Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite' and the Geometry of Suffering
The problem Joon-ho presents in Parasite is geometrical. Is this the only shape of society we can imagine as workable, as livable? Is this livable?
27 October 2020
There is a moment in director Bong Joon-ho's celebrated film Parasite (2019), a pivotal moment in my estimation, that brings to mind verses 5:43-45 from Matthew, a portion of a long sermon delivered by Jesus: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Revised Standard Version). The moment from the film features two characters: the young mother of the wealthy Park family, Choi Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), and the father of the impoverished Kim family, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, a regular actor in Bong's films). The point of the moment stands in an intriguing contrast to Jesus' sermon and I will return to this scene momentarily. But the upshot is this: the rain does not fall on all alike.
Bong, who co-wrote the script with Han Jin-won, structures the film around a series of contrasts. We are first introduced to the Kim family: the father, the mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), their son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and their daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam). The opening scene finds Ki-woo wrestling with his cell phone in the realization that their upstairs neighbors have put a password on their Wi-Fi, making it impossible for the Kim family to leech off of their signal. This registers as a family emergency and as Ki-woo informs the others of their new predicament, the moving camera reveals the claustrophobia-inducing restriction of their living space.
The family occupies a semi-basement apartment. A large window looks out upon an alley where drunkards urinate, seemingly at all times of the day. The occupants sleep on the floor; they huddle around a small table where stink bugs crawl across their bread; the highest space in the apartment belongs to a very oddly situated toilet.
The space is fetid, dank, and musty. The family is out of work; they earn some meager funds by folding pizza boxes for a local delivery place. When the exterminator passes by, gassing the alleyway, the father instructs his son to leave the window open so that they receive the fumigation service for free. Meanwhile, they choke on the gas and continue folding. The room fills with the fog of the poison and one can't help but see this family as a human representation of the undesirable insects the gas was designed to destroy. They scratch out their existence, hidden below ground, in the dark, surrounded by mold, ensconced in penury.
So-dam Park as Ki-jung and Woo-sik Choi as Ki-woo (Criterion)
They long for a better life and they're clearly enterprising. The father rattles off various occupations he's held over the course of his life. The daughter soon proves herself to be such a gifted artist that she can produce convincing forged documents with equipment available at an internet café. The son is fluent and skilled in English but freezes up when taking his university entrance exams. He attempts to gain employment at the pizza shop, but the owner is clearly suspicious of his offer. His friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) asks Ki-woo to take over a position tutoring the daughter of the Park family, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so).
Ki-woo arrives at the Park residence and walks up the exterior stairs to the home. It contrasts in every possible way from the Kims' semi-basement apartment. It is atop a hill, removed from its immediate neighbors and from the city at large by walls of concrete lined with fir trees. It has a wide-open spatial layout—both outside with its gorgeous lawn bathed in sunlight and inside with its spacious rooms and tasteful furnishings. The Kims live in cluttered, musty darkness. The Parks live in open, fresh refinement.
Ki-woo, going by the name Kevin, is hired and he soon inveigles his employer to hire his sister, now called Jessica, as an art tutor for their young son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). Of course, Jessica's credentials are also faked. They convince the Parks that she was educated in the United States (the Park matriarch naïvely reveres anything made or educated in the US) and that the two of them are only remote acquaintances, rather than siblings. Jessica convinces the Park mother that Da-song requires not merely an art tutor but rather an art therapist (something she had researched a bit online). Therefore, she would be forced to charge the Parks more.
The siblings soon develop a plan to cast aspersions on the characters of the chauffeur (Park Keun-rok) and the loyal housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) in order to replace them with the Kim parents through various contrivances—all the while pretending that the four new hires were strangers to each other. At this point the Park home is "infested" with the Kims who have all gained employment through deception, fakery, and character assassination.
