The intersection of the haves and have-nots is the world of Parasite, for which director Bong Joon-ho won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Set in South Korea, where I’m told the difference of economic divisions is very real, the story also taps into a more universal understanding of the disdain and resentments inherent in class structure.
The film is the story of two families, the Kims and the Parks. The Kim family is from the lowest part of society, as we see in their living in a basement apartment where they have to crawl up next to their toilet to get a phone signal. They get by doing piece work such as folding pizza boxes for a few cents each. When college age son Ki-woo is recommended by a friend to take over the job as English tutor for the Parks’ daughter, he is astounded by the opulence of their home high on a hill. Quickly, he begins a series of cons that bring other family members into the Parks’ employ (although their relationship is secret). This involves lies about others that are working for the family to make way for new hiring.
There is a comic feel to the first half of the film as the Kims worm their way into the Parks’ lives. In a similar fashion as Shoplifters (which won the Palme d’Or last year), this family of grifters is somewhat endearing, even though we may be put off by their lack of morals.
The Parks, on the other hand, are a bit cold. They clearly care about their children, but don’t want to be bothered with the actual raising of them. For all their affluence, they lack any kind of human affection. They are a bit suspicious of some of the Kims because they don’t smell right. They smell of the underclass, which the Parks want nothing to do with.
The second half of the film slowly turns more toward tragedy when the Parks leave on a trip and the Kims inhabit the house. Soon they discover some secrets about the house, and the former servants that begins to lead this story to a violent confrontation that Quentin Tarantino would probably enjoy.
The dichotomy of the two families gives us a chance to consider the role class plays in life. To be sure the differences vary from one society to another, but they still exist everywhere. Is it an inevitability that such divisions will lead to some sort of violent confrontation? Even though in the film the violence arises out of a kind of comedy of errors, it still seems to be the only way that the class struggle will finally be addressed. The title of the film suggests that the class struggle is about those who live off others. But which class is living off which?
It is interesting that Bong brings the audience (who are probably more closely related to the Parks) into the film on the side of the Kims. It is the Kims with whom we emotionally identify. It is a trick that film uses to help us see the plight of others, but it also serves to suggest that perhaps we should be judged for the same shortcomings we see in the Park family. As with all good films, we discover that it is not a story about other people; it is about us.
Parasite is available on Blu-ray and digital now.
Photos courtesy Neon CJ Entertainment