Of Our Time

Eat the Rich: A Conversation on Parasite’s Class Conflict

The Arclight Hollywood Parasite Screenings with Q&A with Director Bong Joon-ho, actor Song Kang-ho, and actress Park So-dam. Parasite is the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or, fortuitously on the 100th anniversary of Korean cinema. 

Eugene: You and I have just finished watching Parasite for the first time at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood. I am still in a daze since from this adrenaline rush of a movie, but I know for a fact that I was totally engrossed. For our discussion, I think we will end up discussing spoilers since I think it is the only way that we can really evaluate this film in the light of our cultural backgrounds (Korean-American for myself and Chinese-American for you). 

In the Q&A, director Bong Joon-ho mentioned he had worked as a tutor for a few months. I can relate since I have worked as a tutor for a number of wealthy families, and it really takes me aback when most kids and families live in such comfort and are seemingly not aware of it in the slightest. I remember kids asking me why I don’t just get a really expensive Apple laptop like it was a shirt I could just casually buy. I guess anyone would ask this question without a second thought after living in privilege for so long, but it really is a bubble, and this movie captures it so well.

Ledi: These bubbles of so-called high society aren’t so easy to burst. They’re more like fortresses, and not just in Bong’s films. I remember you recommended me the 70’s film The Pollen of Flowers, another Korean social satire movie. The Blue Mansion in The Pollen of Flowers really allows some domestic debauchery to fester, in a very 70’s way if I may say. Another classic film that relates to Parasite is the elegant 60’s original version of The Housemaid, which Bong Joon-ho mentioned in the Q&A as inspiration for Parasite

The Pollen of Flowers (1972)

Eugene: In Korea, the executive office is actually called the Blue House informally, and that film is a very pointed satire of the presidency (in reality, the dictatorship) of Park Chung-hee. The Pollen of Flowers is a film that should be more widely seen, especially for fans of Parasite, and is actually streaming for free on YouTube. 

What really struck me about Parasite was its use of powerful visual language. Bong’s movie tends to favor horizontal wide frames and often vertical movement is meant to disrupt or signal something really out of the ordinary, such as when the mom ascends the stairs to see her housemaid coughing or when a character passes through the ever-present dark door that leads to the basement where so many important plot developments center around. 

Ledi: Yes, Bong mentioned how the structure of the house, and in particular its staircase was also inspired by The Housemaid, perhaps the most famous Korean film from before the 1990’s. The upward and downward movement of the film was also socially symbolic, particularly with the Kim family scuttling and scattering about like cockroaches below the wealthy occupants of the household. 

Besides the blocking, the editing was also very effective in highlighting the sense of dramatic irony. Bong used cuts lasting just a second long as little winks to the audience, as if they are in cahoots with the Kims. The placid surface of a hot cup of coffee. The flick of a notebook page, and then the satisfying snap of a thumb through a wad of cash. These cheeky punctuation notes were so effortlessly edited and built a rhythm that paid off. 

Eugene: To add to the praiseworthy elements of Parasite, its performances were uniformly excellent. My favorite might be Cho Yeo-jeong as the rich mother. She was so funny and neurotic in a typical overattentive Korean mother kind of way that borders on parody but doesn’t quite cross that line. She comes off as very privileged but you can tell she really loves her kids and her husband. It’s easy to make rich people look grotesque in social commentaries, especially when they’re taken for fools by the Kim family in the first half, but her and Lee Sun-Kyun’s performances made them more human, and it made the satire more complicated and fascinating to consider. 

Returning to the visual language of this film, the rich family are off in their own isolated spheres in that extraordinary house, a set that was built specifically for this movie. To have that much space in as urban a city as Seoul is a true luxury, as it is in every highly metropolitan area. In contrast, the poor family lives in a basement and are forced to be together; we often see them in that cramped space, so it’s kind of like they can’t help but to have each other’s back.

Ledi: The physical space shows why the Kims are so likable: they’re tight-knit. Meanwhile the members of the elite Park family have grown distant from each other in their spacious architectural gem of a house. The daughter carries on illicitly with the tutor while the young son puts on the facade of being some sort of child prodigy. The husband would evidently prefer to be in the place of his allegedly lascivious chauffeur than with his hypochondriac wife. It’s also interesting that the Kims tried to hide their identity as a family as much as possible. In Chinese Confucian culture as opposed to Korean Confucian culture, I feel as if people would probably not hide their familial connections and networking as much due to a concept called guanxi, which could build trust and stability. Here, the rationale is clear. The Kim family, with their solidarity, is very likely to supplant the Park family. Family is evidently a formidable force that can be used to either build or destroy a unit. And as if this tense two-family dynamic weren’t enough, Bong throws a curveball our way. 

