The South Korean film Parasite, a satire of social and economic inequality, has made quite an impression on two major institutions of world cinema.
At the Cannes film festival it won the Palme d’Or, and then it won Best Film at the Oscars.
It is not difficult to satirise such things, especially when there is an appetite for such in the institutions and audiences of the bourgeoisie. These are feel-good films because they help maintain the myth that world cinema is in fine aesthetic and moral health.
In his previous works (The Host, Mother, Snowpiercer, and Okja) director Bong Joan-ho follows the great Spanish director Luis Bunuel in ferocious attacks on family and class oppression. As in Bunuel, a dark and surreal treatment of the living room and the bedroom, the nursery and the kitchen allow us to watch the inevitable unravelling of the myths which family and class create to hide the bad stuff.
The “bad stuff” includes workers getting other workers sacked as they infiltrate the rich family.
The “bad stuff” is like sewage. There is a lot of sewage in this film, and plumbing.
The working-class family smell different to the rich family, they progressively infiltrate as “servants” of one sort or another. A lot of effort has to go in disguising their “proletarian scent”.
The working class are occasionally “flushed away” and literally become part of the sewage system of Seoul, (as the poorest of the working class occupy the lowest part of the city, the destination of all the shit of the rich).
The main feature in the basement residence of the poor family is a white ceramic flush toilet. It is jammed into just below the ceiling and reached by a stone staircase. It’s the only way they can get it plumbed into the city sewage system. Occasionally, like some perverse chocolate fountain you see at posh parties, it fountains shit all over the room.
This happens as things come to a head in the rich family during a rain storm. It is at this point that a change in tone emerges in the film.
There is a movement from comic ridicule to a grotesque rage as secrets hidden in the basement of the rich household result in a murderous collision between the working-class family and a previous servant, whose dismissal they had engineered.
To avoid a spoiler here, I must crudely summarise, but only so that I can suggest an issue with the story. The working poor turn on one another as well as turning on the the rich family.
The earlier ingenuity and audacity of the infiltration of the rich family ends in a bloody frenzy. It is one of those moments of barbarism that expels any emancipatory potential in the story.
One is left with a resolution which can only promise the re-uniting of the family on the basis of its survivors imitating the behaviour of the rich they have destroyed. There is a truth to that, in the emotional “economy” of families fighting to survive in class societies — but it cannot stand as a metaphor for classes fighting to transcend the barbarism of class society.
The resolution of the story does not sit comfortably with the solidarity shown between family members on the one hand, and its complete absence between the two working-class families. I think there is a lack of psychological truth in their being no compassion shown by the young brother and sister, and their challenging their parents’ hostility to the other family. Something closer to the actual dynamics of families would also have been more interesting in the development of the story.
Bong Joan-ho stares unflinchingly at that barbarism, but maybe has lost sight of those moments of solidarity when human hands are offered, and are grasped — and we are pulled into the future.