivious to such works as he mentions Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel in interviews, saying in Dazed and Confused his original idea for Parasite was closer to Bunuel’s film. Critics may have seen in Bong’s a great work, with Mark Kermode calling it a “gasp-inducing masterpiece” (The Observer), and Justin Chang seeing it as a thriller of extraordinary cunning and emotional force” (Los Angeles Times). But another way of looking at it is to see its brilliance resting on its facility - on its skilful ability to take a problem that has been around in cinema for a very long time, one taken on by many a great filmmaker, and insisting on it as entertainment. What Bong does is subordinate theme to story, character to situation, and arrives at a smooth exploitation of a problem over its examination. 

    This may sound like a dismissal of the film, and in some ways it might be, but it’s also a way of understanding a filmmaker’s priorities, and Bong is a director who wants to entertain while many of the others whose work we have invoked — Pasolini, Bunuel, Antonioni and Hogg — appear more willing to risk alienating the viewer if the question they ask cannot be contained by the story that the film is interested in telling. Richard Brody seems to hint at this when saying, Parasite “…falls far short of greatness is its inability to contend with society and existence at large—or with its own conservative aesthetic; it doesn’t risk disrupting its own schema in pursuit of more drastic experiences and ideas.” (New YorkerThis shouldn’t mean a film disrupts because it can, or that it must rid itself of a more conventional form, it all depends what the film’s problematic happens to be - what theme it appears to be pursuing. We aren't asking The Amityville Horror to be anything but a competent scare film. But Parasite's reviews suggest has mad much more than a well-crafted thriller-cum-satire.

    Parasite’s problematic can perhaps best be summed up by 19th-century tycoon Jay Gould’s claim that “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” Brody quotes it in his New Yorker piece and rather than seeing the film as about the terrible rich oppressing the working class, better to see it as one that exploits narratively very well the working class against each other. As Amy Taubin says of the poor family that works its way into the rich family’s house: “their dog-eat-dog behavior in concocting a string of lies, so that the gullible rich parents fire their chauffeur and longtime housekeeper and accept the recommendations of two newbies as to who should replace them, confirms that working-class solidarity counts for nothing when poverty makes people desperate and capitalism inflames the desire for riches.” (Film Comment)

      Initially, son Ki-woo gets a job tutoring the teen daughter of the wealthy Park family after a friend takes off elsewhere and, when the young son needs an art tutor, his sister Ki-jung pretends to be qualified for the job, turning out to be more than capable of it. At this stage, the poor are improving their lot but not to the detriment of others within their social class: situations have become vacant; they occupy them, no matter if lies and deceit are involved. But the story starts properly moving when they find jobs for their parents, Mr Kim (Bong regular Song Kang-Ho) and Mrs Kim. Ki-jung gets the chauffeur fired by leaving her underwear in the back of the car and suggesting he has been using it for assignations, while their long-term housekeeper is asked to leave when it looks like she has TB — it is merely an allergic reaction to peaches that the Kims discover and capitalise upon. These plot-heavy moments based on scheming lead to the film’s key twist — halfway through, when the Parks are off camping, the old housekeeper returns and, in one of the best and the most initially inexplicable shots in the film, Mrs Kim sees her in mid-air between a wall and a cabinet, pushing the latter with her meagre might. 

   After getting fired she didn’t have time to get her husband out, a husband who for years has been hiding away from loan shark enforcers, living in the basement within the basement unbeknown to anyone but his housekeeping wife. If earlier in the film we might have thought the Kims were at the bottom of the social heap living in their basement, at least they were living only one floor down and with windows or sorts and a door they could come in and out of at will. But instead of creating solidarity between basement dwellers, the film shows the Kims at war with the housekeeper and her husband as the film shifts its story a little away from subterfuge to another level of subordination. There are those literally and figuratively below the Kims. They seem to bear out Gould’s claim that half the working class would be willing to murder the other half. 

