[Spoiler Warning: This post discusses highly granular details of the movie Parasite, and it really wouldn’t make sense unless you watched the movie first.]
Parasite is a story of three families. But if you tried to guess the plotline by reading thinkpieces and analyses about the movie without having watched the movie, you would never know it involved the third family.
To remind ourselves, let us recap Parasite’s dramatis personae. The rich Park family lives in a gorgeous house atop a hill. Its father Dong-ik is a CEO of a tech company. Mother Yeon-gyo is somewhat of a trophy wife, who considers herself to be sophisticated but is in fact oblivious and gullible. They have two children, high school junior daughter Da-hye and third grader son Da-song.
The poor Kim family lives in a half-basement at the bottom of a hill. The movie hints that the Kim family once lived a decent middle-class life, running small businesses like a fried chicken joint and a castella cake store. But at the beginning of Parasite, all members of the Kim family are unemployed; they get by doing odd jobs like folding pizza boxes. The Kim family members infiltrate the Park family home one by one under false pretenses. First, the son Ki-woo fakes a college diploma to get a job as an English tutor for Da-hye. The daughter Ki-jeong pretends to be an art therapist, getting a job to look after Da-song. Ki-jeong then frames the Park family’s chauffeur, and installs the father Ki-taek as the replacement driver for Dong-ik. Finally, the three Kims scheme against the housekeeper Mun-gwang, also driving her out and replacing her with the mother Chung-suk.
Then there is third family that receives little to no spotlight in movie reviews: the Oh family, the husband and wife duo of Geun-sae and Mun-gwang. Like the Kims, the Ohs were also destroyed after their small business failed. They were in the same line of business (the infernal castella cakes,) but they fell even harder than the Kims did. The wife Mun-gwang managed to hold her job as a housekeeper to the Park family, but the husband Geun-sae is less fortunate. Running from loan sharks, Geun-sae hid in the Park family house’s secret basement and lived there for over four years. He was fairly content with his life at the bottom, until the Kims drove out Mun-gwang from the Park family house and disrupted that life.
(More after the jump.)
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Among the three families, the Kim family is undoubtedly the most important one in Parasite’s narrative. Nearly all analysis and thinkpieces about Parasite focuses on the Kim family, as most of the movie moves through their perspective. (That was indeed the intent of the director Bong Joon-ho, who said he could have made a movie from the Park's perspective, which would have been scarier.) The Park family makes occasional appearance, because of their position as a foil for the Kim family in the narrative about the rich versus the poor. Yet the Oh family is entirely absent in the meta-narrative about the movie, although the basement dwellers are arguably more important for the movie than the Parks. The Parks, after all, are a foil and do not drive the action. Meanwhile, the second half of the movie is largely driven by Geun-sae’s violent reaction to the Kim family’s disruption of his life. (Related injustice: unlike other actors in the movie, Park Myeong-hun’s brilliant portrayal of Geun-sae is almost never discussed.)
Why is there no discussion about Geun-sae and Mun-gwang? There seems to be an obvious answer: spoilers. The shock of discovering Geun-sae in the basement is one of the biggest thrills in Parasite, a veritable “Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze” or “Bruce Willis is a ghost” moment. But upon deeper reflection, this answer is not as obvious as it seems. After all, the internet is full of movie takes with the dutiful “Spoiler Alert” at the top. With the Academy Awards behind us, there are all kinds of the different Parasite takes that dig deep into all the details of the movie—about how the Park house set was built, what the flickering words “chicken place” and “castella shop” mean, what it is really like to live in the half-basement home that the Kims were living in. So why wouldn’t there be a discussion about the Oh family?
Here’s my hunch: there is no discussion about Geun-sae, the basement dweller, because we are unable to think about him. In fact, our inability to think about Geun-sae is tied directly to Bong Joon-ho’s decision to make Geun-sae a spoiler. Our failure to discuss Geun-sae is not because he is a spoiler; rather, Geun-sae had to be a spoiler because we are conditioned not to think about him.
|Actor Park Myeong-hun, who played Geun-sae in Parasite (source)|
What kind of man is Geun-sae? With just a few words, the movie gives a basic biography. Like the Kim family, Geun-sae used to have a middle-class life, then was slowly pushed into the basement life. He used to run a “king castella” shop, a dessert fad from Taiwan that was in reality more like a Ponzi scheme. Having borrowed money for the business from unsavory people, Geun-sae escaped into the Park family’s basement to run from the loan sharks. He did not intend to stay in the basement as he went in, but he ends up living in the dungeon for more than four years. When the viewers meet Geun-sae in Parasite, he displays no particular desire to leave the basement. Tied up to a pipe, Geun-sae pleads to his captor Ki-taek: “Please. You have to let me stay here.”
