[REVIEW] In ‘Parasite,’ one family lives off another’s bounty: Bong Joon-ho dissects class issues, but female perspective is lacking

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[REVIEW] In ‘Parasite,’ one family lives off another’s bounty: Bong Joon-ho dissects class issues, but female perspective is lacking


A photo from the set of director Bong Joon-ho’s film “Parasite,” which won the Palme d’Or at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. From left, actors Choi Woo-shik, Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin and Park So-dam smile for the camera. The four play a poor family in the film - son Ki-woo, father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook and daughter Ki-jung. [CJ ENTERTAINMENT]

Warning: spoilers follow.

“For overseas theatergoers, it may be hard for them to comprehend the film 100 percent because there are specific details that may only draw empathy from Korean audiences,” director Bong Joon-ho said during a press conference held in April before the premiere of his latest film, “Parasite,” at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival.

Yet was the film really “too local” for international audience to understand? It tells the story of two families - one rich, one poor - that become close in an unusual way. Bong singles out social hierarchy as a problem that people living under capitalist society will never be free of. The eerie similarity between the film’s beginning and its ending seems to further assert the director’s point: a rich family living in a mansion, and a secret resident hiding underground, latching onto the family for his survival without their knowledge.

Nothing has essentially changed. At the start it was a Korean family, but in the end it was a German family that was living in the house, implying that the situation was not limited to Korea, but to all types of societies under capitalism.

After seeing the film, the meaning of the title becomes clear. There can be no symbiotic relationships between people living under capitalism unless they strictly adhere to certain standards, rules and boundaries. In the film, such “boundaries” are explained through “lines” that the rich family’s patriarch - identified only by his surname Park - emphasizes persistently throughout the film.

“I like him because he gets tantalizingly close to crossing the line, but he doesn’t, in the end,” says Park when he talks about his newly-hired personal driver, Ki-taek, who’s the father of the poor family.

Yet the first person to cross the line is from neither of the two families. It’s actually Min-hyuk, a friend of Ki-woo, the poor family’s son. He pays a surprise visit into Ki-woo’s underground basement home without an invitation to give them a suseok, a scholar’s rock, that the family would have no use for. Then he suggests that Ki-woo take over his part-time English tutoring job for a rich family’s daughter. This is the beginning of how two families start to cross paths and lines before a tragedy rips both of them apart at the end.

From the minute Ki-woo steps into the mansion, he deceives the rich family about his educational status by using forged documents from a prestigious university, when in reality he does not go to any college. Gradually, the entire poor family manages to start working for the rich family through a series of lies: Ki-jung, Ki-woo’s younger sister, becomes an art tutor for the youngest child; Ki-taek becomes Park’s personal driver; and Chung-sook, the mother, takes over the housekeeper job. The entire family depends on the other family for their livelihood.

They scurry around madly trying to clear everything before Park’s family comes back into the house. When they are forced to hide beneath a table when Park’s family returns, they must listen to and hear the family’s most private and intimate moments. Their actions remind the audience of cockroaches that hide the moment a light switch is flicked - parasites.

A crucial factor in the story is smell. When the characters cross lines with one another, it’s not only done by their actions. The rich family notices that the poor family it employs shares the same smell, which the father in particular notes with a tinge of disgust. The poor family can’t get rid of its smell - it’s something that will always set the two families apart unless the poor family manages to move out of its basement apartment.

There are numerous other metaphors that Bong put into the story to make his point. Theories about the film’s elements written by local moviegoers are currently flooding social media as they attempt to interpret Bong’s intentions.

Yet the director’s treatment of female characters is often frustrating. Yeon-gyo, the upper-class mother, adamantly sticks to the typical stereotype of the “rich madam” that local films and dramas continue to reproduce: clueless and helpless, the good wife who obeys her husband and may be afraid of him. It may have been that the director realistically tried to portray the patriarchal family system, but it’s a disappointing perspective that’s been reflected countless times in Korean media.

At the end of the film, Bong killed off Ki-jung, the smartest and toughest member of the poor family. Ki-jung was different from the other members of her family because she set her own rules and standards for the Parks to follow. For instance, although Yeon-gyo tried to sneak a peek at her lessons, she firmly laid down a rule that no one was allowed to observe her during class time. She isn’t swept away or overwhelmed by their wealth. Unlike the others who were awed, she holds her ground from the beginning and played her role in the family’s scam with confidence from the get-go.

So why did she have to die? I was both horrified and annoyed that the film killed off such an interesting character with a voice and personality of her own. In fact, it was almost comical to see that the female characters were either typical stereotypes of women living under a patriarchal system or an interesting one who had to die.

On the other hand, the men - Ki-woo and Ki-taek - are portrayed as characters with human dignity and individual desires to the very end, which pushes the audience to sympathize with them, although they have done terrible things.

I understand that the director was more focused on examining the realities of Korean class issues, but I still lament that Bong failed to take advantage of the skills of his female actors or the interesting characters that he created.

BY LEE JAE-LIM [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr]
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