Of smells and lines: Subaltern Dystopia in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite

Credits : https://www.screendaily.com/reviews/parasite-cannes-review/5139675.article

Parasite, the Korean movie that overcame linguistic limitations of the Academy and transcended borders with an evocative and relatable tale of class-conflict stands as the paradigm shift in the global culture of cinema. Besides the various institutional validations that the movie received, it is worth asking why the movie was successful in generating a wide range of positive responses, from niche and otherwise audiences. I will first summarise the essential cinematic qualities of the film. I will then further argue how Parasite deploys powerful metaphors to reiterate some classic standpoints about class-conflict, and modernity from non-Western Marxisms. It is especially remarkable how Parasite presents questions about ‘class’ generated primarily from the experience of the postcolonial non-West through relatable designs.

Parasite is a movie about a Kim family, based in an urban-poor neighbourhood in Seoul, South Korea and their steady quest for employment in the house of the affluent Park family. It is a satirical, dark comedy about lower-class aspirations and the security-induced gullibility of the upper-class with elements of dystopian tragedy in it. The larger linear plot is a straightforward story of how the young son of the Kims, Ki Woo secures first a tutoring job for himself at the household of Parks and then uses opportunities to deceive the Parks into obtaining employment for the rest of his family through a chain of recommendations. However, the movie peaks with this storyline in the middle, and then introduces multiple layers and sub-plots that disturb and problematise the neatness of this narrative of lower-class aspirations beyond the confines of a secure employment. The method of securing employment sets up several corollary characters like Geun Se and Moon Gwang. The emergence of this parallel set of precarious characters, Bong crudely presents the competing narrative of ‘neediness,’ the hopelessness of intra-class competition and utter dispensability of the urban poor. The plot consists of a few highlight points wherein the dystopian tragedies manifest evocatively, for example, the diverse experience of rainfall scene and the bunker confrontations. Reiterating the critique of universalist ideas of ‘anthropocene’ that mark climate change narratives, it unfolds the unequal consequences of class on experience climate change. The vertical descent that the Kim family on the night of the flood embark on is a metaphorical allusion to the title of the movie, the dark belows, the home of the ‘Parasites’. The location where anyone is comfortable urinating, the lowest of the belows, worse than sewers. Necessary but invisible. But who really are the parasites?

Credits: https://www.inverse.com/article/60040-parasite-bong-movie-actors-interview-song-kang-ho-park-so-dam

The movie is shot using mostly slow, straight takes (no diagonal movements of the camera), with several long shots, and a subject-following camera mode. It also uses, as many have pointed out, lighting to articulate the materiality of class differences effectively, wherein light and bright are anchors of richness. At the same time, dampness, darkness and invisibility are anchors of ‘parasitic’ poverty.[1] I noticed that Bong uses yellow versus white luminosity to depict the spatiality of upper versus lower class. Parasite represents the distinct rhythm of screenplay and cinematography of Bong Joon Ho’s cinematic quality.

Parasite (‘Gisaengchung’ or ‘parasitic insect’ in Korean) is named very cleverly as it serves as the perfect metaphor for the expression of lower-class invisibility and precarity. Bong is very attentive towards the material manifestations of the metaphor throughout the movie. The movie opens with a fumigation scene that fills the basement with pesticidal gas, reflecting both the material location and the insect-like characteristic of the Kim family[2]. I identify two categories of analysis that emerge out of a pursuit of this metaphor corresponding to the human senses. Firstly, it is the idea of smell. Secondly, it is the idea of invisibility. The spatiality used in the film articulates the dialectic between the olfactory and the visual in reproducing the materiality of parasite. This culminates in the figure of the ‘scurrying cockroach’ its locations of hiding deployed in Chung sook’s dialogue to describe Mr Kim, just prior to the central plot-twist in the movie.[3] He, after all, scurries away like a cockroach from under the closing garage on that rainy night.[4]

Smell is a recurring problematic across the film, especially through Mr Park, who is repetitively establishing the lines — beginning from his discovery of the panties, to him comparing Mr Kim’s smell to old radish, boiled rag, subways, all the way till the ending climax when his nose-scrunch at Geun-so’s dead body, invites his own death. Bong reflects the morbid translatability of upper-class privilege through the fact that Da-Song and Mrs Park also recognise the smell on all their bodies. Ki Jung’s poignant admission that it is the ‘semi-basement’ smell that will not get erased by superficial cleansers reflects Bong’s expression of the structural aspect of class.[5]