Actor Park Myeong-hun, who played Geun-sae, developed the character together with the director Bong Joon-ho. In doing so, Park focused on the theme of degradation—a perfectly normal person, slowly becoming deranged as years pass by in the dungeon. (Bong Joon-ho custom-built the Park family house as a set, and the basement design was inspired by the basement of Josef Fritzl, who held his daughter captive in the concealed basement in his house for 24 years.) To act out Geun-sae, Park Myeong-hun began by imagining his character as an ordinary man, perhaps a bit more naïve than others. Park thought Geun-sae would have had a regular job, but was pushed out with a meager severance pay. To feel the effect of the enclosed space on the mind, Park traveled to the movie set before all other actors, simply lying down in the basement for hours. He recalls that at some point, everything—including his mind—became hazy and slow.
Another elaboration on Geun-sae’s character comes from Bong Joon-ho’s storyboard sketch of Geun-sae’s study. A gifted cartoonist, Bong is infamous for hand-drawing numerous comic book-style storyboards, showing precisely the shot he wants for each scene. In a true Bong Joon-ho fashion, the director collects numerous miscellanies to paint a devastating picture of Geun-sae’s life:
|Originally from Hollywood Reporter, translation by me. Click picture to enlarge.|
It takes some familiarity with contemporary Korean society to pick up on all the clues in Geun-sae’s study, showing a man whose dreams were slowly extinguished. At one point, Geun-sae wanted to be a lawyer, as can be seen from the bar exam study guides under his desk. But that dream was dashed when South Korea switched its legal education system to the US-style law school system while abolishing the old Continental-style bar exam that enabled one to be a lawyer just by taking a single exam. Geun-sae then aimed lower by studying for a different exam—on his desk, there are study guides for blue collar jobs like becoming an electrician or a plumber. The ideal of meritocracy never left him.
As he studies, Geun-sae is trying to motivate himself through a number of different ways. He reads biographies of inspiring people like Nelson Mandela or Steve Jobs. On top of the bookcase, Geun-sae built a “Hall of Fame,” a shrine dedicated to rich and famous people, including Dong-ik who lives upstairs. Geun-sae tries to somehow build a connection with the rich and famous people, for example by writing to the architect Namgung who designed the Park family home. He reads old magazines thrown away by the trophy wife Yeon-gyo, imagining the life of luxury portrayed in the magazine. But obviously, none of those motivation tactics really worked—because Geun-sae is still in the basement.
Personally, the familiarity of this sketch hit me like a gut punch. Who among us have not aimed high, only to despair at the limits of our own ability or the circumstances that changed beyond our control? Who among us haven’t turned increasingly more cynical as our dreams of greatness shrink over the years into something much more mundane? Who among us haven’t read stories of inspiring people with the vain hope that we, too, can be like them if we just tried a little harder? Living in a capitalistic society, who among us haven’t looked at a nice car or a nice watch while searching for an easy (and crass) motivation?
We live through these struggles by settling and accepting. We try to focus on the positives and explain away the negatives. We tell ourselves, maybe this life is all I deserve, and maybe it’s not so bad after all. However improbable it may seem, after spending four years in the sunless dungeon, Geun-sae came to the same conclusion. To incredulous Ki-taek who says “I can’t believe you lived here for so long,” Geun-sae says calmly: “Plenty of people live in the basement. More if you count half-basement apartments. . . . I like it here. It almost feels like I grew up here.”
This is the moment we see Geun-sae’s character most clearly as a neoliberal man. In fact, Geun-sae is the most neoliberal man in Parasite, because he accepts and legitimizes the system that condemns him into the abyss. Someone like Dong-ik, for example, would have an easy enough time being a neoliberal man—after all, as the capitalist, Dong-ik sits at the top of the neoliberal structure and reaps most of the benefits that the structure produces. The challenge of neoliberalism is to create a neoliberal man like Geun-sae. Without the millions of Geun-saes who buy into the system that crushes them, the capitalist structure cannot survive.
