By Alva Gotby
Two families, alike yet from different worlds, are the focus of Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite (2019). The film is an unusual workplace representation, situating class antagonism and hierarchy within the domestic sphere. It is set in two homes – the Kim family’s cramped semi-basement apartment and the Park family’s luxurious modernist villa. Yet while the film centrally portrays family relations and dynamics, it is also a film about work – the intimate yet strangely distant relations that structure the domestic sphere when it becomes a site of wage labour. It is a film about the anxieties that saturate bourgeois domesticity – a site represented as ‘private,’ yet simultaneously dependent on the work of non-family members. In this setting, Mr Park’s insistent worry that the domestic workers that he and his wife employ might be ‘crossing the line’ becomes a way of capturing the anxieties of class hierarchy that underlie the film. Parasite is literally unsettling, as lines of property and propriety are undermined. While this imaginary line is there to protect the Parks’ comfort, it is also an articulation of the potential discomfort that always threatens to disrupt the domestic harmony of the bourgeois household.
The Kims are precariously employed proletarians, who are always close to slipping into that part of a surplus population that cannot ensure its own survival. The post-crash Korean economy left millions of people struggling to survive – as Mr Kim states, ‘an opening for a security guard attracts 500 university graduates’. Their extreme precarity is illustrated in the first scene as the adult children of the Kim family, Ki-woo and Ki-jung, are searching for Wi-Fi access that would enable them to communicate with their employer, a pizza delivery service. Unable to pay their bills, the family is also close to losing what little income they have. The film’s narrative starts when Ki-woo is offered a position as an English tutor in the Park household, helping their daughter Da-hye access a university education that Ki-woo himself has been denied. He then convinces Mrs Park to employ Ki-jung as an art therapist for the younger Park child, Da-song, but does not reveal that Ki-jung is his sister, and that they both lack formal qualifications. After that, the Kim siblings arrange an elaborate scheme to make the Parks fire their chauffeur and housekeeper, enabling their father Ki- taek and their mother Chung-sook take up positions in the Park household. Yet when the Kim family enter the Parks’ home, their intimate connections must be hidden from their employers. For the bourgeois family’s comfort, proletarian family relations are erased.
While the Parks are interested in maintaining an impeccable household, where every trace of disorder is carefully hidden, they also have an interest in not knowing how that household is maintained. It is quite easy for the Kim family to trick the Parks into employing them, because the Parks essentially don’t care about their servants beyond their ability to preserve a shiny surface. Here, the Kims must carefully maintain the semblance of intimacy without becoming too intimate –never crossing the line. As Unemployed Negativity has pointed out, ‘[t]he line he [Mr Park] alludes to is fundamentally asymmetrical. The Kims are asked to do tasks that exceed their job description, even participate in the Parks’ son’s elaborate birthday party playing the part of “American Indians”. This does not cross the line, but the slightest hint of impropriety on the part of the Kims risks overstepping the boundaries imposed by the Parks.’ The Parks thus ‘cross the line’ whenever it suits them – when it facilitates their lives and when it gives them a sense of danger and erotic excitement. Yet the line is also dependent on the Parks’ willful ignorance of the conditions under which their servants live. Their domestic comfort must be clearly separated from their domestic workers’ own lives, so that they may exploit their servants’ labour without infecting their own lives with the disorder and poverty of the working class. But this anxiety about line-crossing is combined with a blindness on the side of the Park family, and the Kims’ efforts to disguise their transgressions. While Parasite shows the workers constantly crossing the line, their labour also contains the skilful vanishing act of keeping such impropriety hidden, in order to maintain the illusion of the orderly bourgeois home as the ‘haven in a heartless world.’
Here lies the importance of smell in the film. Whereas the Kims can easily get new haircuts and clothes in order to mimic the minimalistic, tasteful aesthetic codes of the Parks, they cannot easily get rid of the smell of their bug-infested, damp basement apartment. It sticks to their bodies and their clothes. Mr Park remarks that while his chauffeur Kim Ki-taek does not himself cross the line, his smell does. It is a smell of old radishes, of boiling rags, of people who ride the subway. Despite all the work that the Kims have put into making themselves appear respectable, highly trained, providing an ‘elite service’ – thus hiding the precarity and disorder of their own deprived lives – the smell is the one thing that reveals them as being out of place in the Parks’ household. The fact that they share the smell also risks revealing what the Parks do not want to see, namely that they are members of one family.