The Parks, however, are hardly depicted as guileless victims of the Kims' connivances. They, too, are parasites, leeching off the work of others in order to maintain their station, their affluence, and their bloated sense of comfort. The mother indulges every impulse of her son Da-song. He runs rampant throughout the house, dressed as a Native American, erecting teepees, firing rubber adhesive arrows at the walls and inhabitants of their immaculate home. But it isn't the mother who has to entertain and attempt to rein in the son; she leaves that to her maid. When Kevin first arrives for his interview, the mother is collapsed outside, slumped in unrestful sleep on a table. The maid claps her hands to bring her back to consciousness.
The mother and the father are unconscious in less literal senses, as well. The mother is so convinced that her son is the next, haunted version of Basquiat (another indicator or her fascination with all things American) that Jessica is able to point to a characteristic blotch included in most of the boy's art as an indication of trauma. The mother nearly breaks down. She is utterly naïve and easily manipulated. She is so convinced that word-of-mouth is the best way to find suitable help that she never stops to question the mouth that utters the recommendation.
She starts inviting people into her home as workers on the recommendations of the last person in the door. Meanwhile, there is a kind of perverse mistrust of her own experience. She dismisses people who have been in her employ for years on the basis of reports gathered from the newcomers, the Kims. She is too far removed from life to stand as her own witness to what goes on in her home.
The father too seeks ever-greater distance from the world and its inhabitants. As part of the plan to eliminate the chauffeur, Jessica leaves a pair of her panties tucked under the passenger seat of the car. The father finds them and believes the worst. But instead of investigating, his revulsion at the presence of others, particularly those of a lower class, gets the better of him. Recoiled in disgust as he discloses the discovery to his wife, he wonders aloud if the chauffeur gains some kind of sexual thrill out of dripping his sperm where his employer sits.
The Parks follow a chain of inferences to conclude that the chauffeur's lover must be a drug addict. (Why else would she forget such an intimate garment?) Later, they employ their construction of the scene in their sexual role play. As the father intimately caresses his wife, she cries out "give me drugs". Even their erotic play requires the debasement of others.
The father is easily disturbed by even slightly unpleasant smells. When Mr. Kim (under an alias, of course) becomes his driver, Mr. Park registers two complaints. The first is that Mr. Kim carries with him an odor. It is not a foul odor exactly but disturbing all the same to Mr. Park. He describes it as the odor of someone who is forced to take the subway. He is doubtless detecting the mustiness of the Kim domicile but the fact that he associates that subterranean smell with the labors of the working class is telling. He occupies a station far above and removed from the heady constrictions of mass transit. He occupies the lofty position of benefiting from the work of others at such a remove that he feels he ought not to have to witness their toil and its effects on those he employs.
The second complaint involves Mr. Kim not always "knowing his place". He refers to Mr. Kim's penchant for asking Mr. Park about his feelings toward his wife. Mr. Park, perhaps seeking some connection across the economic divide, seems intent on hearing Mr. Park state clearly his love for his spouse. Mr. Park's ambivalence is obvious but the real problem for him is that Mr. Kim refuses to maintain the properly decorous and reverent distance Mr. Park requires.
For Mr. Kim to ask after Mr. Park's marital happiness is to place himself, at least temporarily and at least to this degree, on an equal standing with his employer. One might imagine this to be a reasonable interaction between two married men. But Mr. Park doesn't see his employees as occupying the same sphere he occupies; he doesn't feel they have attained the kind of being he has attained. They aren't simply kindred spirits in different economic brackets, differing through the degree of wealth. They are different in kind.
At one point, Mr. Kim—enjoying the unwitting hospitality of his family's employers while they are away for a weekend—sips the Parks' whiskey, reclines on their couch, looking out over the expanse of their lawn, and declares that Mrs. Park is naïve but nice. Mrs. Kim scolds her husband. She is nice because she can afford to be nice. She feels little to no need, really, even to look out for her own best interests. She is afforded the opportunity to be naïve because the world is situated for her comfort. She doesn't have to look out for her own interests because she can hire others to do so—and even those (like the Kims) who attempt to take advantage of her still wind up largely serving her needs and desires.
