With four Academy Award wins (and as the only non-English-language film to ever win Best Picture), Parasite recently put South Korean cinema on the radar of the average American filmgoer. South Korean cinema evolved out of a backdrop of the Korean War and government censorship that, combined with international influence, created a unique and burgeoning national cinema from which Parasite director Bong Joon-ho emerged. The film, played out in a unique custom-built architecture setting designed just for the film, sends a visceral message to the viewers about the parasitic ways disparate members of society live off of each other.
And while its language may be foreign, the issues explored in the film certainly are not. The shifting economic climates and concerns about the wage gap in international and national scenes quickly become local issues, as well. A billboard reading “Right-to-Work is a CANCER of the working class” has had a home at the intersection of Monroe and Bancroft in Toledo for years, a not-so-subtle reminder that the kinds of conflict Bong is exploring here are present in cityscapes everywhere, from metropolitan Korea to small-town Midwest U.S.A.
Many of Bong’s films address socio-economic issues, but none so spatially as Parasite; architecture actively pushes the plot forward. The literal spatialization of class gap in the film is oft-talked-about: the Park family lives in a house on a hill, while the Kims live partially below street level. Different from the modernist, light-filled box of the European tradition, the bunker-like, semi-basement spaces set into the dirt are a national vestige of the post-war era in South Korea, called banjiha, that emerged out of fears of North Korean attacks. As the characters struggle to break out of their own class situation, the spaces silently coexist in contradiction, harboring memories of post-war fear and representing a new kind of war silently humming in the midst of a free and modern society.
Parasite opens with a tracking shot following Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), who walks the short length of his home as he bemoans that the neighbors have put a password on the wi-fi. Jobless and with dreams gone by, the Kims survive by such tactics as “leeching” off of their neighbors’ internet connection (“working-class parasites” to the rich, but not necessarily the parasites to which the title refers). Ki-woo later discovers an opportunity for advancement through an English tutoring job with Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), obtained under the fallacious premise that Ki-woo is college-educated. This event sets off a domino effect on a series of elaborate ruses by the Kim family to all eventually score jobs in the Park household, intertwining the two families within a carefully constructed social and economic web.
We see such issues of race, class, control and identity leading to stark political divisions on a global scale in recent years—the Brexit in the UK, the Yellow Jacket protests in France and the divisive election of Trump in the U.S., to name just a few—that reveal the deep resentment bubbling up in our 21st-century society, splitting the world into halves. Parasite brings that global struggle down to a general audience—in all its nuance and complication—with artful drama, thrill and even comedy.
The buzz that has surrounded this film being snubbed of any acting Oscars (zero nominations in those categories) is well-earned, as the entire cast really shines. The standout, though, is frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho, whose turn as Kim family patriarch Ki-taek is intriguing and nuanced. Park So-dam plays Kim daughter Ki-jung with an incredible magnetism, and the wonderful Cho Yeo-jong portrays the aloof and occasionally mysterious Choi Yeon-gyo, Park family mother. These characters feel realistically complex—not just symbols, but multifaceted, humans that play out their lives in a way that feels at once surprising and inevitable.
Perhaps more subtle yet just as powerful is the landscape upon which these characters play out their lives—the architectural elements that, far from being a “backdrop,” enact and enable the story in an active way. While this film is more straightforward than, say, one of his sci-fi features, Parasite cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo still manages to hide a lot in its visual cues: the architecture of the Kim and Park family homes becomes integral to the plot. Not only are the Kim and Park houses literally separated by elevation, but the spaces within the Park house are delineated by characters ascending and descending (and sometimes even falling).
Early in the movie, Ki-woo and Ki-jung arrive at the Park household and pause at the bottom of the steps to get her fictional backstory straight before ascending into the Park house for a job interview as an art therapist. The backstory is not real, and neither is the art therapy. But what Bong is interested in here is the privilege the Park family has, which simultaneously affords them the costs of a child art therapist and a deeply-rooted blind spot and naivete, thereby granting the Kims easy and complete access from the threshold all the way to the upper bedrooms in the Park household.
