“Creation destroys as it goes, throws down one tree for the rise of another. But ideal mankind would abolish death, multiply itself a million upon million, rear up city upon city, save every parasite alive, until the accumulation of mere existence is swollen to a horror.”
— D.H. Lawrence
Spoilers follow for Parasite.
From the opening scene, the viewer is aware that Parasite that will make us uncomfortable, very uncomfortable. A family searches for Wifi because the one they leeched off of now has a password. A few frames later, a masked man busy fumigating the street appears and the father says to keep the window open for a free fumigation — the man looks menacing as do the toxins emitted from the machine on his back. Is this meant to be set in the future, I wonder, because something isn’t quite right. The WiFi scenario looks vaguely familiar, the fumigation looks dystopian. And it is to this theme that the film continuously returns us to — are we already living in dystopia?
The Kim family does not live in total squalor but pretty close to it, with it’s stink bugs and cockroaches. That is to say nothing of the fact that this family lives semi-underground. Although the neighbourhood depicted is fictitious, it bears a close resemblance to the Changsin neighbourhood in Seoul — a far cry from the glitzy Gangnam district with which most non-Koreans associate South Korea. Changsin has the highest concentration of semi-underground dwellings — spaces which used to be prohibited for residential use given the mold, pests and exposure to floods and illnesses. But this policy was changed when it became clear that the workers spilling into Seoul during its economic upswing needed to be housed urgently.
The creation and prevalence of the semi-basement apartment goes back to the Cold War. Filmmaker and UCLA professor Gina Kim says “Everyone was paranoid after the Korean War, and they started to build bunkers in all the buildings… So that space depicted in the film, the semi-basement, is a bunker in a way, and it was used as a bunker in the 1970s.”
The Kim family can see the light of day from their bunker-home. But there is another bunker in the film, one that is surrounded by darkness and located in the basement of the wealthy Park family who are the targets of an elaborate scheme orchestrated by the Kim’s. In the final part of their racket, it is the outmaneuvering of the housekeeper, Moon-Gwang, that is their un-doing as she reappears at the door, frantic and desperate to enter the basement. This bunker is one which neither the homeowners nor their employees know about — an indication that it is not only the rich who live in ignorance of the true rot at the very bottom of society.
Situated past a menacing staircase with dark cement walls, together with Mrs. Kim, we find out that this basement is also a home, inhabited by the housekeeper’s husband who has lived there for four years. Like Jordan Peele’s Us, the sub-terrain is explored as a space which once served a purpose to society (subway lines or places of safety in the event of missile attacks) but now houses those left behind and discarded by the very same society. The Tethered were designed to be parasites and the many parasites in Bong Joon Ho’s film are all tethered to each other. But the question of who is parasite and who is host is one that swirls around in the mind of the viewer and goes to the heart of what it means to be dependent on a host-system. In both films the host-system is one of rampant late-capitalism in which those who fall through the cracks are destined to be discarded.
The scam in Parasite has its genesis is Ki-Woo/Kevin’s invention of himself and his sister Ki-Jeong/Jessica, as members of an educated middle class and like his newfound persona, the film shows that the middle class is indeed an illusion. There are rich folk, poor folk and very poor folk. And it is between the latter two groups that that we see how class conflict finds expression not just between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. If we are to continue using Marxist terminology, it becomes clear that the husband locked below is part of the lumpenproletariat — that group Marx and Engels described as the underclass or “social scum”. For Fanon, the lumpenproletariat had a special place in the anti-colonial struggle writing “These classless idlers will by militate and decisive action discover the path that leads to nationhood.”
It is ironic that a film largely described as being rather Marxist in iteration, in fact exposes the often forgotten aspect of Marxist ideology which views a certain segment of society (in the words of Engels) as “the dangerous caste, the social scum, that passively rotting mass… for the [most] part a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue… Every leader of the workers who uses these scoundrels as guards or relies on them for support proves himself by this action a traitor to the movement”.
The Kim family certainly doesn’t see themselves reflected in the couple from the basement, Mrs. Kim emphatically rejects being called Moon-Gwang’s sister. Moon-Gwang and her husband Guen-Sae are clearly part of the lumpenproletariat and they are loyal to the ruling elite. Remarking on the Kims’ use of the house while the Park’s are away, the former housekeeper shouts “Scumbags. Look at this debauchery. This is how you treat the sublime living room created by the great [architect] Namgoong Hyunja?”
Guen-Sae also explains to his wife that he turned off the lights in the basement because “We have to conserve energy. It all comes out of Mr. Park’s pocket”. This constant veneration of Mr. Park culminates in the final word he utters to the wealthy businessman as he lies dying on the manicured lawn: “Respect!”.
It is these uneasy relationships and dynamics that make the film a masterpiece. The filmmakers and actors have ensured that no one is shown to be pure evil. The Parks are not bloodthirsty cartoon villains, the Kims are not unscrupulous con artists (Mr. Kim expresses concern over the fate of the driver they got fired “He’s probably doing fine, right? I’m sure he got a new job.”) and Moon-Gwang and Guen-Sae are not amoral leeches. The real villain is not so easy to spot — it isn’t some kind of specter, it is systemic.
