'Parasite' (2019) and the Myth of Upward Mobility

This article contains spoilers for Parasite.

Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite has dominated awards season in a way foreign (rather, non-English speaking) films rarely do. While it will no doubt be snubbed for Best Picture, confined to best Foreign Language Film, and while none of the cast received nominations for either lead or supporting roles, it has every right to win out in every applicable discipline.

That’s the strength of Parasite – it doesn’t have one shining feature that you can easily point to and say: “that’s why it’s great”, it’s all great. That makes summing up my thoughts on the film quite difficult; I have had to stop myself from breaking into an endless tirade of praise on as many occasions. 

For this reason, I think it best that I avoid simply listing all the great bits of acting, direction, set design, scripting and so on and so forth that had my jaw on the floor when I was fortunate enough to see the film last month. Instead, what I am going to do is talk about the theme that resonated with me more than anything else  the myth of upward mobility. 

By “the myth of upward mobility” I am referring to the ingrained social mythology of both class divisions and the narrow cultural view of climbing the ladder, so to speak.

The root of this mythology comes from the wider themes of aspiration and idolisation. We see the Park’s elegant, modern house, the beautiful décor, and chauffeured Mercedes Benz, and we think “that’s success. I want that.” This forms the basis of material aspiration – the drive to ascend through social rank and earn the lifestyle of the Park family: bountiful, stylish, effortless. This aspiration is shared in all members of the Kim family to some extent, but none more so than Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). In his final promise to go to a good university, get a good job and buy the house to reunite with his father, Ki-taek (Kang-Ho Song) who is now hiding in the sub-basement, Bong and co-writer Jin Won Han lay the mythology bare in its plainest form. This is, in essence, the culturally ingrained blueprint of social hierarchy – the myth of upward mobility. 

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As prescribed by the myth, the only noble path to a better life is to do well in school, go to a top university and get a well-paying job. This is often a successful path, but the lie of the myth is both in its insistence that the system is fair, or that it is the only path available.

Ki-woo’s is a belief echoed in the minds of young people around the world: this is the ladder you must climb, and you will only ascend as far as you deserve. Parasite dispels this myth in a number of ways, one example being that the young son Da-song (Jeong Hyun-joon) is praised as an extraordinary artist with his drawings, which would not seem out of place stuck to the front of any fridge in the country, curated and displayed like a Picasso  something to be pondered and discussed. This subtly rejects the idea that the social ladder is something all must ascend via their own merit, as Da-song is placed on a high rung by the simple lottery of birth. 

While the Kim’s rightfully regard this exceptionalism, the Park’sblasé attitude toward material wealth and their disparaging comments to the poor with utter contempt, they nonetheless idolise the Park family  or at least their lifestyle.

Throughout, the Kim family elude to the idea that they do not belong in the Park home, living their life. This is not some lamentation of the muddy morality of their scheme, rather a deeper almost spiritual feeling, as though their very blood ought to keep them from crossing the threshold. 

Ki-woo exemplifies this towards the end of the film when he and the Park daughter, Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so), look out onto the garden as the Park’s friends and family assemble for an impromptu gathering on Da-song’s birthday. Admiring the effortless class and style which he feels removed from, he asks whether he fits in. Da-hye finds the question odd – of course he fits in. As far as she is concerned, he is a university educated English tutor, he’s clearly talented, smart, charming – why wouldn’t he fit in? But Ki-woo knows he is an imposter, his biological material, though indiscernible from that of the Parks, is invalid. 

This line of dialogue, as well as the wider phenomenon of self-segregation by class, brings up another important wrinkle in the mythology: class reverence. Within the lens of Parasite, Geun-sae (Park Yung-hoon) is the clearest example of this. The husband of former housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun), Geun-sae is trapped in the Park’s subbasement hiding from loan sharks. Living off scraps for years in isolation, Geun-sae is about as low on the ladder as a man can be. Juxtapose this with the opulence of the Park family and you might expect there to be a deep resentment bubbling away, but Geun-sae embodies the opposite – he reveres the family, Mr. Park particularly, as somewhere between celebrity and deity. Night after night he bashes out a message of respect in morse code using a switch to illuminate a bulb in the Park living room – something the Parks notice, irked at the need to get it fixed. The manner in which he ‘writes’ his message is as emblematic of Geun-sae’s devotion as the message itself – he uses his forehead to slam into the button, causing blood to stream down his face. This evokes the imageryof self-flagellation present in some religions, particularly Catholicism and Shia Islam’s Ashura.

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Geun-sae’s actions speak to a wider societal phenomenon, brought about and reinforced by the mythology of class, where those on top are respected, revered and adored by those below because the myth tells us that those on top have earned it, and are thus more able, harder working, and more worthy of respect. 

In cultures informed by this mythology, the opposite is believed as well – that those of lesser means are lazy, unimpressive or,more derisively, parasites of society. This reduction of class struggles to a simple gulf in effort between the rich and poor leads to what are at best misguided and ignorant and at worst purposefully deceitful cultural ideas such as “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” a phrase coined to demonstrate how absurd the idea itself is. It also leads to snobbery – or whatever best describes the opposite of Geun-Sae’s deification of Mr.Park. 

While cordial to the help when face to face, when alone (or think themselves alone) the Parks all mention the idea that the poor smell bad. Park Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong) laments that she had to use the subway and was surrounded by “the smell of people who have to use the subway”. Mr. Park comments that Ki-taek, while a good driver, smells awful, and Da-song claims that the whole Kim family smell alike.

This cuts deep into Ki-taek particularly – visibly hurt by the words as he and his family hide under the sleeping Park’s living room table. It hurts because it is far removed from the superficial comments he will have likely received growing up poor, instead targeting something deeper – the idea that his smell, his low social-standing, is not something that can be fixed with a shower and a change of clothes, but is in fact an intrinsic property of his very being. 

That’s why he kills Mr. Park.

When rushing to the aid of his daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam),who lies bleeding after being attacked by Geun-sae at Da-song’s party, Mr. Park yells at Ki-taek to drive Da-song to the hospital after the incident triggers a seizure. Ki-taek throws the car keys which land under Geun-sae and Ki-taek’s wife Chung-sook(Jang Hye-jin) who are struggling on the floor. After Chung-sook manages to kill Geun-sae, Mr. Park picks up the keys before recoiling in disgust at Geun-sae’s stench. This triggers a deep resentment in Ki-taek who, in a moment of clarity, stabs Mr. Park in the heart.

It wasn’t being asked to abandon his dying daughter that pushed him over the edge, it wasn’t the rage at Geun-sae, it was this subtle reminder that all he is, and all his family would ever be was trash, scum.

Parasites.