Girls Night with Parasite: Three academics unravel genre and class in Bong Joon-ho’s historic film

(Note: The column contains several “spoilers” for the film Parasite. We highly recommend you see the film first.)

On Sunday night, Bong Joon-ho made film history at the 92nd Academy Awards as director of the first foreign film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Parasite also took Best International Feature, and Director Bong was awarded Best Director and Original Screenplay awards. The film had previously garnered the coveted Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

In anticipation of the Oscars, three academics gathered last week to re-watch Parasite and hash out the secrets of its success with Korean and American audiences alike. The trio was Dr. Haerin Shin, Assistant Professor of English, Cinema & Media Arts, and Asian Studies and Dr. Candice Amich, Assistant Professor of English — both from Vanderbilt University, along with your Film Beat guide, Dr. Nancy McGuire Roche, Adjunct Professor of Cinema, Television & Media at Belmont University.

Dr. Shin is from Seoul, so she negotiated us through the Korean film, disclosing many linguistic and cultural nuances of Parasite. She believes the movie is enticing because it encompasses and reconfigures genres of comedy, horror, thriller, and class commentary in a way that recreates the familiar, but also transverses new territories. She states, “I think one aspect is that it’s just a perfect ensemble of all of these different genres. It does an amazing job of pulling off all of the signature traits of each and every genre it takes on. And that is also very characteristic of Director Bong himself; but just as a movie in and of itself, it is pretty spectacular.”

While multiple genres are incorporated into Parasite, the overarching theme of the movie, as in most of Director Bong’s work, is the conflict created by class structure. At first, Parasite appears to be a comedy about a clever and deceitful family who cleverly con an extremely wealthy, upper-class family, but the plot soon takes several sinister and sardonic twists.

From the start Parasite is a stunningly visual film which constantly reminds the audience that the two families at the center of this drama come from extremes of lower and upper-class. While the Kim family lives in a semi-basement flat below ground, the Park family lives on a high elevation in Seoul, in a modernist palace with an expansive lawn, designed by a famous architect. On the recommendation of a wealthy friend, Ki-woo, the Kims’ son, is engaged to tutor the Parks’ daughter. This is a scam, since Ki-woo, later called Kevin, doesn’t have a college degree. However, he is clever enough bring in his sister “Jessica” as an art tutor for the Park’s young son, Da-song. Together, the two scheme to replace the chauffer and maid with their parents, Ki-taek and Chung-sook. The wealthy and naïve Parks have no idea their new servants are a family, and the Kims must struggle to perpetuate this ruse after Da-song points out they all radiate the same smell, the smell of their semi-basement home, or rather, the smell of poverty.

After basic set-up is established, however, the film veers toward horror and thriller as new information is constantly revealed: The Kims are almost caught drunk and partying in the Parks’ living room; there is a reveal of a subterranean, secret space within the house; and finally, a rainstorm of Biblical proportions floods the Kims’ home. Parasite is replete with visual metaphors of the divide between the two families: high and low ground, dark and sunlit spaces, the types of food consumed, transportation, dress, and even internet access. Class is incorporated into every aspect of this film and we began our discussion of that theme with respective living spaces of the families.

HS: To have a big house like that would be an embodiment of wealth itself — with a huge window and a garden on a level plain. The window symbolizes division and illusion.

NMR: It is literally a screen, and the audience must incorporate that view. And the garden beyond is the ultimate symbol of wealth and protected status. Multiple sources have reported that Bong asked his production designer to create a set that was beautiful, but one which would also allow the camera to follow characters, compose scenes, and reveal the themes of class stratification, such as the levels of the house and who has access to them.

CA: The levels are really porous. The Park family is on top, literally.

HS: And one of the things missing out in the subtitles is the language use, because in Korean there is an honorific and there’s a wonderful transition of the honorific and regular language. The wealthy family, they keep using the non-honorific with the other family, even when two of them are obviously elders in terms of age. In Korea, you use the honorific to elders.

NMR: I really love the character of Jessica who seems to move easily through both worlds.

HS: She is the most popular character. Especially in the States, the “Jessica Jingle” became viral on social media, and there are even t-shirts.

