Critiques of Class Aspirationalism and Social Division in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite

by Megan Todd

  1. Introduction

Across his films, director Bong Joon-ho is known for his social commentary pertaining to inequality between social classes and how poverty changes people in dire circumstances. From previous films Snowpiercer, Mother, and Okja—Bong has told stories from the perspectives of people in poverty and the challenges they face but has also managed to portray it in very different ways each reflecting the societal norms of where the films take place. These recurring themes of class conflict, economic and social inequality are prevalent in Parasite, Bong’s latest feature film, which reflects on the division between the rich and poor. Released in 2019 and the recipient of Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards, Parasite tells the story of a poor family of four that scheme their way into the lives and home of a wealthy family by gaining employment as their staff members, but not without facing the brutal consequences. Parasite critiques the ideals of class “aspirationalism,” while commenting on the political divide of the social and economic disparity between the two families. Bong Joon-ho also uses subtle mise-en-scène directorial techniques to illustrate the symbolism of the staircase construct throughout the film, as a symbol of hope.

Parasite follows the Kim family— mother and father Chung-sook and Ki-taek, and son and daughter Ki-woo and Ki-jung. At the start of the film, they reside in a small semi-basement apartment, just barely being able to view the street level and live in poverty. When Min-hyuk, Ki-woo’s friend leaves to study abroad, he suggests that Ki-woo take over his job as an English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy family. Ki-woo agrees, and when he is hired by the Parks as a tutor, the Kim family slowly form a scheme to infiltrate the Park’s lives by recommending each other services acting as unrelated workers—Ki-jung as an art therapist, Ki-taek as the chauffeur, and Chung-sook as their new housekeeper. In the process, they get rid of the previous workers that held the positions, including Moon-gwang, the old housekeeper, who eventually comes back for something she left behind, resulting in brutal consequences for the Kims.

  1. Class Aspirationalism and the Lack of Class Solidarity

One of the most important exchanges from Parasite is the notion that it is easy to be nicer when one is rich. When someone is considered rich, it’s much easier for them to be generous towards others, and that in itself translates to being nice. However, it’s much more difficult to be generous to others when one is considered poor. In the middle of the film, the Kim family, after having successfully infiltrated the Park family’s home, celebrate their victory, and begin to discuss the nature of the Park family. Ki-taek makes a comment about Yeon-gyo, the mother of the Park family, stating: “She’s so naive, and nice. She’s rich, but still nice” with Chung-sook replying “Not ‘rich, but still nice.’ Nice because she’s rich. You know? Hell, if I had all this money, I’d be nice too” (Parasite 0:59:03). This exchange demonstrates how the Kims view the Park family, in contrast to their own poor living situation.

For the Kims, it’s closer to a dog-eats-dog style of living, which is when people will do whatever it takes to come out on top, even if what they do harms others. This is shown when the Kims mercilessly got the previous chauffeur and housekeeper fired, motivated by their own aspirations to do whatever it takes to infiltrate the Parks at any opportunity they get. “But over time, in the advanced capitalist world, those barriers have gradually been lowered or removed, so that now opportunity is more equally available than ever before. The inequality that exists today, therefore, derives less from the unequal availability of opportunity than it does from the unequal ability to exploit opportunity” (Muller 33). The Kims are very opportunistic and clever, and while they do not have the opportunities that having wealth would give them, they exploit whatever opportunities they can as a means of survival— this opportunity coming in the form of a single job opening, and as a result, an opening for the Kim family to leech off of the oblivious Parks.

The Kims’ plan to infiltrate the Park family’s home involves getting their existing housekeeper Moon-gwang fired in order for Chung-sook to take her place. However, it falls apart when Moon-gwang returns to get her husband who has been hiding from debt-collectors underneath the Park family’s home in a secret sub-basement unbeknownst to the Parks. Moon-gwang begs for Chung-sook’s help to keep her husband hidden, making the appeal that they are from the same social class and that they should look out for one another, stating, “As fellow members of the needy, please don’t” (Parasite 1:09:35). Then, when the tables turn and the housekeeper gains the upper hand, Chung-sook begins to beg for mercy and attempts to make the same requests for solidarity as Moon-gwang did before, only to be refused with the same contempt that she gave Moon-gwang. It’s a display of irony, because both groups in actuality have similar interests as poor families trying to survive. But neither family is rich, so they can’t afford to be nice, and due to that, there is an absence of class solidarity.

  1. Struggles of Social and Economic Inequality

The wealthy Park family live an untroubled, comfortable existence, oblivious to any struggles that people of the lower class may have. They have a housekeeper to clean up after them, a chauffeur to drive them to and from, and at home academic support for their children. When the Kims scheme their way into the Parks’ lives, the oblivious Parks fall into their ruse as the Kims make themselves out to be highly qualified individuals. The Parks hire them for the sake of convenience— because they cannot be bothered to do things for themselves, and simply because they have the money to pay for things to be done for them. “The growth of market-oriented households and what came to be called ‘commercial society’ had profound implications for practically every aspect of human activity” (Muller 31). The Parks are reliant on the service of others, and cannot be bothered to do things for themselves when they can pay for someone else to do it for them. In a conversation between Mr and Mrs Park where they are referring to the tent that their son Da-song is playing in, during a storm, Mr Park asks: “Is that tent going to leak?” to which Mrs Park replies: “We ordered it from the U.S, it should be fine” (Parasite 1:26:55). This is one example of their reliance on goods, and carefree attitude, in this case that imported American products are superior, and therefore worth the money.

