Parasite: a study in inequality

Edit: I composed this pre-coronavirus, and honestly in light of these past weeks’ events I feel that the message of Parasite is more relevant than ever. Best of luck to everyone struggling through these strange weeks.

In February, Parasite won the Oscar and my local theater decided to bring it back for a special Valentine’s Day weekend showing. This is not the movie I would have picked for a Valentine’s Day trip, but the S.O. was exceedingly excited about it so we invited some friends and headed out.

I hated it. But it was one of the most excellent movies I’ve seen anytime recently. You should go see it, too. If you want to see it spoiler-free, bookmark this post and come back.

The difference between enjoying something and appreciating it is a whole separate post, but suffice to say that watching this movie was, for me, like having ants crawling all over my skin and trying not to move. This was an intentional feeling created by the director, and I cannot as a viewer help but admire that. But why did the director want the audience uncomfortable? The answer is simple – Parasite is a movie about facing something that makes us deeply uncomfortable, as a society. It is about inequality, about its systemic nature. It only makes sense for your flesh to crawl, because this is a horror story.

I want to talk about what was, for me, the essential moment of this story, the place where everything came into focus. It wasn’t in the climax of the movie, with the violence and the murders. It wasn’t even in the final scenes, in their wistful unreality, though I could probably write a whole post just on Kim Ki-wook and Kim Ki-taek’s relationship in that moment, both as dream and as fact. I won’t, though. No, for me, the most important scenes of this film were to do with the storm, and the way that the Kim family experienced it.

As you know, I have a dayjob, and one of the kinds of projects I have worked on has to do with stormwater. Perhaps that is why I was so very aware of the juxtaposition of the storm. It is the same event – the same rain falls, the same lightning crashes. It’s in the same city. But the Kim family, our erstwhile criminals, and the Park family, the affluent people they are hoodwinking, experience this event so differently. For the Park family, the storm is a minor inconvenience. High in their hilltop mansion, they are insulated from rain and thunder and discomfort. They come through this storm event having experienced nothing but the minor stress of having plans cancelled.

For the Kim family, it is an event which ruins everything. It destroys them.

One can argue that their own stupidity, their own ambition, is what actually undercuts the Kim family position. Let me assert that this is not the case. Assume, for the moment, that the Kim family had never sought to rise so far. Assume they had never defrauded the Park family, that they had not had any income at all. This is a very real possibility. They could have kept squatting in their basement apartment, barely squeaking by. And if they had done that, if they had never lied, they would have lost everything when their apartment flooded in that storm. They would have had no way to recover at all apart from whatever bare charity they could find. We are supposed to see the Kim family’s attempts to defraud the Park family as evil at the start of the movie, but during the storm, we see clearly how few options there are. If the Kim family wishes to survive, they must lie, they must steal. They must grasp at any straw that can keep them from drowning in their own filth.

This is an Icarus tale, but what we forget is that Icarus and Daedalus were trapped. They had no other recourse but to try to leave their island. Icarus simply thought he could do more than coast on the winds to safer shores. He thought he could fly as high as the gods. Instead, he drowns, just as the Kim family does.

In the end, the only difference between the Kim family and the Park family is that the Park family has a plane. They don’t need to rely on waxen wings. They can come and go from this island as they please.

This movie unfolds. Every time I look back at it, it blooms. At the end I question just who the titular parasite is. Is it the person who lives underground, sneaking sustenance from those above? Or is it the person who stands tall at the heights of the hill, tall above the flood, and never acknowledges the humanity of the people whose labor he lives off of?

I suspect I know the answer.

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