by Momin Areeb Khan
The Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) chooses to define social class as “contrasting levels of objective economic and social resources” and is “measured using indices of educational attainment, annual income, and occupation status” (Krauss et al. 6). The topic of social class conflict and division is a reoccurring theme in films throughout the past century. It is a theme that is present through several genres and is used in certain instances to drive the narrative of the story. Bong Joon-Ho’s dark comedy thriller Parasite (2019) offers an interesting reflection on modern tribulations occurring between different social classes in developing and developed regions in the world. The story of Parasite’s Kim family serves as a reflective backdrop of the unfortunate situations that certain members of our society must adhere to.
Parasite touches upon several themes and concepts as the film introduces discussions revolving around the unifying theme of class division in society. Although the question regarding how much of modern-day politics has to do with social class division is not directly addressed and is instead left unanswered, it is up to the audience to form their own interpretation of the matter. This is probably due to Parasite being a film exhibiting low political content and high political intent, making it a political auteur film. The film delivers a defined contrast between the conditions each family is facing regarding their status in the socioeconomic pyramid.
An idea that Parasite invites its audience to think on is the idea that individuals and their future generations are most likely to stay in the socioeconomic class that they were brought up in for the duration of their life, mainly due to socioeconomic barriers and pressure in society. This idea is supported by the fact that there is no social climbing taking place from the Kim family, the less fortunate in the film, and that there is not much they can do to genuinely change their situation. This concept works for the far more fortunate Park family as well, which proposes that as a result of the family’s high socioeconomic status, their children are set up for success and they have very little room for error. This is a concept that has heavy significance in the real world and is successfully reflected upon in the film itself. The goal of this paper is to further analyze and explain the concept that socioeconomic pressure restricts individuals and their future generations from social mobility. This paper will support this thesis using academic inferences and references to Parasite and will ultimately attempt to tie the real-world subject together with the films’ message.
Class Struggle and Division
The topic of class struggle and division is a theme that has significant historical relevance throughout the history of film. It is a concept visited upon by all genres throughout the past century of film and acts as a medium of communicating the socioeconomic values and struggles of the time using characters originating from different social classes and conditions. These films utilize the social class division as the main conflict that drives the story and is usually displayed through the hostile sentiment the lower classes possess against the upper classes.
Parasite is a story involving two very distinct groups of characters that are illustrated on-screen in separate ways. Different visuals and environments constitute how the lower-class Kim family is perceived in comparison to the far more fortunate Park family. Part of this difference in on-screen display consists of the different cinematic elements used to distinguish the presence and feelings between the two families of differing social classes. A few of the cinematic elements that the filmmakers utilized significantly to amplify the contrast between both groups are lighting, the symbolism of the setting, colours, and several more. These elements are also used to support the narrative of the rising conflict between the families as the film approaches its climax.
Christopher Beach in his book Class, Language, and American Film Comedy, describes that the romantic comedies of the mid-1930s to early 1940s were “highly ambivalent in their exploration of social class, social conformism, and the establishment of social order” (48). Beach also signifies the increasing pressures between the working and wealthy classes. He goes onto explain that the reason why socially-focused movies concentrated on siding with the lower and middle classes because those were the classes that theatre audiences mainly consisted of. Beach explains how “any naively positive view of the upper classes would have proved unacceptable to many, if not most, contemporary viewers” (49). He continues to express that antagonistic behaviour towards the upper classes has been a very significant mindset amongst lower-class and middle-class audiences since the 1930s (49). These underlying values in modern-day cinema, established by past norms, make it clear that there is a significant negative outlook on the upper classes in films.
Lighting is frequently used in Parasite to convey strong definitions of atmosphere and mood. The application of lighting in the film varies for each family allowing for a visual contrast that supports the narrative of the main conflict. The Kim family’s first appearance (5:12) gives the audience a good idea of their living conditions and lighting plays an essential role in capturing the atmosphere. The Kim family is limited with their freedom with light as minimal sunlight reaches their apartment because of their semi-basement window forcing them to resort to using technical lighting for basic function. When Ki-woo of the poorer Kim family gets to view the Park family’s house (21:23) on the other hand, he sees that they get to enjoy substantial sunlight through their uphill oriented, open windowed house and is astonished by what he sees. The contrast in applications of lighting and the characters’ reactions to the differences effectively set up the rising tension between the two families.
