Parasite: A Social Commentary About the Deceptive Perspective of the Elite and Misfortunate

Sophie Diego

  1. Introduction

The ideology of social equity among all social classes will oftentimes paint a picture of a politically friendly country to its civilians or foreigners. In actuality, the belief of equality may not be the forefront issue for a number of governments, as “some will only serve the interests of a ruling or dominant force in society,” (Hall et al. 5). The government’s reason could be viewed as propagandistic, in order to “sharpen and focus existing trends and beliefs,” of upkeeping the illusion of an all welcoming country, which can, in turn, benefit the country’s economy, tourism, and political relations with other nations (Cull et al. 5). Parasite, a 2019 Oscar-winning film directed by the acclaimed Bong Joon Ho, is interpreted as a social commentary that analyses this deceiving ideology of equity. Class conflict is an integral theme in Ho’s movie. The film depicts the disparity gap between the elite and the lower class by comparing two of its main character archetypes: the upper-class family of the Parks and the working-class family of the Kims. While the movie is produced and set in South Korea,  Ho makes it clear that the theme of social class conflict is universal. By displaying the lack of equity between the two social classes, Parasite aims to reinstate the message that the notion of equality will always be skewed to that of the rich.

To demonstrate the film’s perspective on the wealth disparity between the elite and the lower class, this essay will delve into why this gap is not effectively addressed and remedied. This can be addressed for two reasons. Firstly, to attain the greater good of society as a whole, sacrifices must be made. Secondly, the relationship between the two opposing social classes is seen as a symbiotic relationship- in which political officials must not interfere. In conclusion, Ho concludes that these two beliefs are seen as problematic and unchangeable- which is why such a gap will forever be omnipresent in society.

  1. The Myth of Climbing Up the Social Ladder

The social hierarchy of the elite, working-class, and the poor is universal on a global scale. In America, the structure of its class system is “essential to the concept of upward mobility in the American Dream,” and “provide obstacles to raising upward through the classes,” (Jewett 18). This notion of moving between social classes is a key theme in Parasite, which is explained through the location.

Ho creates differing mise en scenes to depict the contrasting environments of the Parks and the Kims. Ki-taek, the father; Chung-sook, the mother; Ki-Jung, the daughter and Ki-woo, the son are known as the Kim family, who live in a semi-basement apartment. They share their neighbor’s wifi, have low paying jobs constructing pizza boxes, and live amongst stink bugs. This specific mise en scene can be mirrored to that of Brillante Mendoza’s work, a Filipino director whose filmography is primarily concerned with documenting the poor in Manilla.

In Mendoza’s films, “the cramped,  labyrinthine spaces of the mise-en-scène suggest entrapment.  The constant motion by the characters through these constricted spaces gives the impression that they are moving in circles without any possibility of fleeing or transcending their situation,” (Gonzaga 111). Additionally, the only source of light is the line of windows near the ceiling in which they are constantly looking up into-whether to view the sun or to have a glance at their neighborhood. These high ceiling windows of their miniature apartment complex signifies their hope to someday crawl out of their disadvantageous social status.

When Ki-woo treks up into the villas on the hillside for a job interview, the mise-en-scene changes dramatically- from crowded storefronts and tightly knit houses to dirt absent roads, large mansions with beautiful green scenery. The Park family mansion is the direct opposite from the semi-basement apartment. Ki-woo is astonished to see vast green lawns, windows that act like walls, and largely spaced rooms and hallways. The Kim’s aspirations to climb out of their lower-class status can be summarized through Ki-woo’s forged university document. He uses the fake information in his resume to work for the Parks.“I don’t think of this as forgery or crime,” Ki-Woo says to his Ki-taek. “I’ll go to this university next year,” (Parasite 12:03-12:37).

As soon as Ho-the director of the film- showcases the universally held hope of climbing up the social ladder for the working class, he unveils the grim reality of it through the most poignant moment of the film: the rain scene. The effects of such an intense rainstorm result in different problems for both families. For the Park family, it serves a mild inconvenience to their camping trip. However, for the Kim family, the rain has flooded their semi-basement to the point of it being unsuitable for living. Through this scene, Ho addresses the hierarchy of the social class system literally through the urban planning of the city that the Kims and the Parks both reside in. If the geography of the city that the Kim and Park family lived in was flat and level, then the rain would have equally flooded both houses. The landscape of Parasite is “shown to serve as an instrument of social control,” and “often exerted as part of a hegemonic, and work in the interests of powerful groups,” (Yiftachel 419). The rain scene diminishes the hope of upward mobility between social classes. The flow of water from the upscale mansions to the low ground neighborhoods represents the impossible nature of trying to swim ‘against the current.’ The water forcibly drives any outsider lingering where they don’t belong to where they do belong.

Additionally, the rain scene is reflective of how the lower class sacrifice their own well being to accommodate the needs of the elite. Without the low ground neighborhoods, the way of living for the upper class becomes vulnerable to natural disasters. Ho does not showcase any government response towards the flooding of the Kim family neighborhood, but he portrays their problems as quickly ignored as the family is urged to work overtime right after the rainstorm.

  1. Parasitic, Not Symbiotic: The Relationship between the Rich and the Poor

The roles that the elite and the lower class perform are seen as complementary in some respects. The Parks rely on the Kims to drive them to places, clean the house, and tutor their children. Their dependence on the Kims is not only indicative of their excessive wealth- but to show that the elite should not be tasked to do commoner’s work so that they can continue to carry their aura of prestige. This is exemplified through a scene in which Chung-Sook shares her opinion of Choi Yeon-gyo, the matriarch of the Park family. She is “not rich, but still nice; but nice because she’s rich,” (Parasite 59:15-59:30). Chung-Sook isn’t reflective of Choi-Yeon-gyo solely, but the entire family. The Park family are nice, kind, and hospitable because they do not have to concern themselves doing the dirty work to maintain their reputation.