The impeccable façade of the Park household is thus maintained both by the Kim family’s secrecy and scheming, and the Park’s insistence not to know, not to see. Only persistent, lingering smell threatens this mutual commitment to not knowing – a state of innocence that allows the Parks to preserve the ‘niceness’ of their home. It is the Parks’ ignorance of the violence of class hierarchy that enables their own comfort, and allows Mrs Park herself to appear as ‘nice’ and ‘simple’. She spends all her time in the house yet is constantly unaware of what is going on. Kim Ki-taek describes Mrs Park as ‘rich, but still nice’, to which his wife Chung-sook retorts: ‘Not “rich but still nice.” Nice because she’s rich.’ In Parasite, the bourgeoisie emerges not as well-off because their skill or competence, but rather fundamentally unskilled and naive. Skilfulness lies with the working class, whether they are working or scheming. Whether they know it or not, the Park family’s lives are completely dependent on the skilled labour of others. Yet the dependency of the bourgeoisie has to be disguised. When Park family’s housekeeper Moon-gwang is fired, Mr Park worries that ‘in a week, our house will be a trash can. My clothes will start to smell.’ Without the hidden labour of the working class, then, the Parks’ domestic space would thus lose the qualities that mark it out as bourgeois. Mrs Park ‘lacks talent’ for cooking and cleaning. Mr Park’s own lack of domestic skills, his seeming inability to wash his own shirts, is never commented upon. It is simply taken for granted that he has neither the interest nor the skill necessary to engage with such lowly work. Here, the possession or non-possession of such ‘talents’ thus appear as a natural fact inherent in one’s personality, but are revealed to be deeply classed, as neither Moon-gwang nor the Kims have the luxury of being unskilled.
While domestic labour emerges as a special talent when the Parks need to justify why they cannot look after their own home or their children, Parasite shows that the labours of the domestic sphere are constantly hidden. The erasures of the labour that enable the domestic comfort and leisure of the Park family is highlighted by the spatial organisation of their home. Situated on a hill, behind a tall wall, their house has sunlight streaming through their large living-room window, which opens up to a carefully maintained garden. As Ki-woo remarks, you can see the sky from the Parks’ home. By contrast, the Kim’s residence is almost underground, with dimmed light coming in through small windows at street level. Stairs feature prominently in the film, as the Kims have to run down steep steps as they return to their own home. The house on the hill emerges as a symbol of class aspiration, of protection from the difficulties and deprivations of life in the Kim family’s neighbourhood. When heavy rain falls, the Kims’ basement apartment is flooded, while the Park home is unaffected. Water, like misery, amasses below.
There is thus a sharp spatial separation between the Kims and the Parks. And yet, Kims’ very intimacy with the Park household allows them to dream of a better life. They can imagine living in the Parks’ house because they spend much of their time there. When the Park family go camping, the Kims take their place. For a little while, we see the Kim family enjoying some leisure time – reading on the lawn, napping, taking a bath. Their similarity with the Park family emerges – they are both nuclear families consisting of a mother, a father, a son, a daughter. When Ki-woo half- jokingly reveals his plan to marry Da-hye, future-oriented aspiration emerges as a hope for the younger generation. Through one’s children, then, there is always the possibility of upward mobility – of moving into the house on the hill. The Kim children also present themselves as highly educated young professionals, while their parents are performing high-skilled but low-valued service work. While Ki-woo dreams of a different life, he is initially worried that he will be unable to convince the Parks that he is a university graduate – someone who ‘fits’ in the Park household. He later asks Da-hye whether he fits in with the guests at the Parks’ garden party, but she doesn’t seem to understand the question. He also jealously remarks that his sister Ki-jung fits so well in the house she might have lived there for years. ‘This rich house suits you’ he says, implying that the house was made to fit something in her. However, Parasite shows Ki-woo’s belief in upward mobility through some internal personal quality to be a mere fantasy.
In the second act of the film, bourgeois respectability itself emerges as an illusion. The Park house, for all its comfort and beauty, is haunted. It makes explicit what is often tacit in other domestic horror films – that our cultural dread of basements and attics is a fear of what has to be hidden in order for bourgeois domestic comfort to endure. The upstairs/downstairs dynamic is no longer benevolent, but a looming threat to the safety and comfort of the bourgeois home. In the second act, the mood of the film shifts from comedy to horror as it is revealed that the hidden bunker under the Park house is the home of Geun-sae, the former housekeeper Moon-gwang’s husband. He has lived there for over four years, hiding from the loan sharks that threaten his life outside the house. Only Da-song has seen him, and mistook him for a ghost. For the Kim family, the horror lies with the fact that their position is revealed to be more similar to the childless, indebted Moon-gwang and Geun-sae than the future-oriented Park family. Parasite suggests that one cannot shake off the history of class and deprivation through sheer will-power. It is ultimately not the Parks that the Kims replace, but the inhabitant of the bunker.