This is why Geun-sae’s actions and motivations become the main driver of action in the second half of Parasite. His life in the basement is ultimately what supports the entire ecosystem of the movie, with the Park family in the top floor and the Kim family slipping in and out of the bottom floor and the half-basement. When Geun-sae finally decides to emerge out of the basement, the whole edifice of the movie comes crashing down.
|Behind-the-scenes still of Mun-gwang and Geun-sae (source)|
The popularity of Parasite in the United States owes to the current zeitgeist of our society. Inequality is a big issue, and the dynamic between the rich Park family and the poor Kim family makes for a neat story that reflects what is on the minds of many. But introducing the Oh family—the other poor family—greatly complicates this narrative, because the Parks versus the Ohs play out very differently from the Parks versus the Kims.
For those inclined toward a rich-versus-the-poor story, the Kims are heroes. Even though the Park family may be better off materially than the Kims, the Kim family never cedes any mental ground. After the Kims successfully infiltrate the Park home, Ki-taek gloats: “I was surprised the family was so easy to trick.” Chung-suk adds: “Especially the missus. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer.” The Kim family concludes that money makes people dumb and naïve. In one of the most insightful lines in the movie, Chung-suk notes that the Parks are not “rich but nice,” but “nice because they are rich.”
On the other hand, the Ohs are traitors to their economic class. Geun-sae worships the Park family, especially the patriarch Dong-ik. Geun-sae keeps a picture of Dong-ik in his “Hall of Fame” of great people to be inspired by. Geun-sae also developed a ritual for worshipping Dong-ik, personally hitting the lights to illuminate Dong-ik’s walk upstairs into the house while singing a song of praise. Yet Dong-ik, the object of Geun-sae’s worship, has no idea who he is. When Dong-ik finally comes face-to-face with Geun-sae for the first time, he asks in confusion: “Do I know you?” In the Bible, those words are divine damnation: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven . . . then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you’” (Matthew 7:21-23). But that does not matter to Geun-sae. Even in his dying moments after Chung-suk stabs him in the side in self-defense, Geun-sae looks to Dong-ik with reverence, letting out a primal scream: “RESPECT!!”
Focusing on the interaction between the Kims and the Ohs, the two poor families, is even more uncomfortable—for it is the Kims that destroyed the Ohs (at least proximately,) and the Ohs in turn destroy the Kims. On the surface level, there are enough nodes between the two families to build some kind of solidarity: both were previously middle-class families, ruined by the same king castella cake business. They have shared the experience of working for the Parks. And in fact, the Kims do show some measure of sympathy to the Ohs: Chung-suk opens the door for Mun-gwang to come into the house, and Ki-jeong suggests bringing food to the basement. But in the end, those small flashes of good intention do not result in a cooperation between the two families.
Set against the Ohs, the Kim family looks less like flawed heroes and more like outright villains. There was no reason for the Kims to drive out the Ohs from the Park house in the first place: Ki-woo, Ki-jeong and Ki-taek all had comfortable positions within the Park house, so why drive out Mun-gwang? Even after finding out the true story of the Ohs by discovering Geun-sae in the basement, the Kims feel disgusted and repelled rather than empathetic. Mun-gwang pleads to Chung-suk: “Please sis! We’re all in the same boat, aren’t we? We all need a little help to get by.” Chung-suk slaps her down: “I’m not your fucking sister, bitch. And I don’t need nobody’s help.” Eventually, Chung-suk kills Mun-gwang by delivering a fierce kick in the chest that pushed her back down to the basement (and giving Mun-gwang brain hemorrhage in the process.) Ki-woo tries to finish the job of securing his family’s position in the Park household by attempting to kill Geun-sae, until his plan goes awry.
With his wife’s death, Geun-sae goes into a maniacal rage. (Bong Joon-ho noted that among the three families, the Ohs loved each other the most. Park Myeong-hun agreed with the interviewer who said the most romantic scene in Parasite is the scene of Geun-sae and Mun-gwang dancing in the empty Park family home.) But again, the rage is never directed to Dong-ik, the capitalist. Geun-sae bashes Ki-woo’s head in with the scholar’s stone, then plunges a knife into Ki-jeong’s chest. It is once again Chung-suk that ends up killing Geun-sae, as she was fighting for her own life against Geun-sae’s knifing. Only with Geun-sae at the death’s door does Ki-taek take any meaningful action that resembles class solidarity: grabbing the knife to kill Dong-ik, after being triggered by Dong-ik’s repulsion by Geun-sae’s smell.