NMR: She’s very clever and stylish—and dominates the Parks with attitude and hauteur.

HS: At the same time, she’s a scary character as well because she’s the one who makes the best use of, and mirrors, the upper class. She dominates both classes.

NMR: The film makes us really uncomfortable though? The awkward sex scene, for one example.

CA: It is really gross.

NMR: I think it’s the matching pajamas.

CA: There’s more the uncomfortable sex scene is getting at. The workers are on the broken shards of their party time. Let’s imagine that you took out a loan for your party time and then you’re indebted for the rest of your life.

NMR and HS: Like the cake shop! And they are hiding under the coffee table, because their party is interrupted with the Parks’ return.

HS: This plot point is based on a current event. They are talking about the Japanese cake, Castella. It became a huge hit. But when there is demand, there is also an onrush of supply, and then the price plummets. This is exactly what happened with this cake chain. In Korea, the economy has recently been bad, so people who were fired from their existing jobs just opened up their own stores. Within a year they were all bust. The cake shops are emblematic of the plight of the lower middle class.

NMR: The Parks don’t even notice that their food and booze is missing because they have so much. And I think that is why you have to pass through their pantry into that hidden, lower level. Every time the camera follows someone through that cupboard, you see all of their excess food. All that is left over. And the scene is slapstick too. Jessica is so drunk she is eating dog snacks! Parasite has all of these singular elements of comedy in ways that translate from culture to culture… we like to laugh at rich people and see them as indulgent, and their children as stupid and spoiled. We can compare ourselves to them and feel superior in some way.

HS: At the same time, I think what makes this film a lot more appealing in that it’s funny and has that resonance, but the universal sense of discomfort that it instills in the viewer is important, because if you really go down deep the rich people here are foolish and ignorant to a certain extent—they act stupid. The mother in particular is portrayed as this silly, vain woman, but essentially what the Kims say is true… they are not bad people. But then at the same time, it’s also true what Chung-sook says, they can afford to be nice—and that naïve, because they are rich. But that doesn’t give the other family the right to totally rip them off. I would imagine most viewers would side with the Kim family. It’s pretty cathartic looking [at] them ripping off this dumb, rich family.

NMR: There is that important line in the film where the Kim parents say: “They are rich, but they are nice. No, they are nice people because they are rich.” I think that is the most important line in the film. Are the Kims showing empathy here?

CA: I thought the whole point was that Chung-sook says they are nice only because they are rich.

HS: I think this is an extremely sarcastic movie. There are points where the characters could show empathy, but it is only in moments of comfort where there is nothing to lose.

CA: It’s only Da-song, the weird child, who has any sort of empathy, any sort of connection at all to any of them. He has the communication with the man in the basement. He recognizes the Kims’ smell. The whole mocking of the child genius and the art world is interesting. There is something about that wacky, privileged child who connects to the underworld.

HS: At the same time, this is the boy who is used to the housekeeper making him two kinds of Ramen in the middle of the night. He has grown up being cared for and serviced. He has to be “rescued” from his trauma.

NMR: It’s so ironic that in the end, the source of his “trauma” turns out to be the source of his trauma.

One scene that interests me most is the rain scene. The Kims start home through Seoul, and they keep descending. At one point, there is amazing back drop that resembles the rock they are given which supposedly brings good fortune. Kevin momentarily stops and you can see the flood water running around his sneakers. From that moment on, you get images of torrential flooding and rain. As they arrive home, a neighbor warns them the flood water is full of sewage. What does it mean?

HS: Water, vivifies the upper class, but when it descends downwards, it becomes sewer water. After, the dad says, “I have a plan. No one witnessed this.” which foreshadows the ending. And because they were not at home, they left the window open. And how many people were able to salvage anything from those waters? Finally, we have Jessica smoking a cigarette, after she finds the sacred, hidden cigarette pack.

NMR: That’s my favorite scene because I think it’s a real tableau of horror and abjection. They descend into this hell which is their home. Neighbors are trying to drag their meagre belongings into the street. Jessica is just so disgusted that she just sits on the toilet seat, as it is spewing sewage, and calmly smokes a cigarette. Is this funny?

