Bong: Parasite (2019)
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is one of the most entertaining, conceptual, hilarious, surreal and unsettling Golden Palm winners in some time, using three very different South Korean families to paint a picture of how class is mediated through physical, personal and residential space in the twenty-first century. We meet the first family in the opening scenes of the film – Kim Ki-taek, played by Song Kang-ho, his wife Choong-sook, played by Jang Hye-jin, his son Ki-woo, played by Choi Woo-shik, and his daughter Ki-jung, played by Park So-dam. The Kims are all living in an extremely precarious situation, bunched together in a basement apartment that is cluttered to the brim with all the possessions that they manage to glean from day to day. While they all work odd jobs, including for a pizza delivery service, they’ve long since lost any enthusiasm for their work, since it’s clear that their wages will never be enough to move them above a subsistence level. Their connection to the outside world is also precarious, since they can’t afford wi-fi of their own, and are perpetually on the verge of losing free wi-fi connections from surrounding businesses. In the opening scene, we follow Ki-woo and Ki-jung as they move from point to point in their apartment, contorting themselves into one unbearable position after another as they try to nail down a stable and consistent point of connectivity.
That all changes, however, when Kim-woo gets a job as an academic tutor for the second family in the film. Unlike the Kims, Mr. Park, played by Lee Sun-kyun, his wife Yeon-kwo, played by Cho Yeo-jeong, his daughter Da-hye, played by Jung Ji-so, and his son Da-so, played by Jung Hyun-joon, all live in an enormous house. This house is clearly in a wealthy section of the city where the film takes place. It was also designed by a famous architect, who prioritized luminous voids of space, as does Bong himself, who spends relatively little time in the bedrooms upstairs, instead focusing on the massive kitchen, living room and garden, all of which form a single sightline, and all of which are sparsely furnished. These clean, cool, expansive spaces form a dramatic contrast to the cramped, contorted spaces of the Kims’ apartment. Yet they never feel entirely distinct from the Kims’ apartment either, since Bong uses them as the backdrop for a series of unruly, awkward actions that start from the moment that Kim-woo is given a tour of the house. Many of these actions are performed by the Parks’ maid, Goon Moon-gwang, played by Lee Jung-eun, such as when she casually jumps up to get a toy arrow from a door frame while showing Kim-woo around.
This contrast between stately architecture and frenetic movement gives Parasite a surreal and slightly atonal atmosphere from the very outset. It also suggests unseen or external forces that are keen to make over these empty spaces in their own image. This paves the way for the Kim family’s plan, which involves getting each other jobs within the Park household, until they are all working there. First, Ki-woo recommends Ki-jung as a talented art tutor, capable of unlocking the psychological secrets that Yeon-kyo believes are buried within Da-so’s abstract paintings. Then, Ki-jung frames the Park chauffeur, placing panties in his car to suggest that he is hiring prostitutes while on the job, before recommending Ki-taek as a talented chauffer. Finally, Ki-taek, Ki-woo and Ki-jung frame Moon-gwang as having tuberculosis, taking advantage of her peach allergy to land her with symptoms that take her straight to the emergency room, where they report overhearing a tuberculosis diagnosis. With Moon-gwang out of the way, Ki-taek recommends Choong-sook as a maid, and she moves in shortly after. During this entire process, the family adopts pseudonyms, meaning that the Parks have no idea that a single family is working and living in their house.
In an additional twist, however, Bong reveals a third family. One night, while the Parks are away, Moon-gwang returns to the house. By this stage, the Kims have made the house their own, and are surprised and shocked by her arrival, especially since she won’t say why she has come back. In addition, Moon-gwang poses a particular threat to them, since she was maid to the architect who built the house, and lived there longer than anyone else, meaning that she is more identified with the house than anybody else. Nevertheless, they let her in, and she heads straight to the basement, where she opens a secret passage that leads to an enormous subterranean space. While this space is just as expansive and empty as the house upstairs, it is far less adorned, and consists largely of brutalist, poured concrete rooms and passageways. It turns out that Moon-gwang’s husband, Geun-se, played by Park Myung-hoon, has been living in this bunker for the last couple of years, in order to escape his creditors. While Moon-gwang was in the house, she was able to feed him, check on him and make sure that he had a sufficient quality of life, but he has languished since her departure, especially since a bookcase has become jammed in front of the passageway out of the basement, preventing him from exiting to get food in the night like he was once able to do.