But as cathartic as it may be, killing Dong-ik doesn’t really do anything for the poor families. The Ohs are annihilated, and Ki-jeong is also dead. Ki-taek is condemned to the dungeon that Geun-sae once lived, and Ki-woo and Chung-suk are back to the dingy half-basement apartment.
|Bong Joon-ho's sketch of Geun-sae.|
"Let's just say for now that the red stuff on his face is hot sauce." (source)
Parasite is often conceived as a critique of neoliberal capitalism—more specifically, how the callous obliviousness of the rich humiliates and degrades the poor. That is indeed what the movie does, and the better reviews of the movie—this one on the Jacobin magazine comes to mind—focuses strongly on all the details of South Korea’s neoliberal society created the division between the rich Parks and the poor Kims. But by failing to discuss Geun-sae, the analysis that focuses on the rich versus the poor loses sight of the crucial flip side of Parasite’s commentary: Ki-taek versus Geun-sae, the poor versus the poor.
Leftists may have thought Ki-taek and Geun-sae could have formed an alliance against Dong-ik. There certainly was enough fodder for the two men to find solidarity, as we saw above. But of course, no such solidarity happened: Ki-taek’s wife killed Geun-sae’s wife, then Geun-sae killed or nearly killed Ki-taek’s children, then finally, Ki-taek’s wife kills Geun-sae who was trying to kill her. In a movie that supposedly critiques neoliberal capitalism, what do we make out of the denouement that involves the poor destroying each other?
Ultimately, the rift between Ki-taek and Geun-sae is traceable to their differing attitude toward the rich man Dong-ik. For those who sympathize with Ki-taek, Geun-sae’s attitude is less than intuitive. Why would Geun-sae buy into the capitalist system that condemns him to the bottom of the society? Leftists have a theory: Geun-sae suffers from “false consciousness,” essentially brainwashed by the capitalist society to buy into its norms and ignore his own desperate conditions. I never found this explanation particularly convincing, mostly because I’m skeptical of any theory that claims to know people better than they know themselves. But setting aside whether Geun-sae’s consciousness is indeed false, the false consciousness theory only serves to postpone the analysis. The issue would simply be recast as: why is Geun-sae susceptible to false consciousness while Ki-taek is not?
The physical locations of the two families—the Kims in a half-basement, and the Ohs in the basement—suggest an answer. The Kims are closer to the surface than the Ohs, and the Kims are free to move about the neighborhood while the Ohs are locked in the Park family house. A discerning eye, familiar with the landscape of poverty in Korea, can pick up more signs that the Kims and the Ohs may be both poor, but not equally so. Despite their dilapidated looks, half-basement apartments in Seoul are not cheap. With the skyrocketing housing prices in Seoul (especially relative to the rest of the country,) it is not uncommon for half-basement apartments to be worth over US $100,000. Even if the Kims were renting rather than owned the half-basement they were living in, the typical rental arrangement in Korea is to have a renter put down a very large deposit (up to 80 or 90 percent of the value of the house in some cases) in exchange for paying either no monthly rent or very small rent by US standards—which means unlike the Ohs, the Kims were sitting on a not-insignificant amount of capital.
The Kims don’t just have more money than the Ohs; they also hold more cultural capital, as Pierre Bourdieu might put it. Ki-taek is familiar with the finer distinctions among the scholar’s rocks, a status-displaying bauble for Korea’s rich. Ki-woo speaks English well enough to work as Da-hye’s English tutor, showing off yet another status symbol in the US-led globalized era. Ki-jeong studied art, the discipline that is arguably the closest to being a study in the discernment of cultural capital—small wonder, then, that Ki-jeong turns out to be the smoothest fraud. Collectively, the Kims could leverage their cultural capital into infiltrating the Park family home. The Kim family’s smell might give them away to the Parks, but never their mannerism. Meanwhile, although Mun-gwang worked for the Parks for over four years, her husband Geun-sae could never be the driver for Dong-ik.
Relative to Dong-ik, both Ki-taek and Geun-sae are poor. But the small distance between the Kims and the Ohs, the dwellers of half-basement versus those of basement, make a big difference in their worldview. For all their struggles, the Kims are close enough to the surface in their half-basement home: “It’s clearly a basement, but people living there want to believe they belong to the above-the-ground world,” noted Bong Joon-ho. The Kims can access the above-ground and interact with people like the Parks at the top of the hill, which dispels any illusion the Kims may have had about the rich. Chung-suk’s “They are nice because their rich” could be an incisive retort to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The rich are different from you and me.”