Through constantly submerging their poverty, the Kim family could nurture a fantasy (both for themselves and the Parks) that they were respectable, ordinary, even upwardly mobile. But when violence breaks out at the end of the film, no longer hidden underground, it also breaks the spell of the fantasy of replacing the Parks. It is Geun-sae disrupts who this fantasy, by bringing violence to the surface, where it can be seen by their vulnerability to the Parks and the police. Before that, however, Ki-taek has already cautioned against his son’s constant schemes to achieve class mobility. ‘Ki-woo,’ he tells his son, ‘you know what kind of plan never fails? No plan at all. If you make a plan, life never works out that way.’ What little we are told of Ki-taek’s life history – that he has been scraping by on various precarious employment contracts and business ventures that never work out – makes his son’s aspirations seem absurd. For the surplus population, planning does not help.
Indeed, for all their efforts the family is ultimately downwardly mobile. When Ki-taek takes Geun-sae’s place in the bunker, hiding not from loan sharks but the police, he is lower than he was at the beginning of the film. After Ki-taek has revealed that he is hiding in the bunker to evade the police, Ki-woo devices yet another plan, this time for saving his father. By becoming rich and buying the Parks’ villa, his will give his father (limited) freedom. Yet he has no way of communicating this plan, and they remain stuck in their respective basements. Despite Ki-woo’s plans for upward mobility, through marriage or simply by ‘becoming rich’, the end of the film sees the Kims worse off than at the beginning.
Parasite displays the inadequacy of liberal antidotes to class inequality – mobility through cleverness or hard work. Despite all of Ki-woo’s dreams and the Kim family’s skill and scheming, no one actually moves upwards. The Park household – the Kim family’s workplace – seethes with class antagonism, as the Kims oscillate between admiration and contempt for the Parks. On the other hand, the Parks’ dependence on the labour of their servants always risks tipping over in disgust, especially when class difference is betrayed through smell. Yet the very intimacy of the labour relations prevents open hostility from breaking out. Only Geun-sae understands how to unleash violence, but he attacks a fellow surplus laborer, Ki-jung, instead of members of the class responsible his suffering, his wife’s former employers. With his dying breath, he shouts ‘respect!’ to Mr Park. The Kim family has previously refused to extend class solidarity to Moon-gwang and Geun-sae, rejecting Moon-gwang’s appeal to equality on the basis that they are all ‘needy’. The Kims’ labour of respectability rests on Geun-sae staying hidden in the bunker, just as the smell of their own basement home should ideally stay in the neighbourhood below the hill.
Parasite is not a moral drama. In terms of morality, and criminality, the Kim family crosses the line whenever they can. But in political terms, their attempts to cross the class barrier and plan their own upward mobility constantly fails, because this barrier cannot be overcome through craftiness. The Kims recognise that morality and civility rest entirely on the side of the Parks, who can afford to be moral, nice, beautiful. The Kims cannot truly achieve the upward mobility of which they dream – at most they can displace other members of the ‘needy’ class. As loan sharks and police threaten the life and freedom of the proletarians, this displacement becomes a struggle of life and death. Rather than inhabiting the future-oriented reproduction of their employers, enabled by the imagined marriage of Ki-woo and Da-hye, Ki-taek and Chung-sook survive only by displacing the inhabitants of the bunker, literally killing them in the process. Geun-sae and Moon-gwang come to represent the immobility of the surplus population, struggling to survive through servitude and informal means of reproduction, living day to day rather than dreaming of a better future.
The Parks move out of the house and are replaced by a foreign family, who are blissfully unaware of the violence that has afflicted the household. Order is seemingly restored, at least for the bourgeoisie. Parasite is simultaneously about conditions of stark class difference and the ambivalence of class relations when they come to appear as interpersonal, within the intimate setting of the household. Both of these conditions are inherent in waged domestic labour. The ‘needy’ are only let into the bourgeois household on the condition that they erase the conditions of violence and deprivations under which they have become a servant class. Simultaneously, however, Parasite performs a series of inversions which unsettle and destabilise the seemingly natural character of the class hierarchy, an ambivalence to which the film’s title attests. The Park family are revealed to be needy and parasitic – only able to preserve their own lives through the work of unseen others. When crossing the line, Geun-sae and the Kims make real the Parks’ anxieties of bringing strangers into their home. The poor must live below, but when they are literally hiding below the house, the sheltered domestic sphere becomes a site of horror. Da-song’s description of Geun-sae as a ghost, and his life-threatening seizure as a result of this frightening confrontation with a member of the surplus population, seem to suggest that the upper class cannot well survive an open confrontation with the hidden underside of the class hierarchy. Bourgeois domesticity is simultaneously unstable and surprisingly resilient. As Ki-taek supplants Geun-sae, the conditions of the bourgeois household, as well their potential unravelling, remain in place.