The lower class is dependent on the elite. Throughout Parasite, the Kim family scams the Park family into firing their previous employees in order to take their jobs. By successfully getting a position at the Park family estate, they are in turn given higher pay than their former jobs, a place to stay outside of their decrepit home, food, and access to luxuries such as expensive alcohol that they would not have access to formerly. Ki-taek, the leader of the Kim family, summarizes their heavy dependence on the Parks: “If we put our 4 salaries together, the amount of cash coming from that house into ours is immense! Let’s offer a prayer of gratitude to the great Mr. Park,” (Parasite 53:00-53:20). Not only is the Kim family dependent on the Parks, but also former housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang and her husband Oh Geun-sae- which were revealed to be living in the Park’s makeshift bomb shelter in the latter twist of the film. They rely on the Park family house for shelter and food. Oh Geun-sae repeatedly professes his gratitude towards his elitist sponsors as he exclaims, “Mr. Park you feed me and house me, Respect!” (Parasite 01:21:00-01:21:30).

Superficially, the relationship between the Parks and Kims is seen as symbiotic before the main twist of the movie occurs. The Parks live a carefree life as they enjoy their elitist privileges to the fullest extent. As a result of their enhanced way of living, “they are likely to occupy positions of influence and elevated status. Upper-class individuals should be more likely to experience an elevated sense of personal control,” (Kraus et al. 551). For the Kims, they are able to enjoy the pleasantries of life, including stable jobs with good pay with some added benefits on the side. The advantages posed on both sides of the social class spectrum, there creates a symbiosis, in which the government need not interfere. If these two opposing economic levels are able to find harmony in each other, then there is no reason to try and alleviate the problems of the lower class or take away the privileges of the upper class.

However, Ho makes it clear that while the relationship between the two social classes may seem symbiotic on a superficial level, it is always the lower class that gets the smaller half. For instance, Ki-Woo makes a comment about the guests at the Park’s celebratory party: “Everyone looks gorgeous. Even for a sudden gathering…” and then asks if he truly belongs in this setting (Parasite 1:46:08-1:46:40). Parasite is firm in relaying the message of social disconnect as a universal social problem. “Class related expectations of threat and social rejection are likely to predict reduced feelings of belonging at universities or social institutions primarily dominated by upper-class individuals and a potential lack of trust of government officials or political leaders,” (Kraus et al. 551).

This theme of alienation is exemplified when Ki-taek decides to stab Mr. Park during the climax. This scene, all filmed in slow motion, is to give attention to Mr. Kim’s realization that the reputation of the rich and the poor are never to be confused or intermingled. The upper class will always have an air of dignity and a cleanly nature while the ones below will forever be undignified and dirty. Ki-Woo’s sense of estrangement and Ki-taek’s realization that the social ladder is unclimbable and unchangeable reflects on the true parasitic nature of the two families’ relationship. No matter how alluring the advantages are for both social classes, the poor will always carry a lowly reputation- which will forever be detrimental to their future.

  1. Conclusion

The ending is powerfully symbolic- as it clearly states the overall premise of the film. In the time slot 2:00:34, it is revealed that Ki-taek is hiding in the Park’s underground bunker from the police. Ki-Woo, while writing a letter to his father, says that he will work hard to get rich- and buy the Park estate so all that K-taek will have to do is safely walk out of the basement. However, this scene is not the final ending of Parasite, rather it cuts back to their semi-basement home- which is coincidentally the first shot of the movie. This concluding scene destroys any hope audiences may have that the Kim family managed to escape their lower-class status.

The ending reinstates the overall message of the film, in which Parasite becomes a story of a pattern never-ending: the unfortunate will continue to work hard to survive and the exceedingly wealthy will continue to live, blinded by their own privileges. The notion of the American dream, through Ho’s vision, is a way for the lower class to tend to the needs of the wealthy-by allowing them to see the exuberant and the carefree life that seems within reach. However, Ho makes it clear that such a transition from poor to prosperous is not as seamless as one might think. Society is held together by maintaining reputations. If someone is acting out of place, society will remind them of where they belong, as seen in the rain scene and through Ki-taek’s feelings of alienation. Parasite aims to unveil the dismal reality of the government’s belief that social class is an economic asset; designed to create a superficial harmony between two opposing classes and an unattainable dream that the poor can never achieve.

Works Cited

Cull, Nicholas J, et al. Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present. ABC-CLIO, 2003.

Gonzaga, Elmo. “The Cinematographic Unconscious of Slum Voyeurism.” Cinema Journal, vol. 56, no. 4, 2017, pp. 102-125.

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

Ho, Bong Joon, director. Parasite. CJ Entertainment, 2019.

Jewett, Shawn M. Does America Still Love the One Percent?: An Exegesis of Evolving Representations of the Upper Class in Post Recessionary American Films, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017.

Kraus, Michael W., et al. “Social Class, Solipsism, and Contextualism: How the Rich are Different from the Poor.” Psychological Review, vol. 119, no. 3, 2012, pp. 546-572.

Yiftachel, Oren. “Social Control, Urban Planning and Ethno‐class Relations: Mizrahi Jews in Israel’s ‘Development Towns’.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 24, no. 2, 2000, pp. 418-438.