CA: It’s more punk than funny. She finds the sacred cigarette box hidden in the ceiling. She could have smoked that outside. But she chose to smoke it on the toilet.

HS: The film is comedic because of different elements. It has slapstick. It has situational. It’s ironic. And it’s black comedy too.  It does a good range of sound playing across different sub genres of comedy. I think that’s also the reason why Parasite is so popular. It’s sarcastic at times. And totally satirical.

NMR: My other favorite scene is when Moon-gwang, the original maid, comes back and she’s peering into the house through the video camera. She appears blue, and she’s covered in rainwater so you can’t see her eyes; she’s monstrous. She talks her way in and suddenly, she’s parallel to the floor, trying to open the door to the bomb shelter.

HS: That’s just horror and comedy!

CA: I definitely thought it was supernatural.

NMR: I thought it was supernatural, that she was a witch who was opening a passage to the underworld… that she was levitating. At that moment, every aspect of this film just transforms! Also, and crucially, it is a visually stunning film. The cinematography is amazing.

HS: Almost beyond comment.

CA:  And as a resource for film classes, at least, it’s like watching Rear Window, each still is like a painting.

NMR: One definition of cinematography is simply, “painting with light”. There is so much darkness and light, and everything subterranean is green and in the poor neighborhood there is a great deal of orange and yellow lighting. So many shots are framed in corridors. The characters are hemmed in by narrow corridors. Like descending into the semi-basement of the Kims’ house, or going up into the Park’s house, there is a corridor. Parasite ends with the fantasy that Kevin will rescue his father, but in reality, he is trapped in the exact same shot as the beginning. Framed in the semi-basement window with drying socks—but the beginning shot occurs in daylight, and the ending one at night, a comment on his plight.

NMR: So, finally, why does this film appeal to viewers in the States?

CA: I think it’s the way in which families try to replace the previous occupants of both levels. Just this sense of a downward spiral, who will exploit who on top of whom? That attitude has been prevalent in Korea and The United States for the last thirty years at least. We relate to it.

NMR: Do you think Parasite is a statement on fate and poverty? It seems like there is always someone down there in that subterranean hell… there’s no getting out of that place.

CA: The people upstairs are never going downstairs.

NMR: They don’t know it exists.

HS: I don’t think there is a gesture to perpetual division. At the same time, there has been some shift, right? For example, the semi-basement got purged. And the upper class remains upper class despite the fact that the patriarch is gone. They just move to somewhere else.

NMR: The patriarch of the poor family is trapped. Patriarchs, in general, do not fare well in this film.

HS: He descends.

CA: The rich can only function because of their ignorance. They don’t know about the bunker, which is like a continual erasure of the poor. The people downstairs know more than the people upstairs.

NMR: The servant class, they don’t have a choice?

HS: So, the upper class remains rich, and all the turmoil just shifts down to the lower classes: semi-basement, basement, and the movement going up. This may not signal a perpetual divide, but is, at least, a gesture to recent developments in Korean society. There are similar sentiments in the U.S. Think back to that important line, the rich can be nice because they are rich. Think about how ignorant that allows the rich class to be. The only reason the rich can remain rich, in a way, is because they are unconscious of the plight of the working class. Not just what they are experiencing, but the whole idea as such. The spaces in the film itself makes that apparent.

HS: The funny thing is that at the beginning this was a weirdly bright family.

CA: They are very clever. That is what makes the film so funny in the beginning. They are able to convince and connive that family to hire them very quickly.

HS: But it is important to remember that theirs isn’t really a semi-basement life until they recognize it as such. Then there is another life to aspire to.

NMR: I think we can all agree that Parasite is an absolute work of genius. The movie is an amazing piece of filmmaking that deserves all of these awards! Thank you for deconstructing some of the meaning of Parasite with me.

On Thursday, April 2nd, at 7 p.m., Dr. Shin will present Parasite for Vanderbilt’s International Lens series at Sarratt Cinema on the Vanderbilt campus. This is event is free and open to the public. Dr. Shin will introduce the film and lead a discussion after.

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