   Maybe the working class might when there is enough hope and enough resources for the characters to compete with each other: the poor may be in a constant musical chairs of misery but while many won’t end up with the parcel in their lap, some will, and as long as there isn’t so much enough to go around but enough for the parcel still to circulate, society can (dys)function. It is here that the film finds its problematic but we might wonder how well Bong explores it. The director has been ambiguous about the film’s meaning in interviews: “Well, I began developing this idea in 2013 which is already six years ago but of course the issue of gap between rich and poor, of economic polarization was not that different back then. I was working then on the post-production of Snowpiercer, which is also about class difference and class struggle, where the rich and poor inhabit different carriages on a train — so you could say I was already pretty much in the grip of this idea of class difference already.” Yet he also says in the same interview, “don’t talk about, ‘Oh if you analyze the script, there is this political commentary. I don’t think there is any need to discuss that. I always say things like, 'Don’t you feel sorry for this character?These instinctual conversations that I have with actors help their roles.” (The Talks

   However, if the film acknowledges it is about class, then retreats from the implications of its thesis, there is a chance the film will become confused rather than ambiguous in its execution. If the first half pays attention to the class divide between the rich and the poor, the second shows the animosity between the poor who have been fighting for a space within the rich person’s environment. This was already partly evident in the first section with the Kims engineering a situation that has the chauffeur and housekeeper removed, but it becomes a proper war in the film’s second half when the housekeeper ends up dead from concussion, and her husband tries to kill Ki-woo. Yet the film hardly seems to view this as a problem: that the poor are fighting each other rather than finding class solidarity, and we say this without assuming the film would be any better if they did unite against the Parks. We aren’t asking for a didactic film about class divisions and how the poor can overcome them. We might ask though that Bong addresses the irony involved in a film that wants to show the problem of class and then shows it as a one that isn’t only between the well-off and the poor, but the poor against the poor. 

    Whatever Bong’s comments in interviews that can appear like the film is chiefly interested in the problem of inequality, the film’s message is closer to one of pragmatic self-advancement. The Parks are new money over old; reflected not just in the home they live in but the job the husband does: he works in IT. Why shouldn’t the Kims think they could have a bit of that wealth also? The Kims are fast learners: they all master new skills quickly, and that is precisely what Mr Park would have done over albeit a longer timespan in mastering computers. Looked at from a different angle, this isn’t a film about class divisions but one about luck and effort. Mr Park has had the luck to be part of a dynamic industry: “Since its accession to the OECD in 1996, Korea has become a global powerhouse in science and technology, one of the most advanced digital economies in the world…” (OECD) He also works long hours. Can the Kims become equally successful if they also put in the effort? If the Parks had been old money that might have become a rhetorical question, but in so fast-moving an economy as South Korea’s, it doesn’t seem so implausible. Ki-woo gets the job working for the Parks through a friend: he has access to those who can help him get on. 

   But the film shows they are unlucky: a terrible rainstorm brings the Parks back from a camping trip and the Kims are all having fun at their house. While they have time to tidy up and hide; they can’t get out quickly enough and are still there hours later as the rain continues. When they do finally get back home their basement apartment has been flooded, their already modest lives destroyed, and they are forced to take refuge in a communal hall for fellow victims. The one night they get to live it up as occupiers of a swish home is the very evening when their own becomes uninhabitable. This leads to a growing anger in Mr Kim, and eventually to murdering Mr Park after Ki-jung dies, having been stabbed by the housekeeper’s husband, who is then killed by Mrs Kim. This bloodbath seems better understood through class resentment than class conflict - through the poor envying what the rich have rather than turning against the rich in solidarity. 

