KOMARAGIRI: Joon-Ho’s 'Parasite' portrays modern struggles astutely
Column: Bleeding Heart
It should be no surprise that the best movie of this year, and potentially this decade, is a tale of class struggle.
What Karl Marx once called the “the history of all hitherto existing society” colors the darkly cynical palette employed by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho in his new movie, “Parasite.”
I do not consider myself a serious student or critic of cinema, but even as a casual viewer, I can comfortably consider this a masterpiece. The scenes are colorful and calculated and each shot is framed with intention, underscoring differences between the characters’ sense of wealth, morality and desperation.
“Parasite” starts with the Kim family, a struggling clan of four that lives in a semi-basement, a space that mirrors their agonizing middle ground between abject poverty and a livable lifestyle. The family folds pizza boxes to survive and with each cramped view of their living, dining and folding room, we see the literal spatial binding or boxing in that poverty pushes on people.
In one particularly wrenching scene, as the street is being fumigated with pesticides, the father demands the only window of the apartment remain open, allowing for “free” fumigation to rid the apartment of stink bugs. The scene finishes by the family coughing as the apartment filled with dark smoke, the stoic father diligently folding while his family suffers around him.
Luck changes for the Kims when the son, Ki-woo, is given the opportunity to tutor the daughter of an incredibly rich family. Eventually, Ki-woo realizes that he may be able to orchestrate the hiring of his family members for other work in service to the family.
The first act of this film offers a sometimes tense but humorous con that tells the story of a poor family manipulating their way into getting hired all in the same wealthy household.
But what follows is an incredibly dark and honest tale of the true weight inequity has on society, the quiet exploitation of the poor on the part of the rich and the lengths people will go to in order to save their loved ones.
This is not the first time Bong Joon-Ho has tackled themes of class — his dystopian science-fiction film “Snowpiercer” addressed how the wealthy can exploit the labor of a lower class and the stark contrast in lifestyle between the rich and poor. What sets “Parasite” apart, though, is its ability to ground its critiques of class in our actual circumstances today.
While there are repeated references to the economic conditions of South Korea specifically, like an inadequate national pension and rising levels of wealth inequality, the heart of the film speaks to the raw anger fueling protests in countries like Chile, Lebanon and Haiti.
The failure of governments to provide for the necessities of their citizens across the world is often inextricable from the corrupt entanglement between political power and the wealthiest class.
It is only natural that the popular media of our day should reflect the political conditions of our time, but for a movie like “Parasite” to resonate to the degree that it does extends beyond its artistic brilliance. It is a statement regarding the urgency of these global crises.
While the film does not preach the means of deconstructing these unfair social systems, it exposes the gruesome reality those on the bottom of society have to face. Although “Parasite” does not intend to be prescriptive in its messaging, lessons can be learned from what is not in the movie.
One of the most horrifying truths of the story comes in the form of indifference. In the film, it can seem that the narratives of the working class are ignored, pushed aside and forced underground.
Those of privilege may be able to go their whole lives without even recognizing “how the other half lives.” What this translates to is an implicit understanding that the only way to truly change one’s conditions is to raise a ruckus.
The elite do not listen unless forced to — a lesson evidenced by a year of mass protest. It seems this consciousness is even spilling into the way Americans respond to unfair policies.
After decades of American discourse being centered around blaming the poor for their circumstances and idolizing the rich, “Parasite” is an incredibly refreshing change of pace. It is a tragic hagiography of the working man and a dissection of the moral center in class solidarity.
It was a reminder to me that this rage is global, present and is finally being voiced. I highly recommend it.
Veenay Komaragiri is a Rutgers Business School senior majoring in business analytics and information technology. His column, “Bleeding Heart,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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