Born to Fail: An In-depth Look at the Politics and Social Classes of Parasite

by Joseph Natividad

Parasite (2019) is a film from South Korea, directed by Bong Joon-ho, which has won multiple awards while also becoming the first non-English film to ever receive an Oscar for best picture. The movie is highly regarded internationally for good reason, Bong Joon-ho is not shy from telling social and political issues through this film by bringing light to two distinctly different classes in South Korea. The film itself is low with political content, however, the political intent is high with messages that may seem hidden at first but become obvious once it is analyzed deeper. Bong Joon-ho aims at the lower and higher classes to address the issues minorities in the lower classes will face, by analyzing the characters of the movie, cinematography, dialogue, and background details more ideas of class conflict align with problems that plague politics. He also uses the movie convention personalization to get his message across by focusing on the individual drama of the families while also showing the true intention and problem with social class conflict.

Bong Jong-ho has created a controversial world within Parasite that looks to represent the lower classes of South Korea and change the stereotype of what the poverty-stricken families are like. An example of a stereotype in films would be from the misrepresentation of tribes in Kerala as they have been “subhuman by highlighting their lack of hygiene, loose sexual mores, and miserable living conditions” (Divakaran, 2017). Bong Jong-ho instead of following stereotypes like this seeks to show that the lower classes being “lazy” is not the reason for their living situations and avoids misrepresenting them, rather he shows that the true reason for what causes them to live in poverty. Access to necessities, education, money, and opportunities are all things that plague the lower classes, each factor directly affects the other so if one piece is missing the rest of them are compromised. The characters in the film face these difficulties and are represented in this way to bring to light the issue of social class conflict, to create discussion, and ultimately affect the way politics are involved.

The setup for the characters of the film is unique and offers important details to help the progress of Bong Joon-ho’s story and message. The Kim’s represent the lower class, while the Park’s represent the higher class in South Korea. Both families sport the typical four-member household with one father, one mother, one son, and one daughter this is to mirror and compare the two family’s ways of life. In the beginning of the movie, the Kim family is introduced through a sweeping shot of the individual members of the family moving through the house first focusing on the main character of the story Ki-Woo (the son), then on to Ki-Jung (the daughter) eventually making it to the Ki-taek (the father) and Chung-sook (the mother). The scene is made up of a composition of shots that make it seem rough to represent the living conditions the family under. During this introduction of the family, a glimpse of the Chung-sook’s past is revealed through an award she received for a sport. The same thing happens with the Park family as they are introduced to the audience for the first time showing off the achievements that Dong-ik (the father) has accomplished. Once again, the composition of shots that introduce the Park family is made up differently than the Kim’s, the shots are sleek, smooth, and even elegant to represent the high-class nature of the family. The reason why this small detail is important is that it highlights the difference in their achievements and the so-called “worth” of both. It features this to show that with their achievements one is more valuable than the other contributing to the class they currently belong in. Dong-ik’s award was in the form of paper while Chung-sook’s achievement was a medal, Bong Jong-ho shows the audience that certificates in the eyes of the world is an important object you must possess.

Bong Jong-ho makes it apparent that certificates in his world are an important object that is fanaticized by those in the lower class as it is a means to make their way up the social ladder. This is made clear when Ki-woo nervously takes up the offer to interview for the tutoring position his friend is giving up when he speaks about his lack of a degree. Ki-woo is surprised to hear later from Yeon-gyo (the mother of the Park’s) that the certificate is isn’t important as long as he’s able to meet the quality of his friends’ tutoring. Later, once the entire family has made their way into the Park home when analyzing the situation, it is apparent that Bong Jong-ho is trying to convey a message about degrees and certifications. The reason why the Kim’s were so easily able to make their way into the home was a mix of deceit and capable skills of the jobs they inherited. The message becomes clear that Bong Jong-ho is conveying that the ability of the person is more important than the certificates that they require, that people living in the lower class rarely get the opportunity to display their abilities due to the lack of money. Politics plays a part in this idea of education as Bong Jong-ho shows that to achieve higher education, money is required to obtain a degree. Education in the eyes of Bong Jong-ho is something that should be accessible, but the limitations of money stop them from reaching and achieving something more. It is even quoted by Ki-woo that when he receives enough money from the job, he would get a real degree, just that he “printed it out the document a little early”. He and the rest of his family are merely acting the part of their respective jobs however are doing it with professionality and mere skill. This one of the moments the movie convention personalization is most apparent as it is a means of showing his struggle to afford to go to school while highlighting the bigger picture of why he cannot afford it. “Movies with political subject matter frequently focus on the individual drama of politically active roles, which tends to make them more palatable to mass audiences” (Haas et al., 2015).

