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Parasite: Of leeches and peaches

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on February 10, 2020 Published on February 07, 2020

Breaking backs: We can almost smell, see, touch and hear the underbelly of the city in the film Parasite

The Oscar-winning film is a heartbreaking tale fuelled by the universal tragedy of class inequality

How do we slot the film Parasite? Is it a comedy, or a psychological thriller? Is it just a film on life, sometimes mundane, and at other times bizarre and violent? Or do we at all need to categorise Bong Joon-ho’s film, which has been creating waves across the world?

We are introduced to the Kims, a poor family of four living in a smelly basement in Seoul, at the very outset. Father Ki-taek (played by Song Kang-ho) has lost his job as a driver; mother Chung-sook manages to somehow put food on the table, thanks to a job folding empty pizza boxes.

Then one day their son, Ki-woo, a university student, gets a job as a tutor to the wealthy Park family’s daughter Da-hye, after a friend advises him to lie about having earned a university degree. The Kims are so astounded with the success of the untruth that they all end up lying about their qualifications — and join the Parks’ home as their art therapy coach, driver and housekeeper. The Park family is happy with the new crop of helpers, who have come through each other’s recommendations.

The film follows the trajectory of the Kims and the Parks, belonging to two very different social classes, but whose lives get entangled in each other’s. There are no villains in this film, neither are there any blemish-free heroes. Everyone has their crosses to bear, the prejudices that bind them to a certain class. The 50-year-old director, the first South Korean to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, France, pokes gentle fun at the rich and poor alike through each other’s eyes — as the Kims steal the Parks’ expensive liquor, eat their food (unwittingly, even their pricey dog food) and use their private space in their absence. But what at first seems like a harmless con job soon turns sinister. The sunlit house, which exudes openness and oneness with nature, turns into the harshest of prisons, so much so that when the Kims escape to their hovel-like living quarters, they heave a sigh of relief.

This is where Joon-ho’s mastery in storytelling shines through — we are at once horrified and fascinated by the bizarre occurrences in the course of the film. The hyper-violence leaves an impact, though it is unpredictably and creatively employed to bring out irony and dark comedy. But the real violence is in the living conditions of the poor. Regurgitating toilets, overflowing drains, men urinating on windows, and crawling termites — Bong Joon-ho doesn’t care about painting pretty pictures.

In contrast, every aspect of the Park family’s home is aesthetically pleasing — underscored by the soft sunlight that caresses the drawing room. Lavishly lined with ceiling-to-floor glass windows, it is in stark contrast to the Kims’ living conditions. While the Parks’ home is shot in the day — sunlight was a concern while the sets were being designed — the Kim family’s lodgings were almost always shot in the dark.

Class inequality is not an elephant in the room — we can almost smell, see, touch and hear the underbelly of the city that supports the lavish lifestyles of the rich. The rich-poor divide isn’t restricted to Korea; income inequalities and the sociological fallouts of the divide, their impact on crime and prejudices associated with the voiceless and often invisible poor are problems faced by most countries today. The heartbreaking tale highlights the capitalist world’s attitude towards the disadvantaged — stripping them off welfare programmes, exploiting them as a source of cheap labour (especially in Asia), forcing them out of jobs, and then blaming them for their poverty with the old cliché that the poor do not want to help themselves and are happy to live off others.

Much has been written on why Parasite deserves all the awards and accolades that it has been getting. It did not just win the coveted prize at Cannes last year, but has six Oscar nominations and just won the Bafta award for the best foreign language film. The film, currently running in theatres, has been nominated for the best foreign language film, as well as the best film for the 2020 Academy Awards to be announced on February 10. Parasite also won the award for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 77th Golden Globe Awards last month. The universality of the film is evident from its box-office success. Not only is the film — the director’s seventh — the third highest grossing in South Korea, it has also collected a worldwide total of $163.3 million. But then Joon-ho is no stranger to fame or money. His film Okja premiered at Cannes in 2017, while his black comedy The Host (2006) and the sci-fi Snowpiercer (2013) are among the highest grossers of all time in South Korea.

So just who is the parasite in the film? “Because the story is about the poor family infiltrating and creeping into the rich house, it seems obvious that parasite refers to the poor family,” Joon-ho said to the media. “But you can say that the rich family are also parasites in terms of labour. They can’t even wash dishes, they can’t drive, so they leech off the poor family’s labour. So both are parasites.”

Published on February 07, 2020
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