This brings us to the scene I alluded to at the beginning. A terrible storm falls upon the city. The rain pours down the streets, cascades down the long flights of concrete steps that windingly descend from the lofty perch of the Park home to the low-lying area where the Kims live. The semi-basement apartment floods. The water violently pushes in from the window to the alley while that elevated toilet vomits sewage throughout the apartment. Jessica sits on its lid, futilely attempting to hold back its flow. The neighbors call out for help removing their valuables from their inundated dwellings. No one can help because everyone here suffers alike. The Kims spend the night in a shelter, surrounded by other refugees from natural disaster.
The next day they return to the Park residence for a birthday celebration for Da-song. Ostensibly they are invited, separately; in reality they are working. Mrs. Park decided to throw this last-minute birthday party because their planned camping trip was washed out by the rain. But now the sun is shining, and it is a beautiful day at their home perched high above the remainder of the city.
Below, as we know, dwellings are flooded, people are displaced. For those people, this is a day of bitter loss and devastation. They are essentially homeless and even when they can pump the water from their domiciles, the wreckage will be considerable. For the Parks, all that rain was a temporary bother, and it drained away toward the low-lying areas below. They are afforded the luxury of not only ignoring the suffering of others but also to mount a large-scale birthday celebration. Of course, to do this, they rely upon the services of those in their employ—obligations thrust upon these employees at the last minute when they are dealing with the near-total destruction of their home.
Now, Mrs. Park knows nothing of this. She doesn't have to know. She is not in a position that forces her to care about such things. It might be unfair to suggest she wouldn't care if she were to know. The point is that she would never be burdened by having to know such things. For her, this is not only another gorgeous day in a charmed life, it is made all the more resplendent for the bit of troublesome storming of the night before.
She calls her posh friends, insisting they don't bother to bring presents for the spoiled child, knowing all along that they will strive to outdo each other in the grandeur of the presents they bring. It's all so nice—because they can afford for it to be. They can afford not to have their day tainted by the losses experienced by those below. Rain is easily dismissed if it is only raining on your parade. It is even more easily dismissed when you get to have your parade all the same.
The rain may indeed fall on all alike: the just and the unjust, the needful and satiated, the conscientious and the willfully blind. But it is not experienced by all in the same manner. Social structures have a seemingly inevitable tendency to buttress their entrenched positions. There are moments of disruption, but these soon are quelled and some kind of stasis returns. Those protected by the entrenchment rarely need concern themselves with how the others experience the rain. Those suffering all too often long see the remedy of that suffering in the adoption of the other mode of living. All too few seek for ways to alleviate the suffering of the victims of the rain in any thorough-going manner.
Those at the top are parasitic of the labor of those below. They require them in order to feel superior to the status of parasite. But they are parasites all the same. Those below require are parasitic not only for the wages offered by those above; they also (and perhaps more importantly) require the outlandish hope that one day they may take the positions of those above—with all of the degradation of others those positions seem to require. They don't see themselves as parasites but rather as aspirants. But they are parasites all the same.
The Parks and the Kims feed on each other, each in their own way, each seeking their own kind of sustenance, each blind to what the other desires and needs. The film makes it clear that mere inversion would hardly rectify matters. Who cares who is on top and who is on bottom? The problem is geometrical. Is this the only shape of society we can imagine as workable, as livable? Is this livable?
This is the point where that symmetry that Bong has so carefully constructed between the two families breaks down. When looked at in a static manner, the symmetry obtains. Each family has a father, mother, sister, and brother. The Parks are rich, refined, at ease, made stupid by their comfort, and live on high. The Kims are poor, crass, strained, made clever by their penury, and live down below. But the rain flows only in one direction.
The actual occupants of the two basic positions matter less than the directionality of that flow. Because it is that flow that refutes the idea that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Indeed, here it isn't even a question of one family being just and the other unjust. Both are steeped in their own forms of criminality, their own forms of perversity and obscenity. But with some on high and some below, no inversion can satisfy one's sense of justice. The rain will continue to swell in the low-lying places and that manner of suffering is simply not shared.
Criterion Collection has released a Blu-ray edition of Bong Joon-ho's celebrated Parasite. The edition comes with several features including two versions of the film (color and black and white), an intriguing interview with Bong, audio commentary by the director, and a master class conducted by Bong at the 2019 Lumière Festival.
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