In this film which is laugh-out-loud funny until it is not, the catalyst for the horror that unfolds is the long-suffering man whose isolation from the world has resulted in psychosis. He is the literal and figurative ghost, rearing his ugly head — in one of the most unsettling scenes captured on film — to haunt and torment those who have not yet suffered the severity of the system. But how did he get there? What were his crimes that doomed him to such a brutal punishment?
He simply could not pay his debts.
The thuggery of a usurious system (here fronted by the loan sharks who are also likely responsible for the housekeeper’s facial injuries which are visible on her fatal return to the house) lie beyond state control — the couple are not protected, there is no institution that can come to their defense. Their only option is to live in hiding below. This fate, however, is not entirely unique as in the basement, Guen-Sae reminds Mr. Kim, “Plenty of people live underground. More if you count semi-underground apartments!”
It is Kevin’s constant refrain of “It’s metaphorical” that is applicable here, for the basement is indeed a powerful metaphor. Crenshaw used the basement metaphor in her description of intersectionality. She asks us to imagine a basement which contains people who are disadvantaged by one or more factors like race, sex, class or physical ability. They are all stacked on top of each other — those at the bottom are disadvantaged by all the factors and those at the top are only burdened by a single disadvantage. “In efforts to correct some aspects of domination, those above the ceiling admit from the basement only those who can say that “but for” the ceiling, they too would be in the upper room.” In other words, those who are multiply-burdened are generally left below, while those at the top may be able to crawl through the hatch in the basement’s ceiling.
The disdain from those above the ceiling toward those in the basement are known from the Park family’s increasing aversion to the smell of the Kims as well as the sexual fantasies of Mr. and Mrs. Park — literal poverty porn. But the ultimate manifestation comes from Guen-Sae’s daily routine of banging his head against the wall to switch on the lights. The Park family (and the audience) assumes that the light is activated by motion censor — a technological indulgence of the rich. The truth however, is that the labour needed to make their lives so comfortable is invisible to the Parks.
The basement is also a classic point of reference in psychoanalysis, representing unconscious drives, repressed fears, traumas and fantasies. Guen-Sae could himself be a representation of a trauma that society has repressed. In order to survive, we have to repress those reminders of just how cruel and unjust the world is, in order for the pain to remain largely inaccessible.
Guen-Sae, because he comes from the basement, also serves the function of being a representation of the repressed drives of Mr. Kim. When Guen-Sae begins his killing spree on the pristine grounds of Da-Song’s birthday party, Mr. Kim’s own desires come to the fore. Guen-Sae’s presence is the stimuli that removes the barrier of constraint on a lifetime of repressed rage. Unlike Mrs. Kim (“She’s nice because she’s rich. You get it?”) and Jessica (“Worry about your own fucking family”) who make their disdain for the rich known — Mr. Kim never puts his feelings into words. There is no utilization of the (in)famous Freudian “talking cure”. Thus, Mr. Park’s wincing at the dead Guen-Sae’s smell is the final trigger that propels Mr. Kim to cross the line into violence.
Both Parasite and Us link trauma and violence with the use of Native American imagery. The fun-house on the Santa Monica beach in Us has a stereotyped and offensive painting of a tribal chief. The Parks’ son Da-Song is obsessed with Native culture, prompting Mr. Park to coerce Mr. Kim into wearing a headdress to the child’s party. This imagery is a powerful symbol of oppression, marginalization and the willful silence of the elite.
Furthermore, like The Tethered, the Parks and the Kims are mirrors of each other — two parents, one son and one daughter. I genuinely expected the Kims to take on the identity of the Parks, after all Jessica had secured all their personal details. Perhaps the documents were lost in the catastrophic flood which left the Kims wading in literal shit and gave the audience an iconic shot of Jessica sitting on an overflowing toilet, casually smoking a cigarette. There is chaos all around her, but in that moment she has clarity of the situation and her place in it. The cigarette is satisfying and the scene is a perfect portrayal of the late Roger Scruton’s observation that “People who smoke have a ready way of putting themselves at ease, of standing back from the world of troubles and taking benign stock of it.”
There is something heartbreaking about the ease with which the Mr. Kim quickly slips into the role and habitation of Guen-Sae. The role reversal is not all that surprising to the astute viewer who realizes that the man hiding in the basement was once Mr. Kim’s boss. Guen-Sae talks of the loss of his business “Taiwanese Castella”, a cake shop which bankrupted him. The same bakery Mr. Kim worked for after being a valet. Guen-Sae may be dead, but the cycle continues breeding new bottom-feeders and creating new prisoners.
For the film’s ending, Bong Joon Ho destroys his audience — Kevin will never be able to afford to buy the house that will enable his father to “simply walk up the stairs”. We know it, and the protagonists do too.
So why does Mr. Kim decide to stay in the house? Turning himself in to the police would afford him benefits of outdoor exercise, a chance to receive visits from his family, hell he would even have some human contact with fellow prisoners and guards. But his choice to remain in the basement is perhaps the strongest message that this film delivers. As parasites unable to remove ourselves from our host-system — our choice, it seems, is to dwell in the prisons of our own making.