Parasite, the Gig Economy, and Neoliberalism
In my midsize Midwestern city I had to work really hard to find a screening of Parasite. It wasn’t in town long and screenings were scarce. Not unlike good paying jobs in the United States or South Korea. I was a big fan of Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer which made a pretty on the nose argument about the structure of capitalism. If Snowpiercer lampooned the philosophical foundations of capitalism (which it most definitely did), than Parasite set out to make an argument about the practices of capitalism. If Snowpiercer was about class structure than Parasite is about gig culture. To Bong Joon Ho even the hustlers can’t find success in a neoliberal system that is rigged against them.
The movie starts off as we get to know the Kim family in their subbasement level apartment. They are scrambling for wifi as they desperately construct pizza boxes together as work for a local pizza place. Its the first time we see work portrayed as a gig but it surely won’t be the last. The Kim family, specifically the father, Ki-Taek, are hustlers at heart. While the regular economy left them behind and the social safety net is stripped away the only thing left for him are these series of tasks that pay poorly and offer risky long term prospects. If their apartment is the last possible place to live than this type of labor has to be the equivalent. After a family friend offers the son,Ki-woo, a chance to tutor a wealthy architect’s daughter the rest of the family Kim finds work with the same family. Ho’s portrayal of the leading family gives us a few clues about them as individuals. The Kim’s are ruthless. They are goal oriented and work hard to accomplish those goals. They outsmart and outwork their competition. Often eliminating their competition by shrewd and unethical means (sometimes even physically as we see late in the movie). Its a capitalist dream. They have an ingenuity and individual drive. Capitalist daydreams tell us they should succeed.
Windows and Wealth
No matter what happens to the family though they cannot escape the ‘stink’ of where they came from. As the Kim family concentrates its relationship with the Park family they enjoy some of the fruits of their labor. When the Parks leave for the weekend on a camping trip, the Kim’s get to pretend to be rich for a weekend. Not unlike splurging on payday, or buying things on credit (not a criticism, I have the credit cards bills to prove it) these moments provide windows into how the wealthy in our society live. They provide just enough material comfort and incentive to keep the working poor forward facing.
Ho is aware of how all of that plays out and it is not an accident that they bulk of the second act takes places in front of the giant picture window of the Park family palatial home. For this moment in time the Kim’s are in the inside looking out as opposed to the outside looking in. It is also worth noting that Ho uses window’s in fundamentally different ways with the two families. The Kim house has windows too. However those windows can’t stop the detritus of the street from getting in. Regardless of whether its the urine of a vagrant or the pesticide from street fumigation The Kim’s are exposed even in their homes. Their windows offer no view and little protection. The Park house is protected by big walls and security systems. Their windows offer great views and even better protection from the plebeians of the outside world.
The Myth of the Meritocracy
The great irony of the entire film is that when things finally go south for the Kim family (pun for sure intended) it is not the rich that cause it. The Park family is so far above the fray they are completely oblivious to what is living in the basement. Why should they care? It is another worker in that gig economy that rises up to try and reclaim what is hers. Its one more way Bong Joon Ho discusses flaws of neo-liberalism. Its never the architects (in this case Park Dong-ik is an actual architect) of capitalism that do the damage. Their hands rarely have blood on them. Its a dirty business and the Park’s are far to clean to deal with that mess. Its much easier and more effective to make the workers fight each other. More devastating its often the children of the working poor that pay the ultimate price. Regardless of the reading of the film the message is clear, bootlickers end up in subbasement. Ki-taek ends up further below ground than he started with significantly less freedom as well. Play the game at your own peril because there is no real meritocracy in Bong Joon Ho’s economy (or ours for that matter).
The Shape of Water
Water plays a critical role in developing the narrative of the movie. I counted three distinct water motifs throughout the film. The Park’s drink nothing but fancy bottled water. The camera lingers on these bottles as characters grab them out of the refrigerator. Its a status symbol and one we never see the Kim’s partake in. In fact the family doesn’t drink bottled water (or much of anything from what I could tell) until the Parks go camping and the Kim’s take over the house. That all changes when s Ki-jung gets a bottle of water rolled to her while she is taking a bath in the Park’s home. She drinks that bottled water, transgresses her status and pays the ultimate price.
It starts to storm late in the film. The Park’s come home early only to go camping in their own backyard. The storm rains on everyone equally. This storm gives us the second example of water in the film. Nature’s treatment is pretty equitable. Just as Snowpiercer highlights how the weather is deadly to everyone so too does the storm in Parasite. The weather is crummy and messes up EVERYONE’S plans. It’s the structures (both symbolic and physical) that help provide solace from these natural occurrences. The Park’s treat rain as an annoyance. It ruined their vacation. There is a passing mention of rain potentially flooding their son’s tent as he prepares to camp out in the backyard. Juxtapose that with what happens to the Kims as they return home to an apartment that has become completely flooded out. The outcome of Parasite is exactly the outcome experts have predicted will happen with global climate change. Its never the rich that pay the price for capitalism.
In Bong Joon Ho’s universe it’s the poor who can’t afford to insulate themselves from the cruel happenstance of the natural world. Or perhaps even more sinister, since global warming is man man, its one more way the neoliberal world of capitalism is built on the back of the working poor and not a tool to help people rise out of it. A rising tide lift all ships but if one doesn’t own a ship to begin with that rising tide just floods your basement apartment.
At the end of the movie, the elevated dreams of the son, Ki-woo, are nothing more than the gilded dreams of a kid who has watched his father struggle, who can translate his father’s pleas, but is feckless to stop his suffering.
It’s a story that is all too familiar. He is not the only filmmaker this year to explore the lives of those that live underground. Maybe its time to discuss the people living in our basement.
Tyler has been the editor in chief of Signal Horizon since its conception. He is also the Director of Monsters 101 at Truman State University a class that pairs horror movie criticism with survival skills to help middle and high school students learn critical thinking. When he is not watching, teaching or thinking about horror he is the Director of Debate and Forensics at a high school in Kansas City, Missouri.