  Reading the film as envious rather than class-conflictual also helps explain Ki-woo’s final ambition. His father is now hiding out in the basement as the housekeeper’s husband did before him, and Ki-woo dreams of working hard and eventually buying the house and releasing his father. “There are people fighting hard to change society. I like those people, and I’m always rooting for them” (Vulture) Bong says. But Olivia Ovenden also notes that “Joon-Ho has called the film his stairway movie, meaning that the film gives us all of the different steps of class aspiration and shows us how, for some people, trying to climb to the top only results in you being kicked down to the bottom again.” (EsquireIn the first claim is a desire for a more equal society; in the latter is one for an unequal society that creates opportunities for the resourceful. The Kims prove themselves resourceful enough but not lucky enough, as the film proposes society’s purpose isn’t to create a fairer society but one of equal opportunism. This is a different meaning to the film than the one that has generally been accepted. A Guardian headline calls Parasite a "searing satire of a family at war with the rich”, while a Sight and Sound headline reckons it is a “searing critique of social inequality.” Yet the housekeeper and her husband are no less impoverished than the Kims, and the war with them is no less pronounced. 

     The film is perhaps finally caught between its narrative need to create a work of ingenuity and requires smart, ambitious people to do so, and the desire to critique injustices now so prevalent and so global that anybody wishing to hit the zeitgeist may be inclined to see their work as a comment on it. But if it finally feels a less disquieting work than some of the other house films we have mentioned (The ServantExterminating AngelTheoremLa Ceremonie) it rests on the ambivalence -rather than the ambiguity - of its problematic, one that always seems secondary to the narrative force it insists upon. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Parasite

Mostly, a house in a film is just that: a place to eat and sleep and spend some time. Many a film can't avoid the social implications of the dwelling it shows us, but that doesn't mean it cares to dwell on the specifics of the house itself. It may reflect the class of the characters but we needn't assume it must become, so to speak, a property of the story, or better still its theme. There have been many elegant homes on screen fetishising the wealth and comfort they offer, just as there have been plenty showing us houses that look like great places to live -until the characters realise the reason it was half the expected value rests on them now sharing the home with a ghostly presence. Real estate meets real terror and the viewer sees that the elegant, often remote place at the beginning demands a hasty retreat by the conclusion. Whether we think of the swanky houses in Gone with the Wind, The Great Gatsby or Knives Out, or the terror homes of The Amityville Horror, The Others or The Conjuring, this isn't quite the type of house we have in mind, though perhaps Rebecca might come close - a space somewhere between the luxury of Gone with the Wind and the horror of The Conjuring. They don't quite convey a thematic purpose within their narrative focus.

The films which do include, Safe, Lost Highway, Theorem, Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel, Dogtooth, The Servant, Zabriskie Point, Le Ceremonie and Exhibition. Here we have houses that contain luxury while hinting at a metaphysical quality that cannot be reduced to the horrific, and Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho wouldn't be oblivious to such works as he mentions Luis Bunuel's Exterminating Angel in interviews, saying in Dazed and Confused his original idea for Parasite was closer to Bunuel's film. Critics may have seen in Bong's a great work, with Mark Kermode calling it a "gasp-inducing masterpiece" (The Observer), and Justin Chang seeing it as a thriller of extraordinary cunning and emotional force" (Los Angeles Times). But another way of looking at it is to see its brilliance resting on its facility - on its skilful ability to take a problem that has been around in cinema for a very long time, one taken on by many a great filmmaker, and insisting on it as entertainment. What Bong does is subordinate theme to story, character to situation, and arrives at a smooth exploitation of a problem over its examination.

This may sound like a dismissal of the film, and in some ways it might be, but it's also a way of understanding a filmmaker's priorities, and Bong is a director who wants to entertain while many of the others whose work we have invoked Pasolini, Bunuel, Antonioni and Hogg appear more willing to risk alienating the viewer if the question they ask cannot be contained by the story that the film is interested in telling. Richard Brody seems to hint at this when saying, Parasite "...falls far short of greatness is its inability to contend with society and existence at largeor with its own conservative aesthetic; it doesn't risk disrupting its own schema in pursuit of more drastic experiences and ideas." (New Yorker) This shouldn't mean a film disrupts because it can, or that it must rid itself of a more conventional form, it all depends what the film's problematic happens to be - what theme it appears to be pursuing. We aren't asking The Amityville Horror to be anything but a competent scare film. But Parasite's reviews suggest has mad much more than a well-crafted thriller-cum-satire.

