Rossella's thoughts on Parasite, the Oscar winning movie that made history
- Parasite and living in the eternal crisis -
The movie Parasite struck me in a way that I did not expect.
I went in expecting it to be a movie about economic inequality, (I was behind the curve and watched it several months after everyone else did), but for me its most interesting themes were much more subtle and far reaching.
In many ways, I feel like I was lucky watching it only now, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, because the Covid-19 crisis – with its forced isolation, economic meltdown and untold death – does pair really well with this movie.
Indeed for me the experience of living in this historic phase (a bit like – I imagine – the experience of living under crushing poverty) is perfectly encapsulated by the experience of this moment, with its uncertainty and claustrophobic fear as well as the constant feeling of deja-vù: the experience of living in a never ending crisis.
- How can you live like this? - Lots of people live underground. Especially if you count semi-basements.
A little detail in the movie that may seem insignificant, but I found really telling, is the obsession of the rich family – the Parks – with America: Mr. Park and his son love playing dressed up as Native Americans and for the rich mom (Choi Yeon-kyo) having studied or lived in the US is a big boost in credibility: she hires Ki-woo to teach her daughter English and she seems to particularly value Ki-jeong’s opinion because she sees her as a talented artist that lived and studied in the US (when she introduces her to her husband she makes a point of saying she is from Illinois).
Ki-jeong is a particularly charming and cunning hustler – probably the most talented in the family. After her first “lesson” with Da-song, she takes his mother aside and tells her that her son had some traumatic experience in his past and needs trauma therapy and art therapy to heal (provided by her, at a very high rate of course).
I found this so perfect, because trauma is the buzzword du jour for highly educated western liberal elites and Ki-jeong in the movie obviously strikes a chord and gains instant credibility with Choi Yeon-kyo. Of course, especially in these times of rising rates of mental illnesses, traumatic experiences should not be dismissed or underestimated, but in the movie, the conversation, and Choi Yeon-kyo’ reaction, does play like a comedic moment. Furthermore Da-song, contrary to his family perception of him, does seem throughout the movie a completely healthy and normal kid.
I found it interesting to compare this moment with another scene that I found both absurd and over the top, and realistic: the scene where the Kims’ house floods and Ki-jeong, while literally covered in shit, sat over an overflowing toilet, sneaks a cigarette.
The scene is horrifying and disgusting, but with a kernel of normality: after all, how common is it for a teenager or 20-something to hide cigarettes from her parents and sneak out to have a smoke?
But the most realistic aspect of it for me is the feeling of powerlessness and being literally overwhelmed. After all, what do you do when you are constantly facing multiple crisis at once and the best you can do is maybe save a small possession? Ki-jeong reaction communicates so well the feeling of numbness and the resignation of realising your own helplessness, that is very much associated with trauma.
No matter how talented and resourceful they are shown to be, neither Ki-woo’s nor Ki-jeong’s qualities are enough to change their own circumstances, because no one can. Poverty is inescapable in this movie not only because upward social mobility is a fairy tale in this day and age but also because it changes you and makes you weaker and meaner. Poverty is traumatic in the sense that it wounds you and the scab may never heal.
- People shouldn’t make plans.
The adults in the Kim family, Ki-taek and Chung-sook are at a first glance much more jaded than their children. Ki-taek wants to project to his family that he has everything under control and that they shouldn’t worry, so he often tells them that “he has a plan”.
After their house is flooded though, he tells his son Ki-woo that in fact there is no plan: events are going to spiral out of control no matter what and the only way to deal with it is to have no expectations and to respond to every new crisis as it happens. “With no plan, – he says – nothing can go wrong”.
Once again, the movie’s characters give up the illusion of control.
I think that for a lot of people, especially millennials, the last 12 years (since the previous economic crisis in 2008), have felt a lot like the flood in Parasite. Crisis after crisis have upended lives and shattered plans and the future – with the looming climate crisis – promises only more chaos. The neatly ordered lives of the previous generations are unattainable for most and, even more unsettling, every new crisis undermines old ways of thinking, as the prevailing ideology couldn’t predict or explain the current situation and even less offer a way forward.
Despite Ki-taek speech, this condition of uncertainty is more scary than freeing and, although there is some freedom in destruction, the movie speaks more to the feeling of desolation and doom that comes with it.
- What happened doesn’t seem real.
I think that maybe my fellow leftists enjoyed as much as I did the climactic moment where Ki-taek stabs Mr. Park. Not only the rich CEO could be seen as a Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos character and therefore the stabbing as the cathartic moment where the villain goes down, but Park is regarded up until that moment with nothing but admiration and respect by both Ki-taek and Oh Geun-sae (the old housekeeper’s husband).
While Oh Geun-sae dies still seeing Mr.Park as a positive figure, Ki-taek has a moment of clarity when the man callously raises Geun-sae body (while holding his nose) to get his car key and flee while leaving Ki-jeong to die, and lashes out by stabbing him. Ki-taek is the only character in the movie to realize, only for a moment, a sort of class consciousness, where he feels some kinship with Geun-sae, that up until then he viewed only as an enemy.
Yet the moment is only fleeting and by the end of the movie Ki-taek writes in his letter that he feels regret at his action and he cannot explain it. He writes that the whole experience feels sort of like a dream, like it wasn’t real.
Ki-taek response to the whole ordeal rings true. The sense of numbness and disconnect from reality is in fact a pretty normal reaction to a chaotic and terrifying moment, never mind to a never-ending series of chaotic and terrifying moments. Ki-taek, after a moment of realisation, just ends up retreating in his previous apathy.
Once again underlying the inescapabilty of their station, Ki-taek and Ki-woo, father and son, at the end of the movie are actually in a similar emotional state. Ki-taek is locked up in a basement, in complete isolation, detached from the world and from all that happened to him, meanwhile Ki-woo, even though young and talented and free to move on with his life and better his condition, also retreats in a fantasy.
He writes his father a letter that he knows he has no way of delivering and will never be read, and in his last scene he imagines an improbable future, where he becomes rich and rescues his father.
Both Ki-taek and Ki-woo have to find refuge in a state of unreality to cope with the depressing truth: in the end, their failure was not because of any mistake or fault of their own, it was inevitable all along.