Parasite: a defining film about class relations, inequality – analysis
In a world of growing inequalities, where the division between rich and poor is increasing, giving Parasite the best Oscar film is appropriate. A saga of differences between rich and poor is not in itself a novel issue. However, what makes Parasite one of the most exciting stories of our time, apart from its brilliant cinematography and acting, is that, although it is about money, this film does not draw differences between rich and poor only through the prism of money. Instead, the director, Bong Joon-Ho, presents us with the daily realities of inequalities through the bodily senses, particularly of smell and sight.
Bong Joon-ho provides, at the same time, comics, both tragic, intersections between two families (the same size, each with four members): the upper-class Park family and the lower-class Kim family. The Kim family is a group of unemployed people, who aspire to a comfortable life and, in a fateful (later tragic) event, plan their way to the house and the life of the Park family. From there, everyone is intertwined in a network of dangerous intimacies. The members of the Park family present themselves as privileged, entitled and also “nice” people, who speak politely of their help. Bong’s genius lies in the fact that, unlike previous films in class, the rich do not pronounce the word “poor” or their synonyms to describe the class that serves them. Rather, they identify and, therefore, demarcate their kind of service of themselves through their smell. Park’s son, represented as a capable boy scout, comments that his driver (Kim), the new housekeeper (Kim’s wife) and the tuition teachers (Kim’s children) have the same “smell.” In another scene, Park, while performing an intimate physical act with his wife, comments that Kim has a peculiar smell like those traveling in the subway, and this smell is so strong that it leaks directly to the back of his Mercedes Benz, an intimacy that Kim (and his children) does not like, hiding under the table, they become aware of this conversation, and it is this comment rather than the visible and tangible differences in financial status between them, which leaves a deep mark on Kim, a feeling of burning resentment, which drives him to commit a horrible act later.
The parasite also brings the discussion of inequalities to the forefront through “sight.” As an audience, our eyes move “down” to notice the life of Kim’s family: the underbelly of the city, who lives in a small, smelly and infested apartment of insects, from where they see the world out and towards above. In contrast, the Park family lives in a mansion, perched on top of a hill, from where they look “down” at the city. One of the other cinematographic geniuses of this film is the use of stairs: the Kim access their house down the stairs, while the Parks go up to enter their house. As the film unfolds, we discover that Park’s previous housekeeper surreptitiously occupied the basement of her mansion. The lives in this mansion are clearly divided between the former and the inferior; metaphorically and literally, one below which the former is not aware.
Richard Sennett was one of the first sociologists to talk about “The hidden wounds of the class” (1972) by calling attention to the feelings and affections that mark the realities of the class: respect and honor (or lack thereof in the case of the lower classes). Since then, and in fact more recently, scholarship has studied the lower belly of the city through the prisms of affections: resentment, humiliations, anxieties. In the Indian context, some recent films have dabbled in this field, such as Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), which describes the anxieties and vulnerabilities of the rich with nuances.
The brilliance of the parasite lies in its ability to explain class differences and inequalities, at opposite ends of the spectrum, through body fluids and conditions. This is not a saga from the Abbeyesque center where inequalities are presented as a code of conduct manual that regulates the interaction between rich and poor, although the “basement” remains central to both representations. Instead, Bong presents the real but dystopian, the hopeful but damned, the lateral but vertical, macabre state of inequality.
Bong Joon-Ho’s brilliant leadership brings bodily fluids to the center as the dividing and defining difference between classes, since it presents us with resentful and dangerous intimacies between those who have and those who do not.
Parul Bhandari is an associate professor, sociology, OP Jindal Global University. She is the author of “Money, culture, class: elite women as modern subjects”
The opinions expressed are personal.