Parasite's problematic can perhaps best be summed up by 19th-century tycoon Jay Gould's claim that "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half." Brody quotes it in his New Yorker piece and rather than seeing the film as about the terrible rich oppressing the working class, better to see it as one that exploits narratively very well the working class against each other. As Amy Taubin says of the poor family that works its way into the rich family's house: "their dog-eat-dog behavior in concocting a string of lies, so that the gullible rich parents fire their chauffeur and longtime housekeeper and accept the recommendations of two newbies as to who should replace them, confirms that working-class solidarity counts for nothing when poverty makes people desperate and capitalism inflames the desire for riches." (Film Comment)

Initially, son Ki-woo gets a job tutoring the teen daughter of the wealthy Park family after a friend takes off elsewhere and, when the young son needs an art tutor, his sister Ki-jung pretends to be qualified for the job, turning out to be more than capable of it. At this stage, the poor are improving their lot but not to the detriment of others within their social class: situations have become vacant; they occupy them, no matter if lies and deceit are involved. But the story starts properly moving when they find jobs for their parents, Mr Kim (Bong regular Song Kang-Ho) and Mrs Kim. Ki-jung gets the chauffeur fired by leaving her underwear in the back of the car and suggesting he has been using it for assignations, while their long-term housekeeper is asked to leave when it looks like she has TB it is merely an allergic reaction to peaches that the Kims discover and capitalise upon. These plot-heavy moments based on scheming lead to the film's key twist halfway through, when the Parks are off camping, the old housekeeper returns and, in one of the best and the most initially inexplicable shots in the film, Mrs Kim sees her in mid-air between a wall and a cabinet, pushing the latter with her meagre might.

After getting fired she didn't have time to get her husband out, a husband who for years has been hiding away from loan shark enforcers, living in the basement within the basement unbeknown to anyone but his housekeeping wife. If earlier in the film we might have thought the Kims were at the bottom of the social heap living in their basement, at least they were living only one floor down and with windows or sorts and a door they could come in and out of at will. But instead of creating solidarity between basement dwellers, the film shows the Kims at war with the housekeeper and her husband as the film shifts its story a little away from subterfuge to another level of subordination. There are those literally and figuratively below the Kims. They seem to bear out Gould's claim that half the working class would be willing to murder the other half.

Maybe the working class might when there is enough hope and enough resources for the characters to compete with each other: the poor may be in a constant musical chairs of misery but while many won't end up with the parcel in their lap, some will, and as long as there isn't so much enough to go around but enough for the parcel still to circulate, society can (dys)function. It is here that the film finds its problematic but we might wonder how well Bong explores it. The director has been ambiguous about the film's meaning in interviews: "Well, I began developing this idea in 2013 which is already six years ago but of course the issue of gap between rich and poor, of economic polarization was not that different back then. I was working then on the post-production of Snowpiercer, which is also about class difference and class struggle, where the rich and poor inhabit different carriages on a train so you could say I was already pretty much in the grip of this idea of class difference already." Yet he also says in the same interview, "I don't talk about, 'Oh if you analyze the script, there is this political commentary. I don't think there is any need to discuss that. I always say things like, 'Don't you feel sorry for this character?' These instinctual conversations that I have with actors help their roles." (The Talks)

However, if the film acknowledges it is about class, then retreats from the implications of its thesis, there is a chance the film will become confused rather than ambiguous in its execution. If the first half pays attention to the class divide between the rich and the poor, the second shows the animosity between the poor who have been fighting for a space within the rich person's environment. This was already partly evident in the first section with the Kims engineering a situation that has the chauffeur and housekeeper removed, but it becomes a proper war in the film's second half when the housekeeper ends up dead from concussion, and her husband tries to kill Ki-woo. Yet the film hardly seems to view this as a problem: that the poor are fighting each other rather than finding class solidarity, and we say this without assuming the film would be any better if they did unite against the Parks. We aren't asking for a didactic film about class divisions and how the poor can overcome them. We might ask though that Bong addresses the irony involved in a film that wants to show the problem of class and then shows it as a one that isn't only between the well-off and the poor, but the poor against the poor.