This idea of the lower class struggling and living under the rich continues further than just this detail. If we rewind to the beginning of the movie the Kim’s can be noted to be struggling with work and human necessities like WIFI, this seems to be a fact that many overlook that there is a reality where people lack access to a simple thing. WIFI in Bong Jong-ho’s world is essential to living as it is the means of communication of receiving jobs and work, Chung-sook is worried that she will miss the message on Whatsapp about the pizza box folding job. The weight of not getting the message or even replying too late puts a lot on her as it has become their only source of income, characters like her and Moun-Gwang are consistently worrying about the future and how they’ll be able to survive the world. The poor are working hard to make ends meet, while the rich ignorant and naïve fail to see the wrong in the world, labour and chores are lowly work meant for those who are in the lower classes. Bong Jong-ho has created grounds for discussion for politics with this example as it rethinks what is essential nowadays to the average person. The internet has become a necessity and helps with the topic of how accessible it should be, just like water, food, shelter, clothes, and money are all human rights the internet has become just as essential to living in Bong Jong-ho’s world and the real world.

The division of class is not just limited to how the characters act and what objects they possess but there is also the message behind the setting and place that portray the difference. The house itself is a representation of the two classes, the higher class is the actual house, while the basement is the lower class. This detail is obvious and easy to point out however when analyzing the details behind Moun-Gwang (the original housekeeper) and Geun-sae (the husband of the housekeeper), it shows the reality of poor families in South Korea. The reality is that these types of people are either being ignored or go unseen by the public and rich. Bong Jong-ho created this environment to show the audience that it is not an extreme idea but is closer to reality than the viewers would like to think.

The basement also acts as a ground to create conflict between the couple and the Kim’s, as the viewer on the surface we see that the couple attempts to blackmail the Kim’s to take back their place as the ones who receive from the rich. What the scene shows us is that the conflict of social classes is often time between those in the lower classes fighting for a chance to appeal to the upper classes. The film takes advantage of this idea and realizes that the “patterns of the filmic apparatus are highly influenced by the dominant ideology and are always constructing images of people, places, beliefs and ideas” (Divakaran, 2017). The film takes a jab at politics as often people of power of leaned towards the favour of the upper class as it gains them more money, and by directing the problems the lower classes face at each other they have to problem gaining support against another minority group.

Towards the end of the movie, the realization of this is what overwhelms the majority of the characters, each member of the Kim family experiences the result of the conflict of the lower classes. Ki-woo overwhelmed with the thoughts of losing the opportunity he has attempts to murder Geun-sae, however, he is instead put into a coma and receives brain damage from the various weapon he was going to use. Ki-Jung is murdered by Geun-sae and isn’t helped by any of the rich people witnessing the event, Chung-sook struggles in a fight with Geun-sae with no one helping restrain ultimately murdering him. Lastly, Ki-taek snaps at the thought of Dong-ik having no concern over Ki-Jung and the reaction he makes when trying to retrieve the keys from under Geun-sae. The events that take place just show how much social class conflict is a matter between the lower classes while the upper class ignores and remain naïve to the situations around them.

Bong Jong-ho has created a world that reflects the social class conflicts of the real world and properly representing the lower class with the struggles they experience. Parasite is a movie to challenge these ideas and create discussion about these problems to help those who are working hard but not receiving what they deserve. In conclusion, this film has political content that is low, however, it has high intent and has achieved its goal of producing talk amongst people globally about these topics and issues.

Work Cited

Divakaran, RVM. “cultural Minorities and the Panoptic Gaze: A Study of the (Mis)Representation of Ethnic Minorities in Malayalam Films.” The Journal of Education, Culture, and Society, vol. 8, no. 2, 2017, pp. 240-248.

Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films, Routledge, 2015.