by Jenny Truc Uyen Chung
Meritocracy can be defined as the ideology that one’s status in society is a direct result of one’s individual ability and hard work. Although this ideology may seem like an approach based on one’s perseverance, economic factors also play a part in one’s ability to attain the necessary tools for success. Meritocracy is an impossible ideology to live by as it seeks unrealistic solutions to poverty. With the film industry being society’s most influential platform today, films glorify meritocracy. They often perpetuate unrealistic ideologies of meritocracies’ effectiveness in a capitalist society. This creates this image of those who don’t adopt this mindset or try and fail as lazy and unambitious. This perpetuates unfair ideas that remaining in a lower social class is a choice and that those who don’t adopt the meritocracy ideals are simply unequipped to handle the system of society.
In Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 Oscar-winning film, “Parasite”, Ho outlines the themes of social class and the divides between the poor and the rich. “Parasite” starts by introducing the poor Kim Family; Ki-Woo (Son), Ki-Jeong (Daughter), Ki-Taek (Father), and Chung-Sook (Mother). When Ki-Woo is recommended a job as a tutor for the wealthy Park’s, Ki-woo quickly devises a plan for his family to be employed by the Park family. However, each one of the Kim family would need to lie about their economic class through false employment experiences. Trouble arises when the Kim family’s scheme is later exposed to the former housekeeper, which results in blackmail, violence, and death. The film outlines the major themes of the divide between the rich and the working-class society. As the working-class fights for whatever they can get, the Park family portrays the comfortable life created by the individuals working under them.
Bong Joon Ho’s film explores the themes of social class divides in society. He portrays the impacts of meritocracy through several characters in the film, and through further analytical study, real-world discussions are being brought to life because of this film. A society’s dependence on a merit-based system is a false narrative for lower-class families who wish to climb the class hierarchy. Through my thesis, I will explore themes represented in the film ‘Parasite’ such as societal stigmas against the lower class, capitalism’s impacts on the poor, and how meritocracy may result in cheating for one to achieve success.
2. Stigmas on the Lower Class
Although many don’t want to admit it, class plays a huge part in how we choose to treat someone. This could be visually seen through one’s way of dress, appearance, or how Parasite’s director Ho portrayed it; through physical hygiene specifically, smell. The stigma of the lower class deters society from wanting to elevate those individuals as a result of false prejudices that make lower class society seem dangerous, uneducated, or separate from that of the middle and higher class.
Director Ho’s most impactful metaphors in the film as he mentions the Kim family’s smell. This was first noticed by the Park family’s son, Da-song, who recognized how both his tutor Ki-Jeong, chauffeur Ki-Taek, and housekeeper Chung-Sook had the same smell (Parasite 51:49-52:12). After this shot, the camera quickly cuts to the Kim family at home where they discuss buying separate soaps. This shot’s impactful because the viewer can almost smell what Da-song had detected. In the second cut, it portrayed Ki-Taek wearing a worn-out grey tank top. The gloomy set design of their home as well as the ragged costume design of each family member helps the audience make out an old, and musty odor from this scene. Through further film analysis, one might also notice Ho’s choice to place these two contrasting frames one after another. This could be to show how the Kim family looks in both rich-poor settings. When the Kim family is placed in the Park household, they can assimilate to the Park’s. However, when contrasted to the Kim household, we see how although they could belong in the Park family setting, they aren’t able to belong in the same social class as the Park family because of underlying factors of wealth and their ‘smell’. These two frames were made to show an economic divide between both families. This proves that social status and wealth is more a reflection of where you come from rather than your skills. Although each member of the Kim family had talents to offer the Park family, they would have never gotten the position had they not fabricated past employment experiences.
A scholarly article by Stijn Daenekindt states that “As socially mobile individuals are subject to multiple socialization contexts, they may be confronted with conflicting social norms and different expectations about how to behave and what attitudes or opinions are socially acceptable/viable” (Daenekindt, 2013). The Park’s have their own norms that don’t reflect the Kim’s lifestyle. Therefore, although the Kim’s work hard to find work, the stigma against lower-class individuals, such as their smell, would deter the Park family from ever hiring them if they hadn’t lied about their economic status. This proves that the lower class may not have the means to get proper education or credentials even if they worked hard because of the stigma society has made against the lower class.
3. The Richer Get Richer, and the Poor Get Poorer
In the movie “Parasite” the character Ki-woo dreams of entering university in hopes that one day he can financially support his family. However, this is rebutted as the movie discusses that regardless of meritocracy, social hierarchy is curated so that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. When Ki-woo leaves the house for his interview with the Park’s he says, “Dad. I don’t think of this as forgery or crime. I’ll go to this university next year.” “I just printed the document a bit early” (Parasite, 12:11-12:14). Ki-woo is then displayed walking up to his stairs in a ray of warm and inviting light. This is meant to symbolize his transition to a new world of privilege, wealth, and power through this job opportunity. Ho also displays wider shots of Ki-woo walking up a hill at a lower angle. This offers a perspective that allows Ki-woo to look taller, making him look like he has gained more power being among the rich. Once Ki-woo reaches the Park’s home, rays of hope are shown through blinding light as he walks up the stairs to the Park’s home. This light represents the dream and possibilities related to the Park’s wealth and privilege.