By this stage, then, Bong has presented three families. The first family – the Parks – have an excess of living space, while the other two families – the Kims and the Gooks – have no living space. While their approach is quite different, both the Kims and the Gooks have tried to share the excess space that the Parks have set up around themselves, since it is clearly too much space for the Parks to occupy on their own. By presenting the situation in this way, Bong evokes a world in which there is living space everywhere, but – somehow – only the rich have space in which to live. More specifically, Bong suggests that the spectacle of redundant residential space – residential space that exceeds the physical capacity of residents – has become the defining feature of the upper class, and the most visible form of conspicuous consumption in the modern world. The twist of the film is thus not simply that Moon-gwang has also been subsisting upon the redundant spaces of the Park house, but that these spaces extend much further than even the Kims had imagined. For Moon-gwang, the basement can be explained in two ways, since “many rich houses have secrets bunkers in case North Korea attacks, or creditors come knocking.” Yet the film suggests that the power and status of this additional residential space stems precisely from the fact that it serves no properly pragmatic purpose – that it is redundant, and conspicuously redundant.
The ultimate pleasure of the one percent, as the film presents it, therefore comes from gazing upon space that you can’t possibly need, or possibly occupy. Put more bluntly, the spectacle of space, and the idea of space as a source of entertainment, rather than a source of precarity, is presented by Parasite as the ultimate privilege of the wealthy. For that reason, space and class are inextricable, meaning that it’s not possible to simply “inhabit” or “share” the enormous spaces of the wealthy in the way that both the Kims and Gooks attempt. For a brief moment, they do consider a spatial alliance, and the possibility of occupying the redundant spaces of the Park household in a harmonious manner. But any semblance of peace is quickly offset by Geun-se, Moon-gwang’s husband, whose time underground has driven him slightly mad, and turned him into a slave to the house’s spatial structure despite himself. Despite being resistant enough to reject his creditors when he first retreated underground, he has since come to see Mr. Park as a quasi-deity, sending him morse code messages each night through the flickering light bulb that hangs over the stairs.
This situation provides the first hint that any effort to merely occupy the spaces of the wealthy – at least at an individual or familial level – just ends up reiterating the spatial gap between the wealthy and the non-wealthy. The more time the Kims and Gooks spend in the house without the Parks knowing about it, the more insurmountable the class divide between them becomes. In part, this is simply because they have more access to the Parks, and to their sense of class privilege. In one scene, for example, Ki-taek and Choong-sook overhear Mr. Park (who is never given a first name) and Yeon-kyo discussing the ineffable smell that working-class people have: “People who ride the subway have a special smell.” At the same time, the house itself starts to repel the Kims, along with all their effort to inhabit its most “empty” and “vacant” stretches. Paradoxically, to share this enormous space with the owners, they have to cramp themselves into ever tighter and more constrained spaces, not unlike the way in which workers’ quarters are often reduced in proportion to the size of the house in certain wealthy South Korean neighborhoods. Even when the Kims and Gooks do have room to move, their bodies are forced into more constrictive and tortuous configurations – thrown down stairs, jammed between bookcases, forced to crouch beneath tables in otherwise empty and panoramic rooms, as the Parks continue on with life as usual.
Interestingly, these cramped and contorted moments are never directly produced by the Parks themselves. Instead, the Kims and the Gooks are progressively debilitated by the spatial logic of the house, and the spatialisation of class, that drives the Parks’ lifestyle. As a result, Parasite often plays as a home invasion film, or a haunted house film, in which the source of horror is all the empty and redundant space in the house that might be filled with working-class people – a vision of the upper-class spatial sprawl co-opted, contained and occupied by the proletariat. By actually inhabiting these spaces, the Kims and the Gooks thus draw out the inherent hauntology of upper-class space, and of space itself in a world where the spectacle of space has become the ultimate index of wealth and privilege. As the house expands and then contracts around the Kims and Gooks – always contracting more than it expands – it even feels like upper-class pleasure stems from spatial play as much as spatial consumption – holding out the possibility of space as something that transcends class, or converges class, only to withdraw it periodically as a privilege of the ultra-wealthy. Watching it, I was reminded of the odd way in which Hollywood films present owning a wealth house, or even simply being inside a wealthy house, as a norm in American culture.
