PARASITE, The Horror of Poverty and The Importance of Class Solidarity
Parasite is a visceral, realistic lesson on the importance of class solidarity, commenting on the cyclical violence of poverty, and demonstrating why we must rise above the scarcity myth.
CW: This article contains spoilers for the film Parasite
By Roslyn Talusan
It took me a couple of days to recover after seeing Parasite last week. Directed by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Okja), the film is a satire and thriller that explores wealth inequality and the lengths to which we go to survive. The story is from the perspective of the Kim family, who live in poverty and all become employed by the affluent and vapid Park family.
Though it begins as a heist comedy, where the Kims exploit the Parks’ naivete to secure their own employment, the film eventually twists into a thriller that ends in a horrible tragedy. “I really want to leave the audience with this emotional lump at the end after they leave the theater,” Joon-ho told the L.A. Times, “Something that they feel in their hearts and their skin.” Consider his mission accomplished: I walked out of the theatre in shock, swaddling myself in blankets for the rest of the night.
The violent bloodshed that defines the last act was intense, but I was especially stunned by the cruel brutality of the characters we’re meant to root for. It didn’t end up being a class war between the poor and the wealthy like I assumed it would be. Instead, Parasite is a visceral, realistic lesson on the importance of class solidarity, commenting on the cyclical violence of poverty, and demonstrating why we must rise above the scarcity myth.
Major spoilers for the film ahead.
The twist of the film begins once the Kims successfully infiltrate the Park family. With the Parks on a camping trip, the Kims celebrate their victory at securing their means of living, guzzling the most expensive booze they can find, and luxuriating in the spacious house. Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), the patriarch of the Kims, wonders if his predecessor, Yoon was able to find a new job. I asked myself the same question earlier in the film, as the Kim children, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) who work as tutors for the Park children disposed of their perceived competition, slyly manipulating the Parks into firing their housekeeper and chauffeur so their mother and father could take over these positions. They weren’t just scamming this overly privileged and ignorant family, but effectively harming other poor, working-class people too.
“Fucking hell!” Ki-jeong exclaims in response, her speech slurred, “We’re the ones who need help! Worry about us, okay? Not the driver, but me, please!” It’s this exact moment that the Kims’ fate is sealed—their lack of empathy proves a fatal error by the end. Indeed, a bruised and beaten Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), the former housekeeper, returns to the mansion, having left something behind. That something turns out to be her husband, Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon), hiding from violent loan sharks in the emergency bunker beneath the house for the past four years.
Promising small payments in exchange, Moon-gwang begs Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), matriarch of the Kims, to keep their secret and allow him to continue living there. Rather than extending kindness and empathy to her peers, Chung-sook literally and figuratively looks down on them, recoiling when Moon-gwang calls her “sis,” and attempts to call the police.
The Kims’ carefully woven plan to secure their livelihood unravels when Moon-gwang realizes they’re the reason she lost her job. All hell breaks loose. The two families resort to violence to keep each other in check, a manifestation of the dog-eat-dog mentality encouraged by capitalism. When the Parks return from their trip early, a heavy rainstorm spoiling their plans, the Kims viciously assert their dominance to protect their secret. They restrain and gag Geun-sae in the bunker and inadvertently concuss Moon-gwang, who later succumbs to her injuries.
Instead of breaking the cycle of poverty and abuse by uplifting their fellow working-class neighbours, the Kims conspire against, blackmail, and assault them. It’s likely that Ki-woo and Ki-jeong’s tutor salaries were more than enough to sustain the entire family, so forcing Yoon and Moon-gwang out of their jobs was unnecessary and cruel. Even when faced with the choice to stand in solidarity and protect Geun-sae, they’re so desperate to distinguish themselves from those they think beneath them that they’re willing to destroy their lives too. As such, the Kims are no better than the Parks, ignoring the humanity of those around them, seeing them as nothing more than obstacles to their own prosperity. Ultimately, it’s their greed and pride, hallmark traits of the wealthy, which lead to their collective demise.
Chung-sook remains with the Parks while the rest of her family barely escapes undetected, hurrying home as the storm rages on. They return to find their apartment fully submerged in dirty rainwater and sewage. Defeated, they salvage their most important belongings and spend the night in a shelter, visibly shaken by what they just survived. Despite doing whatever it takes to build a better life for themselves, the Kims simply cannot rise above their circumstances. It’s awful that their home was destroyed in the flood, but part of me also saw it as just desserts, karmic retribution for their own cruelty.
I can’t help but feel that, had the Kims simply recognized the humanity of the Parks’ former staff, they could possibly have avoided the senseless violence that eventually occurs. To avenge his wife’s death, Geun-sae cracks Ki-woo’s skull with a rock, putting him into a coma, and stabs Ki-jeong to death in the Parks’ backyard. Chung-sook skewers and kills him, and Ki-taek takes his rage out on the Park family, murdering the father in cold blood. Now, he is the one doomed to spend his life in hiding, separated from his family. By the film’s conclusion, the Kims are literally and metaphorically fractured, forced to start back at square one with even less than they had when we first met them.
Living in poverty is terrifying and traumatic, so I don’t blame the Kims for doing what they felt was necessary to survive under capitalism. But harming other people and putting their lives at risk is where I draw the line. While the fear of going hungry or losing our home is valid, we can’t use that as an excuse to tear each other down. There’s enough for all of us to survive so long as we direct our rage upwards. It’s easy to buy into the scarcity myth, to believe that all we need to do is work harder than everyone else to succeed. The harsh reality, however, is that none of us will survive alone, no matter how hard we pull on our bootstraps. We’re stronger as a collective than we are individually, and if we truly want to see a more equitable world, we must choose compassion and solidarity with one another.
The events of Parasite teach us as much. What unsettled me the most was how close the ending hit home, a too-realistic and bleak outcome for a family that was so full of vigor and hope at the start. As much as we’d like to believe that life is as simple as beating out our competition for survival, we must work together to create lives that are worth living, and a society where we all can thrive. Otherwise, we’re no better than our oppressors, and personally, I couldn’t think of a worse fate.
Roslyn Talusan is a Canadian freelance culture writer and anti-rape activist. Represented by The Bent Agency, she’s working on a memoir documenting her experience with workplace sexual violence. Her writing aims to critique media and dismantle societal beliefs that uphold rape culture. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.
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