Four Oscars, Palme d’Or at Cannes, a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and a BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language. These are some of the major film honours that the Korean film Parasite, has won over the last few months. As a viewer, this long list of awards was intimidating. Was I intellectual enough to value and cherish what many had labelled a “cinematic masterpiece”? Immense praise for a film, book or web series often triggers doubt and resistance towards the said content. Maybe this film is not for average viewers, maybe I would end up feeling underwhelmed, I thought. Close to one-and-half hours later, I realised that I was so taken by some sequences in Parasite, that I had been holding my breath. And that’s when director Bong Joon-ho’s comment on overcoming the one-inch barrier of subtitles truly made sense to me.
What’s it about
Set in South Korea, Parasite is the story of two families, or rather the class divide between two families. The Kims live in a semi-basement apartment and struggle to make the ends meet. We are introduced to the family with a brother and sister Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) are scanning every corner of their tiny apartment to score access to free WiFi, no matter if it is 2G. They fold pizza boxes to make a living and leave the windows open when the street outside is being fumigated to score “free” extermination. The Kims are hardworking but good opportunities are hard to come by. So they do what perhaps a lot of people in their situation may do – con a rich family. They fool the Parks into hiring all four of them for various jobs around the household, without revealing that they are related to each other.
Joon-ho’s film has been lauded for its commentary on class divide, and rightly so. The director uses stairs, living spaces and water as metaphors to showcase the socio-economic contrast among the two families. The Kims live in a tiny, partially underground apartment, while the Parks live in a stunning mansion way too big for a family of four and their three dogs. The Kims sleep on the floor, while the Parks occupy the rooms on the first floor of their mansion. In a long sequence, as the Kim family children and their father run back home amidst torrential rains, we see them climbing down numerous staircases, which emphasises on how low lying areas in most cities are often occupied by the less privileged. So during the rain, while the Park’s son sleeps in an imported tent in the lawn on a whim, the Kims house is flooded and destroyed, and they are forced to take refuge in a gymnasium with others who have suffered a similar fate.
The director uses stairs, living spaces and water as metaphors to showcase the socio-economic contrast.
Food and water are used to highlight this difference as well. We see Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), the Kim family head eating a piece of bread that has mould on it. The family is shown eating packaged food on multiple occasion, while in the Park household, plates laden with fresh fruits are offered to visitors, the fridge is packed with food and meat and the family throws a lavish party in their lawn towards the end, with food practically falling off the plates.
Time to check your privilege
The stark contrast between these two families makes you check your privilege and question morality. Are the Kims bad people for conning their employers? They use some cruel tactics to oust the people in the employment of the Parks, so that they can replace them. But if you had to choose between morality ad survival, what would you pick? Which brings us the to bigger question – Is morality a privilege too? As Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), Ki-taek’s wife points out when he praises their masters for being nice people, “they are nice because they are rich.” It isn’t easy to be nice on an empty stomach.
The rich Parks treat their staff very politely, but their smell bothers them, invoking disgust and repulsion in them, pointing out how privilege also affects our senses. Many may feel amused at the Park’s gullibility. How can they hire staff on word of mouth, trusting these employees they barely know with their children and house? But perhaps the Parks are so powerful, they do not see their servants as a threat. Or maybe they are just incapable of managing their lives without household help? Are Parks the Parasites then, one wonders? Moving from servant to another in the blink of an eye, caring for just their own well-being?
Why I related to the film
Despite being set in South Korea, this dark comedy/psychological thriller is relatable, because class divide and privilege are constants across the world. I know of so many households that have separate teacups for their servants, where a maid is expected to sit on the floor and not on the sofa, next to the mistress of the house. The wide disparity between the living conditions of rich, middle-class and poor people in almost every country has created barriers that aren’t just breeding discrimination, but also hostility and desperation.
The director uses metaphors like stairs, spaces and water to showcase the socio-economic contrast among the two families.
While the Kims employed unethical tactics to gain employment and abuse the trust of their employers, we see that they are actually good at their work. We see Ki-taek drive the Parks’ high-end car with expertise, and while Chung-sook is cunning and cold-hearted, she puts in a lot of labour to keep the mansion pristine. The Kims don’t slack-off, once they get their respective jobs. However, as the film progresses, the pressure to keep their web of lies from falling apart, makes the Kims more desperate and meaner. In a surreal climax, where tragedy unravels at breakneck speed, we see how facing this discrimination on the basis of his smell turns Ki-taek mad with resentment. As someone who has hired help at home, it makes me check my conduct and privilege. What does being a good employer mean? Is paying your domestic help a decent amount of money enough? Also, does that money give us the right to look down upon our househelps, and never consider them as equals?
As people, we should be worried about those less privileged than us, and yet not many of us listen to our house help. When they talk of leaking roofs and flooding during monsoons, how many of us can to relate to what they are saying? Getting your clothes washed or utensils cleaned comes at a price. But empathy comes at no cost. But then why do so many of not have it?
Image Credit: Neon
Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is a writer with the SheThePeople team, in the Opinions section. The views expressed are the author’s own.
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