Locked in his sunless basement, Geun-sae, as a practical matter, does not exist. Bong Joon-ho noted Geun-sae was "treated as a ghost by the Park family. Here's a man who is perfectly alive and well, but in this house he is a ghost who lives underground." Geun-sae cannot approach the world of the rich; the rich people like Dong-ik exist only as abstract images. To Geun-sae, who bought into the narratives of neoliberalism and meritocracy, someone like Dong-ik (or Steve Jobs, or other famous people in the “Hall of Fame”) are the demigods of capitalism to be worshipped from afar. So Geun-sae spends his years in the dungeon worshipping Dong-ik’s footsteps, even as Dong-ik is scarcely aware of Geun-sae’s existence.
We can now see why, amid all the enthusiasm about Parasite, virtually no attention is given to Geun-sae.
The Kim family’s genus of poverty suggests why Parasite received a particularly strong response from a certain demographic of American movie fans—the young urbanites struggling to make ends meet in an expensive city, but with enough sophistication to sit through a foreign movie with subtitles and write for newspapers and pop culture websites. The Kims are poor, but not quite destitute. In a pinch they can pass themselves off as auxiliary members of the high society, albeit with the quiet anxiety that comes with an imposter syndrome. This is arguably the most relatable type of poverty for the group of Americans who are leading the political and cultural discourse today.
This is why all analyses of Parasite focus on the Kim family, and never on Geun-sae. If you identify strongly with the Kim family, turning your eye toward Geun-sae means facing your own ugliness. It means recognizing your privileged position relative to those like Geun-sae. It means you, like Ki-taek or Chung-suk, fail to see yourself in the plights of Geun-sae or Mun-gwang. It means facing the fact that, to gain small advantages or protect your own position, you would not hesitate to drive Mun-gwang out of her job or kick her down the stairs.
Above all, identifying with the Kims means being oblivious to Geun-sae’s presence. The genius of Bong Joon-ho is that his plot twists are not placed only for the sake of surprise, but also in order to make a point. Geun-sae’s presence had to be a surprise, because those in the position of Ki-taek never plan for those in the position of Geun-sae. Those who fight against inequality were surprised when millions of working poor prefer to worship a billionaire gasbag. Feminists were surprised when transgender women seem to affirm the gender roles that they worked so hard to dismantle. The marginalized Americans who find enlisting in the military to be a path toward the American Dream are surprised to learn that the people they are killing have their own opinions about what the US military did to their country. So of course Geun-sae is a spoiler—the millions of Geun-saes around the world are spoilers, because they spoil the best-laden plans of the millions of Ki-taeks.
One can raise a structuralist objection. It is too much to expect that Ki-taek would be a hero, for the system of neoliberal capitalism corrupts all within it. A better world emerges only after this world passes through a Gotterdammerung. But that’s not the message of Parasite, which is simply not an agitprop. Recall that the movie concludes with an impossible fantasy, in which Ki-woo vows to somehow earn enough money to buy the Park family home to rescue his father who escaped to the Park family basement after murdering Dong-ik. Even after the Gotterdammerung, there is no better world. Rather than transcending the capitalist system, Ki-woo submits to it, putting himself in the same mental position as Geun-sae while his father assumes Geun-sae’s physical position.
(Bong Joon-ho on the ending: "I wanted to be honest, beyond optimism and pessimism. ... It would not have been difficult to set up an ending that provided a rosy exit for Ki-woo. In some ways, that would have been easier. But I thought that would be even more cruel and irresponsible. I felt that it would better for the viewers to come face to face with sorrow. It's incredibly sad for Ki-woo to say, 'I will buy that house,' and 'Father just has to walk upstairs.' I did the calculation, and it would take Ki-woo 574 years to buy the house if he saved all of his salary and spent none of it. ... It would be irresponsible to conclude that things will be good when the situation cannot possibly be good.")
Parasite indeed is a critique of neoliberal capitalism—but its critique is much more robust than the rich versus the poor. Geun-sae virtually never makes any appearance in Parasite reviews because for those who care about inequality, the messages presented through Geun-sae is too horrible to contemplate: that class solidarity is impossible, that the rage of the lowest socioeconomic status is never directed to those at the top of the structure, that even after nihilistic destruction of lives, the machinery of capitalism continues to churn, imprisoning bodies and minds.
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