Ho’s movie takes a dark turn as the Kim family is struck by a terrible rainstorm that floods their home. In their last attempt to gather their belongings, Ho captures this resonating scene of the Kim family fleeing their home on a raft. This scene is shot through a bird’s eye view, where the Kim’s family has literally captured the family as lower than the rest of society. With the dark atmosphere, rain, and horrible situation they are in, the audience is reminded of how poor the Kim family is. When contrasting to the scene mentioned before, Ki-woo’s dreams of providing for his family one day seem shattered. This scene shows that once you have reached the lower class, it becomes increasingly difficult to climb the hierarchical ladder due to capitalism even if one chooses to practice meritocracy. During the flood, the Kim family loses their home and is left hopeless as they sleep on the floor of a school gym. Ki-Taek tells Ki-woo, “Ki-woo, you know what kind of plan never fails? No plan at all. No plan. You know why? If you make a plan, life never works that way” “With no plan, nothing can go wrong.” (Parasite 1:39:42 – 1:40:25). The Kim family already struggling to make ends meet then is struck with another loss of their home. “It can be shown that people of different social classes occupy different spaces” says Mark Tomlinson (Tomlinson, 2003). People of the different classes are categorized in different areas of society, and although the Kim family had infiltrated the Park’s higher-class lifestyle, they still belong in the lower-class section of society. The Kim family is poor and will remain poor as society wasn’t built to bring people towards the top, but rather for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer.
4. One’s Cheating Results in One’s Success
Cheating can be defined as “to deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud” (Finn, 2003). Ever since childhood, cheating has been the biggest taboo within the school environment. However, when placed in difficult situations, one may need to cheat in order to gain the necessary resources to achieve success. In the film ‘Parasite’, the Kim family lies to the Park family and as a result, was able to infiltrate and become employed by the Park Family. Ki-woo submits a fake school certificate and continues to chain a trail of lies of each family member’s employment history in order to gain the necessary credentials for each member and the trust of the Park’s. The Kim family shows that when one is in difficult situations amoral acts are required in order to lead individuals towards success.
“Not rich, but still nice. Nice because she’s rich. You? Hell, if I had all this money, I’d be nice too. Even nicer.” (Parasite 59:09 – 59:35) says Chung-sook. She expresses how money is what makes the Park family. Chung-sook insinuates that they are not truly being themself because they haven’t reached the lowest point in society. In this scene, many contrasts are being made in order to show how far off the Kim’s are to ever be belonging in the space the Park’s live in. Ho starts off with a wide shot of the family sitting and lodging near and on the couch after having finished their meal of alcohol and noodles. In this shot, we see most of the family members sitting on the floor with their knees up. Ki-Jeong is on the couch where is lying down with her feet rested on her knee. How each character is posed in this scene, we can see how their lifestyle would require them to have to sit on the floor, and huddle closer to gather because of the lack of space. Through this analysis of character and space, we can understand that the Kim’s don’t belong in the Park’s space and that the only they are in this scenario is because they cheated their way in by deceiving the Park’s. Even if the Kim’s were to work hard have the abilities and merit to do the positions the Park’s required, they would not have never gotten the position because of their economic status.
In the film ‘Parasite’, deceit and social class are the two major themes mentioned through the character development and storyline. Through the film, you can see Ki-woo’s need to provide for his family as he recommends his sister to be Da-song’s art tutor. Ki-woo understands that providing for his family trumps moral integrity. There, he was able to provide his family with opportunities resulting in full employment by the Park family. However, being employed by the Park family shows that although Ki-woo lied about each member’s credentials, they still had the necessary skills to do their intended job, proving that economic status was the only thing standing in the way of the Kim’s being employed or unemployed. Ho provides a political look into social class and that meritocracy is an unfair solution for those in the lower class as capitalist society was built so that hard work doesn’t get you to the top. A society’s dependence on a merit-based system is a false narrative for lower-class families who wish to climb the class hierarchy because of unfair stigmas, lack of opportunities, and the capitalist social hierarchy that refuses to help those at the bottom. The only way to reach the top is by adopting amoral solutions such as cheating, in order to obtain the resources needed for success.
Daenekindt, Stijn, and Henk Roose. “A Mise-En-Scène of the Shattered Habitus: The Effect of Social Mobility on Aesthetic Dispositions Towards Films.” European Sociological Review, vol. 29, no. 1, 2013, pp. 48–59., www.jstor.org/stable/23357104. Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.
Parasite. Director by Bong Joon Ho, Barunson E&A. Youtube, uploaded by Juice Distribution, 4 February 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrvAclWVnOU&t=4072s
Tomlinson, Mark. “Lifestyle and Social Class.” European Sociological Review, vol. 19, no. 1, 2003, pp. 97–111. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3559477. Accessed 21 Mar. 2020.
Finn, Kristin Voelkl, and Michael R. Frone. “Academic Performance and Cheating: Moderating Role of School Identification and Self-Efficacy.” The Journal of Educational Research, vol. 97, no. 3, 2004, pp. 115–122. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27548020. Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.