For viewers watching for the first time (or even the second, third time): watch for these moments within the context of circulatory spaces. Big hint: stairs. Viewers might come out asking, How do people interact within, through and between spaces? Who rightly occupies which one—or dare we ask, who is deserving, who deserves not? Several of the movie’s most climactic and tide-turning scenes happen on the stairs—which are, in some ways, “non-spaces” serving only as circulatory paths. They signify places of mobility or interaction between classes. People stay in their places until there is social mobility, right? So the circulatory elements actively push the narrative along, demonstrating the hidden reality rather than what is seen in broad daylight. People lie, cheat and commit acts of violence through, on and by such transitional corridors in partial obscurity— at least, until the very last climactic scene, when irrational bloodshed happens in plain view under the sun.
Unlike the Kims, who constantly travel between spheres of wealth and spheres of want, the Parks are not aware of movement up and down. Mr. Park, working in high-end tech, cruises around in his luxurious car—in smooth, horizontal motion. He and his wife occupy a tranquil state of evenness, never have to climb up and down the cityscape, or be aware of any other way of being. This wide-eyed worldview is captured by the wide-angled shots and horizontal picture windows that encases their home. Their obliviousness also manifests in problematic ways, including the commodification of cultures and histories in the Park family (in this case, the appropriation of Native garb and a teepee by their young “fanboy” son). As the one with the wealth and the power, even the bloodshed of an entire people is just a trendy, buyable, but also replaceable story—just like the people they hire into their lives.
From a filmic perspective, it’s difficult to find much fault with Parasite, and its historic Best Picture win feels only appropriate. That being said, those expecting a straightforward thriller or even a fun, dark comedy may be a little put off by the social commentary that ultimately becomes inseparable from a story that is entertaining in its own right. Many of Bong’s films can be described this way, although fans of his English-language works like Okja and Snowpiercer may be let down by a lack of action sequences and sci-fi worldbuilding, if those were their favorite parts of those films. In fact, it would probably be best to go into Parasite expecting and knowing nothing (or, as little as possible for a Best Picture winning film that you’re in the middle of reading a review for), because the experience is as unique as they come.
The attention Bong pays to the city and its architectural relationships is beautiful within the literal and historical context of South Korea, but it is even more powerful when these power structures overlay the social climate of the world at large. Influenced by Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, and Japanese director Oshima Nagisa, Bong’s combination of genre filmmaking and nuanced metaphors in his films garners a worldwide appeal. The performance he orchestrates in Parasite, nevertheless, strikes a surprisingly deep chord with us at home in the postindustrial Midwest.
As seen in the film, the semi-basements are not only small and dirty, but also at the bottom of the city both hierarchically and spatially (at one point, a flood drags detritus through the city and down into the basement). In the U.S., housing for those living in poverty may not look the same, but the disparity between the rich and poor can still be read through architectural markers, with poorer areas hosting often unkempt, dilapidated or generic housing with poor design, access, and views.
Many issues raised in the film about contemporary capitalism is evidence of a growing wealth gap happening worldwide, as well as here in Ohio. As factories move abroad or are increasingly automated or technical, Ohio workers are less and less equipped to take on the same jobs that once could support the entire family. According to The Columbus Dispatch, 2019 saw a loss of 12,500 jobs in Ohio, the worst since the recession.
Even with shining promises by tech giants, venture capitalists and other investors, the state experiences a stagnant and, in some areas depopulating, workforce, especially as young people move out to seek opportunities elsewhere. In fact, those cities suffering the most poverty are those with severe population loss since the 1970s—cities like Toledo, Dayton, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Numbers on income disparity speak for themselves. In 2018, around 53% of Ohioans made $40,000 or less per year, compared to around 8.70% making at least $100,000 (over six times greater). And 12.3% of the Ohio population makes $10,000/year or less, and are those most challenged by survival on the most basic level.
Indeed, with society fragmenting and infrastructural safeguards failing under the strain of COVID-19, the difference between rich and poor is literally life and death. As the times change, common folks have the steepest hills to climb, and that means paying attention to local, state and national economic news, fighting for better working conditions, and considering class disparity and the wage gap when voting or otherwise being politically active. This film is a call for awareness and a reevaluation of the ignorance and deception played out in the binary spaces we create.