Eugene: To expand a bit further on the how the family gets their jobs, word-of-mouth does tend to be quite prevalent in Korean culture. I would say that word-of-mouth and prestigious-sounding credentials such as degrees from Ivy Leagues or whatnot are tied in importance for getting into the “right” circle. If you meet the right person and they are impressed with your work or even if they just like you, they will refer you like no other. I noticed how the mother didn’t care so much about the son’s degree from Yonsei University (one of the hardest universities to get into in Korea along with Seoul National and Koryo University) but that the previous tutor had recommended him to her. 

I was enraptured by most of Parasite, but that climactic scene at the birthday party left me breathless. It was as if a whole artillery of Chekhov’s guns went off in that scene. The son collapses from a seizure that was shown before when he first sees the murderer. The smell of the corpse repulses Mr. Park, which had been a real point of contention for Mr. Kim. When Mr. Kim snaps so violently, it’s shocking because he seemed to have been the most conscientious and gentlest out of that poor family.

Ledi: It truly was a warzone. The setting of the final showdown points out the irony that with their oppression of the poor, the Korean elite have taken the role of both the Japanese and American imperialist forces that invaded the country in the 40’s and 50’s. The party takes place in front of the child’s fake teepee as the adults dress up in redface with feathered headdresses and warpaint, and the Parks mentioned how the tables were arranged around the table in Korean hero General Yi Sun-sin’s crane battle formation against the Japanese. I remember the chaos near the opening of Godard’s Weekend when the son of the main bourgeois family was wearing a feathered headdress and shooting fake arrows, similar to the rich child in Parasite. In Godard’s anti-imperialist film, the bourgeois family converts their cultural appropriation into rebellion when they fight against those in power. The Parks don’t do so here except for the daughter who saves the tutor by carrying him away from the conflict. 

However, the tables do turn with Mr. Kim. Mr. Kim starts off almost as diametrically opposed to the killer Geun-sae as he was to the wealthy Mr. Park. Geun-sae venerates Mr. Park as a deity whereas Mr. Kim delights in secretly taking advantage of him. However, even the fraudulent Mr. Kim is outraged by how Mr. Park literally turned up his nose while taking his keys away from Geun-sae, who had stabbed Mr. Kim’s own daughter in order to protect the wealthy Parks, dying with respect for Mr. Park still on his lips. In a seriously twisted turn of events, Mr. Kim avenges the rival who had killed his own daughter for his nemesis. He did so out of a sense of justice, especially as another poor man, for Geun-sae. He couldn’t stand to see Geun-sae subordinate himself to Mr. Park out of gratitude, to a patriarch who is even less aware of his existence than totalitarian governments are of individual citizens.

Eugene: I didn’t read it that way, but I can see what you mean and it makes a lot of sense. I find it quite telling that we do not see the aftermath of the killing on the Park family. Even though they would clearly be devastated from the murder of the father, it is clear that they have the resources to escape from the source of trauma at least physically. The Kim family does not have that luxury. They go back to their old basement dwelling while Mr. Kim hides out in the mansion, replacing his former rival. Other than the ambiguous ending with the son’s assurance to his father that he will be rich enough to buy the mansion one day, there is no real hope for this family, yet despite this gloomy note, I found the film’s ending quite satisfying.

There’s so much going on in Parasite that I will need to see it again. I have been a long-time fan of Bong Joon-ho’s work because he always takes big swings. I find that he and Park Chan-wook are unabashedly stylistic and melodramatic in ways that make most American auteurs look timid, even the ones who work frequently in genre movies. When they miss, they can really miss, but when they connect, their films are just so dynamic and thrilling that you remember why you started loving movies in the first place. For me, Parasite is up there with Mother, though I think I still enjoy Memories of Murder the most out of Bong’s films.

Ledi: Though I adore Snowpiercer, which is essentially this movie on wheels, I’ve been a bit iffy on Bong Joon-ho in the past with his sour humor. However, Parasite completely won me over to his melodramatic style. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year, and one of the top films I’ve seen from this decade. I say this too often, though honestly it’s never too often, but watching this at the Cinerama Dome with the cast Q & A has been one of my top movie-viewing experiences. Parasite completely deserves the Palme d’Or. It’s a revelation.

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