Symbolism plays an important role in this film and is present in the movie for the audience to make their own connections and analysis. An element of symbolism that is reoccurring in Parasite is the visual representation of staircases in scenes. The staircase in Parasite holds two different meanings. A character descending a staircase, for example, the descending staircase into the Kim family’s home, is an indication of entering an environment of the lower class. The descending staircase correlates to a state of class demotion. In the instance a character is ascending a flight of stairs, they are transitioning into a higher social class environment, communication a state of class promotion. This plays well with the placement of each family home, as the Kim family is situated downhill and the Park family is situated uphill. The presence of two definitions to the stairs further supports the existence of a contrast between the families’ lives and introduces the theme of duality.
The technical features of cinematography used in the film that we have discussed work to define an obvious contrast between the two families. These technical elements are all viewed from the perspective of the Kim family. The Kim family is amazed by how the upper class is living as they become aware of the differences in social values that are required to belong to this group. The Kim family is also aware of the differences they have with the Park family and they use this to their advantage initially, but as the film reaches its climax, this defined contrast stretches into a conflict with one another. These elements of the film in turn work to set up the framework of the political theme we wish to discuss and that is the political theme of socioeconomic class division and retainment.
The previous sections in this paper have set up the main framework for this paper’s thesis; explaining that there are underlying ideas in film history that work towards an agenda against the upper class and that Parasite follows through with this idea by setting the lower class as the main protagonists as they exploit the upper class for their own gain. Now that we have acknowledged that a clear antagonistic view towards the upper class in cinema exists and that parasite uses specific cinematic elements to further define the contrast between both groups, we will begin to analyze the implications of these differences through academic references and Parasite’s climax.
The IRLE goes on to explain that “Together, education, income, and occupation status represent the material substance of the social class and shape the life-trajectories of individuals in profound ways” (Krauss et al. 6). This further supports how the social class an individual comes from greatly influences the course of their life. Looking closely at the children in both families in Parasite, this judgment checks out. Ki-Woo and Ki-Jeong of the Kim family are remarkably intelligent individuals and take after their parents’ resourcefulness and quick thinking. Despite holding these advantageous traits, it still appears that they are bound to their low social status as they try to make ends meet for their family without holding any higher education. The only way that the Kim family is able to secure employment is through a social connection through Ki-Woo’s friend Min Hyuk (14:32). This further supports the idea that social mobility is dependent mainly on one’s social circle rather than one’s technical capabilities. This is further detailed in Parasite through the Kim family’s ability to fool the Park family that they are very much qualified for their roles as the Park family doesn’t make an effort to investigate their technical qualifications. All it takes from the Kim family is to find a social fit and niche into the Park family’s household. An instance of this is how Ki-Jeong convinces Yeon-Gyo, the mother of the Park family, that she can be of special help to the Park’s son, Da-Song, through the role of an art therapist, a position she admits to completely making up on the spot (34:56).
The film’s main conflict comes to its climax (100:13) during Da-Song’s birthday party scene as the two families come to fronts with each other directly. Chaos ensues when Geun-Sae escapes from his secret room and exacts revenge on the Kims for killing his wife. As Ki-Jeong of the Kim family becomes critically injured, the Parks show no acknowledgment for her condition and rush to save their son who is in a state of shock. This scene signifies the social separation and differences between both classes as it is shown how they prioritize one another in a life or death situation.
Through the appropriate historical context allowing us to understand the underlying antagonistic values against the upper classes and then connecting those inferences with cinematography details within Parasite, it is apparent that the film resonates with significant political values regarding differences in socioeconomic classes in society. The film makes a clear effort to distinguish between the two families in the story by using specific storytelling and cinematic techniques. Some of the key cinematic elements the film used to signify the contrast between both families include but are not limited to; visual symbolism, choices in lighting, and colour schemes. Using these techniques combined with the perspective of the Kim family and keeping in mind the social and economic capabilities of each family, the idea that individuals are more likely to stay in the social class they were brought up in is explained to be cleared due to socioeconomic barriers and pressure in society.
Beach, Christopher. Class, Language, and American Film Comedy. Cambridge, 2002.
Krauss, Michael W., et al. “The Inequality of Politics: Social Class Rank and Political Participation.” Institute for Research on Labour and Employment, vol. 120, no.15, 29 April 2015, p. 6
Parasite. Directed by Bong Joon-Ho, CJ Entertainment, 2019