This spatial play finds expression in a Cowboy and Indian motif that recurs throughout the film. Early on, Ki-woo discovers that Da-song like to pretend to be an American Indian, and often sleeps and works in a teepee in his bedroom. At one level, this reflects the unconscious pleasure that the Park family takes in appropriating space as their own. However, it also feeds into the film’s constant movement between constrained and panoramic spaces. In the film’s central tableau, Ki-taek and Choong-sook find themselves trapped beneath a table in the living room as Mr. Park and Yeon-kyo fall asleep on the couch, while watching Da-song as he camps out in the backyard in his teepee. The couch, the table and the teepee are the only objects in the cavernous combined space of living room and backyard, which are only separated by an enormous piece of plate glass. As the storm abstracts small details even further, the Parks bask in their command of the space around them, much as Da-song’s teepee imbues the backyard with the sweep and reach of the American prairies, extending the spatial sprawl of the house indefinitely into the night.
During this scene, the Park family is defined, as never before, by their shared pleasure in the spectacle of space. Yet the Kims are simultaneously more constricted than ever before, forced to hide under the table for most of the night, before sliding, abjectly, to the entry staircase, once the Parks fall asleep. While they are crawling, Mr. Park momentarily turns on the light, illuminating Ki-taek in the most pathetic pose of the entire film – paused, mid-slide, on the cusp of the stairs – and somehow all the more pathetic for the fact that the Parks don’t even notice him. To add insult to injury, while the Kims are crouched beneath the table, Mr. Park outlines one of his main fantasies to his wife – to take on the “smell” of Ki-taek, and the smell of the working-class more generally, to render their love-making more exotic and exciting. Cramped into their position of maximum discomfort, at the moment at which the house and family receive their maximum spatial sweep, the Kims find themselves reduced to a working-class fiction, fantasy and fetish – something to bide away the time while the Parks are enjoying their spatial panorama, but nothing more significant than that.
This spatial crisis, as it might be called, divests the Kims and the Gooks, once and for all, of any claim to the redundant spaces in the Park household, or any residential space of their own, producing a spatial apocalypse that takes two distinct forms. In the first, the rainstorm that broadened the spatial sweep of the Parks’ living room and backyard now hounds and pursues the Kims as they make their way back to their own apartment. This is the first time that we have seen the connective tissue between the Park household and the Kim household, and it takes the form of a continuous descent – down roads, lanes, staircases, overpasses – in which they are hurried along, and finally overtaken, by a torrent of cascading floodwater. By the time they reach their apartment, it is almost entirely underwater, forcing them to salvage a few key possessions before finding themselves literally homeless. Meanwhile, Moon-gwang and Geun-se are trapped in the basement by the Kims, driven into a different kind of descent by the pressures of upper-class space, and spend most of the night trying to claw, yell or break themselves free from their constriction.
With the spatial hierarchy of the wealthy re-established, the rain vanishes the next morning, leaving space for Da-song’s birthday party. The centrepiece of the party is his teepee, which has somehow survived the storm, where Kims are expected to be in attendance. Upon arriving, however, they have learned a valuable lesson – that the empty space of the house isn’t really empty, and that every effort they make to inhabit “vacant” upper-class space is destined to just push them further down into squalor. The spaces commanded by class are as intractable as class – or, rather, class is space, and access to space. The Kims are now – literally – unable to inhabit the Park house in even the most notional or temporary way, just as the house now finally turns its full violence on them, posing an immediate and urgent existential threat by virtue of its very existence and presence. Co-opted into a Cowboy and Indian play, Ki-taek takes out his resistance to the house in the only way he can, by killing Mr. Park, while Geun-se finally emerges from the basement, having tried all night to remove the impediment that the Kims placed upon the door, before joining the violence with glee.
During her sessions with Da-song, Ki-jung has discovered that he did indeed have a traumatic experience as a young child. This experience, as he recounted it, involved seeing a ghost emerge from the basement, although we quickly realise that the ghost was simply Geun-se coming up in the night to have food. By the time Da-song has reached his birthday, he has started to let go of this ghost memory, so seeing Geun-se emerge once again brings the entire spatial scheme of the film into a different kind of trauma and focus. If wealth and space are inextricable, Bong suggests, then space is inherently haunted by all the working-class people who could conceivably be inhabiting and making use of it at any one point in time. To that end, Bong actually presents Geun-se as a ghost in flashbacks, making it clear that the house, and the spatial scheme that supports it, automatically renders him ghostlike, even – or especially – once we know the reasons that prompted him to live in the basement.