In stark contrast, at the beginning of the film we see the Kim family struggling to make ends meet by folding pizza boxes as a temporary low paying job. They are desperate in their struggle for money, and when they eventually find themselves working for the Parks, they are in awe to see how the wealthy family lives. “This conflict is global rather than local, and large scale rather than small scale; it does not pit this particular capitalist against this particular group of workers, but rather capitalists as a class versus workers as a class” (Arnold 116). For the majority of the film, the Kims do not see the Parks as a malevolent adversary—they instead see them as naive and easy to take advantage of, while at the same time, the Parks take advantage of the fact that they have human beings at their disposal, willing to cater to their every whim. The Kims instead face Moon-gwang and her husband as their adversary, who ironically have been leeching off of the Parks as well, only in a different way. The Kims are antagonized by the housekeeper and her husband, who while also belonging to the same economic class, see each other as rivals competing for the graces of the Parks, and it isn’t until the end that the Kims see their true adversary all along—the Parks. “The relationship between politics and film is scarcely a one-way street: the political system interacts directly with the world of film in a variety of ways” (Haas 62). In Parasite, the political point that Bong is making of critiquing the wealth disparity is clear from the start, and it is highlighted by showcasing the actions of the three families.

  1. Composition and Symbolism

According to Elizabeth Haas et al., authors of Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films, film directors are the determining factor for the many visual and aural aspects of a movie, including the choice of shots, camera angles, lighting, light filters, composition, and editing (Haas 35). Director Bong Joon-ho makes use of these mise-en-scène techniques in Parasite through his intentional choice of shots, lighting, and overall composition in the film, illustrating the theme of the upstairs-downstairs concept. The staircase is used as consistent symbolism throughout the film, representing the divisions of social class and the power struggle that lurks beneath it, both metaphorically, and literally. It uses the idea of the staircase as a visual signifier for the social classes of where the characters live—the Parks, in their above ground mansion, the Kims, in their semi-basement apartment, and Moon-gwang’s husband living hidden inside the sub-basement completely underground.

 Bong also uses various forms of lighting techniques throughout the film that aid in the metaphorical divisions of class— “Filters may be used in conjunction with various sorts of lenses that distort the natural colors in a scene. All these effects can enhance the potential political impact of a scene” (Haas 42). The Parks live in a large, beautiful house that has wide open windows that are filled with sunlight and is situated above a large hill, overlooking the rest of the neighbourhood, as they serve as a representation of the upper class. Meanwhile, Moon-gwang’s husband, who represents the lowest class, lives in the basement that is devoid of any sunlight completely. The Kims, however, represent the in-between state, living in their semi-basement apartment, and have a small window just barely viewing the street level. While they also live underground like the housekeeper’s husband, they get some light through the window, representing a symbol of hope. Hope presents itself as the driving force for the characters in the film, and it is visually signified through the sunlight from the window. The opening and closing shots of the film both emphasize the light from the window before moving down to show Ki-woo, who, throughout the film, desperately idealizes a better life outside the window.

  1. Conclusion

Parasite tells a story that comes full circle, to an everlasting struggle between the upper class and lower class. Bong Joon-ho successfully portrays the idealizations of the upper class, and the outcomes that occur in the absence of class solidarity. In the character’s actions over the course of the film, Bong showcases the aspirations of the Kim family, by demonstrating the dog-eats-dog way of thought, and the opportunistic greed that motivates both poor families in their goals to earn the Parks favour. The social and economic disparity throughout Parasite is highlighted through its characters and actions, and critiqued through Bong’s social commentary on the growing wealth disparity between the rich and the poor. Furthermore, Bong utilizes various directorial techniques to impactfully display the divide of social classes, including the usage of intentional lighting, camera angles, and shot compositions throughout the film. Using these mise-en-scène techniques as visual signifiers to the audience, Bong is able to convey the symbolism of hope in the form of light, and the usage in visuals of the staircase to portray the difference and inequity in social classes. The political motive of the film is clear— it seeks to question the very distinction of social class and the qualities that come along with the unjust distribution of economic power.

Works Cited

Arnold, Samuel. “Capitalism, Class Conflict, and Domination.” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 31, no. 1, 2017, pp. 106-124.

Haas, Elizabeth, et al. “Chapter 2: The Making of a Message: Film Production and Techniques, and Political Messages.” Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films, Routledge, 2015.

Haas, Elizabeth, et al. “Chapter 3: Causes and Special Effects: The Political Environment of Film.” Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films, Routledge, 2015.

Muller, Jerry Z. “Capitalism and Inequality: What the Right and the Left Get Wrong.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 92, no. 2, 2013, pp. 30–51.

Parasite. Dir. Bong Joon-ho. CJ Entertainment, 2019.