Whatever Bong's comments in interviews that can appear like the film is chiefly interested in the problem of inequality, the film's message is closer to one of pragmatic self-advancement. The Parks are new money over old; reflected not just in the home they live in but the job the husband does: he works in IT. Why shouldn't the Kims think they could have a bit of that wealth also? The Kims are fast learners: they all master new skills quickly, and that is precisely what Mr Park would have done over albeit a longer timespan in mastering computers. Looked at from a different angle, this isn't a film about class divisions but one about luck and effort. Mr Park has had the luck to be part of a dynamic industry: "Since its accession to the OECD in 1996, Korea has become a global powerhouse in science and technology, one of the most advanced digital economies in the world..." (OECD) He also works long hours. Can the Kims become equally successful if they also put in the effort? If the Parks had been old money that might have become a rhetorical question, but in so fast-moving an economy as South Korea's, it doesn't seem so implausible. Ki-woo gets the job working for the Parks through a friend: he has access to those who can help him get on.

But the film shows they are unlucky: a terrible rainstorm brings the Parks back from a camping trip and the Kims are all having fun at their house. While they have time to tidy up and hide; they can't get out quickly enough and are still there hours later as the rain continues. When they do finally get back home their basement apartment has been flooded, their already modest lives destroyed, and they are forced to take refuge in a communal hall for fellow victims. The one night they get to live it up as occupiers of a swish home is the very evening when their own becomes uninhabitable. This leads to a growing anger in Mr Kim, and eventually to murdering Mr Park after Ki-jung dies, having been stabbed by the housekeeper's husband, who is then killed by Mrs Kim. This bloodbath seems better understood through class resentment than class conflict - through the poor envying what the rich have rather than turning against the rich in solidarity.

Reading the film as envious rather than class-conflictual also helps explain Ki-woo's final ambition. His father is now hiding out in the basement as the housekeeper's husband did before him, and Ki-woo dreams of working hard and eventually buying the house and releasing his father. "There are people fighting hard to change society. I like those people, and I'm always rooting for them" (Vulture) Bong says. But Olivia Ovenden also notes that "Joon-Ho has called the film his stairway movie, meaning that the film gives us all of the different steps of class aspiration and shows us how, for some people, trying to climb to the top only results in you being kicked down to the bottom again." (Esquire) In the first claim is a desire for a more equal society; in the latter is one for an unequal society that creates opportunities for the resourceful. The Kims prove themselves resourceful enough but not lucky enough, as the film proposes society's purpose isn't to create a fairer society but one of equal opportunism. This is a different meaning to the film than the one that has generally been accepted. A Guardian headline calls Parasite a searing satire of a family at war with the rich", while a Sight and Sound headline reckons it is a "searing critique of social inequality." Yet the housekeeper and her husband are no less impoverished than the Kims, and the war with them is no less pronounced.

The film is perhaps finally caught between its narrative need to create a work of ingenuity and requires smart, ambitious people to do so, and the desire to critique injustices now so prevalent and so global that anybody wishing to hit the zeitgeist may be inclined to see their work as a comment on it. But if it finally feels a less disquieting work than some of the other house films we have mentioned (The Servant, Exterminating Angel, Theorem, La Ceremonie) it rests on the ambivalence -rather than the ambiguity - of its problematic, one that always seems secondary to the narrative force it insists upon.


© Tony McKibbin