This return of the “ghost” is one of the key indications that this climactic scene – as cathartic as it is – can’t really solve any of the problems of the film. Even as he is being stabbed by Ki-taek, Mr. Park is still repelled by his smell, suggesting that class is intractable even in the face of individual, or familial, acts of violence and retribution. Instead, Bong tentatively suggests that a more systemic and revolutionary mindset is needed, even if it starts with small personal efforts to engage with a more collective lifeworld. This possibility is outlined through a haunting coda that details what happens in the aftermath of the crime. At first, Ki-taek simply seems to vanish after stabbing Mr. Park. He can’t be found anywhere in the house, but none of the security cameras on the street outside show him fleeing that way either. For a while, the police scrutinise the Kim family, and keep watch on the (now empty) Park house, but nobody has any idea where he is. Meanwhile, the remaining Parks move out, and a new family buys the house, thanks in part to a dodgy real estate agent who gets a quick sale by downplaying the violence that took place there only a couple months before.
During this time, Ki-woo tries to get more distance from the events that took place in the Park house, and to see them as part of a bigger picture. Similarly, he tries to see the spatial scheme of the Park house as part of a broader spatial scheme. In order to do this, he starts to spend time on the hills overlooking the Park house. From this vantage point, he can get a clearer sense of the layout of the house, but also the way in which the house fits into the broader South Korean urban and economic landscape. And it is here that he starts to notice a series of patterned flashes from an outdoor light, repeated at regular intervals. Remembering Ge-seun’s habits, he starts to transcribe the lights as morse code, revealing a “letter” that Ki-taek has been broadcasting ever since the day of the murders. In this letter, Ki-taek reveals that, as soon as he had stabbed Mr. Park, he realised that he would be found if he left the house, or went home, so he took refuge in the basement, closing the door behind him as he went. Since nobody apart from the original architect and the Gooks knew about the basement, he would be able to live there once the house was cleared and resold.
However, Ki-taek also knows, by this point, that is is impossible to simply inhabit the apparently empty or redundant spaces of the ultra-rich. He has also realised that it is impossible to use those spaces as a site of resistance without combining forces for a collective effort. Yet whereas Ki-woo retreats to a more systemic distance on the hillside, Ki-taek tries to negotiate his relationship to the house in the only way left to him while approaching the issue from the perspective of individual and familial ties – by enjoining Ki-woo and the rest of the family to save up enough money to purchase the house. Only when they do so, he insists, will he be able to come out from the basement during the day, and relinquish the role of ghost that he has inherited from Ge-seun. In a brief epilogue, Bong shows the Kim family purchasing the house, and freeing Ki-taek from the basement, but this turns out to be a fantasy, and the film ends with them back in their cellar apartment, still trying to make ends meet. In his address at the Sydney Film Festival, Bong estimated that it would take many centuries for the Kim family to even have a hope of purchasing the house.
Parasite ends in this tensile zone between Ki-taek’s yearning to resolve space at the level of individuals and families, and Ki-woo’s yearning for a some greater shift in the way class and space are allocated to begin with. Between those two poles, Bong often seems to be yearning for socialism as a spatial principle first and foremost, if only by presenting us with a world in which abolishing the spectacle of private space, as the ultimate upper-class pleasure, seems like the most pressing and urgent concern. In fact Bong implies, irreverently, that there is no private space anyway at this point in late capitalism – or that private space is afforded to so few people that it effectively doesn’t exist for the majority.
That absence of private space, of a place for Parasite to call home, makes for a remarkably daring and mercurial tone. Throughout his career, Bong has often combined comedy, suspense, absurdity and grotesquerie, but never as elegantly or as dextrously as he has here, which is perhaps why Parasite felt like his greatest film to date for me, as well as one of the greatest films to win the Golden Palm in many years. Surreal as it is, though, the film’s strangeness comes from how elegantly it fuses its otherworldly scenarios with feelings that are very familiar, to me at least, as a citizen of late capitalism – the feeling of seeing films set in big houses, of seeing reality series about big house, of even being in big houses, and feeling as if I am inhabiting a totally different spatial scheme from the one dictated by everyday economics and urban dynamics. For much of Parasite, I was reminded of the arcane subterranean spaces of the New Korean Extremity, and of Chan-wook Park in particular, from the bunker of Oldboy, to the Gothic edifices of Stoker, to the torture chambers of The Handmaiden. Much as Bong reaches for surreal scenarios to capture the strangeness of everyday life and space, so Parasite takes the arcane spaces of the previous generation of South Korean film, and reimagines them as part and parcel of everyday life and space. It is in that combination of horror and banality, that capacity to articulate the surrealism of everyday life in such a poised way, that the beauty and horror of Parasite lies.
Leave a Reply