But the smell crosses the line. The poor want to cross the lines, not episodically but structurally. The line between classes, that Mr Park draws multiple times is expressed spatially too along with the dystopian futility of attempts by the poor to cross those. The vertical distance between the Parks and the Kims reflects in the stairs. More importantly, the spatial metaphor of invisibility is recurring in the scenes about the basement, the bunker, or hiding under the table. I also read Bong’s Marxism in producing these spatial metaphors as expressions of subalternity. This, I believe, is also heightened through the use of Morse code as a mode of communication turning the military metaphor into an idea of the encoded linguistic expression of the subaltern class, living literally like the ‘ghost in the basement’. Morse code reifies the gap between subaltern articulation and its unintelligibility outside of the subaltern realm. Through several statements about graduates applying for security guard jobs, multiple odd jobs, easy dispensability of some forms of labour like household management and caregiving, precarious job markets, unqualified for pension, loan sharks, debts, drugs, nepotism and intra-capitalist alliances, Bong’s subtle non-Western Marxism is very prominent. These stories vividly capture the realities of most non-Western postcolonial countries and that of the lumpenproletariat[6]. Those liminal set of labourers, without collective class consciousness, hence competing against one another, and constantly aspiring upwards instead of formulating a base to mount organised resistance from. The light and dark dichotomy also emphasises the invisibility metaphor, and dialectically sustains the smell, dampness, wetness and thereby, the parasitic quality of the urban poor.

Parasite is also a word that bears a relationship with the idea of value, wage and labour. Parasitic is defined as a freeloading relationship with the host. The deeper metaphorical remarkability of the movie lies in its critique of neoliberal capitalism’s tendency to demand more labour despite its undervalued condition. Reading Berardi’s The Soul at Work or Byung Chul Han’s Burnout Society into the framework of labour in Parasite, it becomes clear that Bong is criticising those who claim that the not-hardworking enough masses seeking to leech off the accumulated capital are the problems in society. The questions that Bong’s Marxist undertone here presents is the relationship between forms of labour and their value in the current society. It is also a play on how the crucial forms of labour that sustain the ‘clean, polished’ society are invisibilised and undervalued. For example, when the first housekeeper leaves, and Mrs Park struggles to get even a single meal straight, Bong presents the irony of the immense pertinence of the invisible forms of labour that sustain the affluence of the capitalists.

Bong has pitched profound critiques of Eurocentric modernity through Parasite. Using Native-American symbols, and the blindness of this cultural appropriation poignantly reflects the pervasive aspirational attitude of South Koreans towards the US[7]. He furthers this ridiculous nature of cultural appropriation when Mrs Park says Da Song exhibits a ‘Basquiat-esque’ vibe in his paintings at the age of nine[8]. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s particular association with the Haitian Revolution and its critique of Enlightenment modernity, and his critique of American colonialism and racism make this choice of Bong in this specific scene about Da Song who loves Native American symbols, a very deliberate signal of irony. This could also be a larger critique of the neocolonial structures that govern the global film industry, where ‘cinema’ by itself is presupposedly English, and the rest is ‘world cinema’ constantly aspiring towards and incorporating English in them.

Bong’s expressive portrayal of seamless aspirationalism of the subaltern class along with a continual allusion to the neocolonial character of that aspiration (wanting to be more American, Western, or Anglicised) is what makes Parasite a powerfully subversive project.

Having broken out of the mould of ‘world cinema’ that was an erstwhile aggregate of all movies made in non-Eurocentric languages according to the Academy, Parasite’s achievements herald a new beginning in the global circulation of cinematic motifs and also trouble neo-colonial structures in global public culture. Therefore, reading these signs of subtle critiques of class and Euro-centric modernity in the movie evokes a bittersweet impression of the Korean wave and its significance in the ‘West’. Parasite is a movie that reifies the Marxist dialectic by reproducing both the (South Korean) specificity and the (global) generality of the subaltern experience. The nuanced amalgam of aspirational modernity and class struggle makes Parasite a unique and much needed film in today’s world.

Who are the Parasites then? Those who dwell in the damp, dark, invisible spaces? Or those who thrive on the labour of those who lives in these dark, damp places while invisibiling their existence?

[1] Bill Desowitz, “‘Parasite’: Shooting Bong Joon Ho’s Social Thriller Through the Lens of Class Divide” https://www.indiewire.com/2019/11/parasite-cinematographer-hong-kyung-pyo-1202189824/

[2] Bong Joon Ho, Parasite, 3:54.

[3] Bong Joon-Ho, Parasite, 1:02:00.

[4] Ibid, 1:32:23

[5] Bong, Parasite, 52:29.

[6] Karl Marx in XVIIIth Brumaire, 38 describes the lumpenproletariat. “Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzarone, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers , porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.”

[7] See JUHYUNDRED, “Reading Colonialism in “Parasite”, Tropics of Meta: Historiography for the Masses for a detailed assessment of this.

[8] Bong, Parasite, 21:28.

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