For all that the world’s wealthy elite have blithely missed Parasite’s central message about their own exploitation of the lower classes, the film remains a biting and nuanced indictment of contemporary class relations. Perhaps its most painful material comes at its halfway point, when the Kim family, who have conned their way into service to the wealthy Parks, discover that the former housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang’s husband lives in a secret fallout shelter underneath the Parks’ lavish modernist home. Geun-sae is a shell of a man, scrawny and balding with cadaverous features and a fixed, manic stare. He has lived beneath the Parks’ residence for several years, his wife supplying him with food during his stay, in order to avoid the loan sharks who pursue him.
Moon-gwang and her husband find themselves immediately at odds with the Kims, each family threatening to upset the other’s compromised economic relationship to the Parks. Kim family matriarch Chung-sook rejects the idea of supporting Geun-sae out of hand, but the exposure of her own family’s secret — that the Parks don’t know they’re a family at all — gives Moon-gwang answering leverage against them. She holds her video evidence of the Kims’ duplicity over their heads, forcing them to take awkward poses as she and her husband look on. Before long the Kims turn the tables, and when they do the reversal of dynamics is even more brutal. In spite of their shared class background and common plight, the two families display no flicker of solidarity with one another.
Living on the Edge
We know from the film’s opening scenes of the Kims living in poverty that jobs are few and far between, and those that are available are menial, tedious, and provide little security. That the Kims’ elaborate “scam” has nothing more than gainful employment as its end goal speaks volumes to the economy’s power to instill desperation in the poor. In fact, their plan’s only victims are the servants they replace: the Park family’s driver and housekeeper. Doing financial harm to their social betters is a practical impossibility, but other families in their own socio-economic bracket are another story. Society, the film argues, is structured such that the rich are invulnerable, the poor forced to compete with each other in a zero-sum contest of survival.
Cleric and natural philosopher Thomas Malthus famously theorized that given the exponential nature of population growth and the incremental nature of food supply growth, catastrophe is the inevitable result of any period of expansion. In Parasite the rich function as an artificial choke point on available resources, forcing the poor into a Malthusian dilemma where cannibalizing one another is the only viable option. The Kims push the housekeeper out of her job. The next time we see her she’s disheveled and desperate, a huge canker sore on the corner of her mouth. A single setback and what financial stability she had is completely undone. A single step up that same ladder and the Kims become unwilling to reach back for anyone below them, too afraid of returning to poverty to feel for those who already have.
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That the Parks never become aware of the world under their feet is crucial to the thematic structure of Joon-ho’s movie. Even when Geun-sae emerges from the basement to avenge his wife’s death, to the Parks he remains an agent nameless and without origin, his violence directed solely at the Kims. Similarly, when Ki-taek stabs Mr. Park with a barbecue skewer the reasoning behind his attack remains opaque as far as the wealthy family’s surviving members are concerned. Mr. Park’s idea of “the line” separating employers and employees is at play here, though the concept’s rules are much more complex and arbitrary than he admits. To Park, the line is an abstraction of the professional distance he believes should exist between the classes within working relationships, but he has little regard for his own end of the bargain.
Park’s wife rests her feet a few inches from Ki-taek’s face as he drives her from errand to errand. Earlier in the film she orders Chung-sook to cook ram-don for her son late at night, offers it to Chung-sook when her son ignores it, and then opts instead to eat it herself because the ingredients are too expensive. Park himself compels Ki-taek to participate in a humiliating piece of play-acting for his young son’s birthday party. The line exists to seal his lessers out of his life, to relegate them to a status below full humanity; it affords them neither a say in their own lives nor protection from his or his family’s whims. The line is why the Parks don’t know the layout of their own house, and why they never uncover the Kim family’s scam. It is a conscious decision to be ignorant, and to treat that ignorance as propriety.
This partition and the aura of untouchability it provides the rich contributes to a sense that the poor are “penned in” with one another. So long as they remain unnoticed and unobtrusive they are more or less free to do as they will. Immediately, the threat of exposing one another’s forbidden behaviors to the rich becomes a potent tool of coercion. The rules handed down from on high govern even interactions between members of the lower classes, who must treat their social superiors as omnipresent in order to achieve any measure of safety from deprivation.
The Kims, who live in a squalid basement apartment themselves, use the Parks’ basement to hide and imprison Moon-gwang and her husband. In a pivotal scene, as Moon-gwang rushes up the basement steps to reveal the Kims’ duplicity to their employers, Chung-sook, on her way to serve dinner to the Parks, kicks her squarely in the chest and sends her tumbling back into the basement, concussing her and causing her eventual death. The terror of returning to the figurative basement of poverty is so strong in the Kims that they needlessly, apparently out of nothing more complex than knee-jerk defensiveness, condemn another family to that same existence. The basement beneath their new place of work still exercises great symbolic power over them, eventually swallowing Ki-Taek when he flees from the police.
The Only Way Out Is Through
In the end, the primary difference between the Kims and the housekeeper and her husband is that the Kims dare to imagine replacing the Parks. First, Ki-woo muses during a family party in the empty Park household that he might one day marry Da-hye, the Park family’s eldest daughter. He jokes that he’d then be his own parents’ boss. It’s a sad foreshadowing of the daydream that closes out the film in which Ki-woo, realizing his father is trapped beneath the Parks’ house, imagines becoming rich enough to buy it so that Ki-taek could be free. The only thing his ordeal has given him is a desire to be the people who treated his family with such negligent contempt, who with their wealth and excess are responsible for the desperate life into which he was born.
This, perhaps more than anything, is the key to making the poor fight each other rather than their oppressors. Each worker must be able to imagine that they could someday reach the heights of wealth and join the rich among the clouds. The lure of this golden dream is so strong that it has kept America’s poorest at each other’s throats for well over a century, and around the world it operates in much the same way as it does here. Parasite reveals the hollow lie at the heart of this dream, the emptiness it births in us and the impossibility of its realization. The truth is that the poor will never be welcomed by the rich, that their true feelings towards us are encapsulated totally by the way Mr. Park’s nose wrinkles as he fishes his car keys from under a man who lived and died utterly devoted to him. There is nothing in their hearts for us except contempt.