And the Oscar goes to…Urban Inequality

Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, won this year’s Best Picture in the Oscar Academy Awards, making history as the first non-English movie to win in this category. The film follows the deprived Kim family, who con their way into the house of the wealthy Park family. The relation between the two families escalates until the film reaches it’s surprising ending, one you will be thinking about much later after you left the cinema (or at least I did). While watching it, I couldn’t help but thinking that it was really a movie about urban inequalities and social injustice (the type of issues that I like to share in this blog). That’s why I decided to unpack the social critique and references to urban inequality inside the film and share them with you.

SPOILER ALERT: This article is full of spoilers, If you haven’t seen the movie, please go to your closer cinema for a explosion of drama, comedy, suspense and fear about the reality of our world.

The movie starts by immersing the viewers into the Kim family and their house, a semi-basement apartment, which seems to be an affordable choice for urban dwellers in Seoul, one of the most expensive cities in Asia. In 2015, around 1.9% of South Koreans lived in semi-basement apartments. Framed in this space, the film shows us the struggles of the Kim family, such as limited access to food, informal labour accompanied by unfair payment and lack of access to services. From this semi-basement we can also look out, to the street and the urban landscape. We can see a street with poor infrastructure, full of garbage and aesthetic spaces, lack of urban realm, green spaces or public spaces, a street that invites anti-social behaviour such as men peeing on it while the family observes . Not a far reality from many deprived areas in cities around the world, right? (see Broken Windows Theory)

The central story starts when Min gets a job as an English tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Park family. He gets this job by forging a university title from a very prestigious university. The forging of the title is an additional reference to the important role of education for those who are more deprived, seeing education as a tool that will open opportunities and allow them to move up the social ladder; paradoxically, the movie also shows us that accessing education is more difficult for those who lack economic resources, regardless of their talent.

On the way to the house, we can see through Min’s eyes the existing hierarchical urban landscape where the wealthy live high up in the hills and the poor live below ground. The stairs in this film are very important, they are somehow used as a metaphor of moving up or down on the social ladder, and that’s how after going to the top of the hill, Min finally arrives to his destination: the house of the Park family. The first thing we see about the house is the green and beautiful lawn using automatic irrigation systems, we see big windows in the front of the house, a beautiful architectonic design and of course, more stairs.

We can also see the disproportionate environmental impact produced by households like the Parks. It requires huge amounts of resources for that family to maintain their lifestyle, maintaining the lawn, and the many luxury cars they own. But the ecological cost of that consumption sis compensated by modest living families like the Kims who walk everywhere, live mostly on leftovers and have few material possessions.

The story develops as the entire Kim family con their way into having all the members of the family working in the Parks’ house. The Park family’s self imposed isolation from working people means they will believe everything from their workers and make them an easy target.

The turning point in the movie is signalled by a powerful rainstorm which sets a backdrop for the Kims. This torrential storm begins suddenly, and it does much more than setting the mood for the Kims’ decline; it’s a vehicle through which Bong Joon-Hu examines climate change, an issue he’s tackled before. Here he focuses on a particular aspect of the climate crisis: It’s unequal repercussions on the rich and poor. For the Parks, the storm is a minor inconvenience, it means their camping trip is cancelled. For the kims, on the other hand, is a cathastrophe that nearly costs the family their home and almost all of their belongings. While the Parks get on the sofa to watch the rain through their huge glass windows, the Kims descend from the top-hill mansion to return to their rapidly flooding semi-basement apartment.

Bong shows how climate catastrophe heightens existing class tensions: The day after the flood, Mrs. Parks keeps speaking on the phone about what a bless the rain was – “Today the sky is blue and there is no pollution…so we traded camping for a garden party” she jokes to her wealthy friend – disregarding the significant areas of the city that the storm effectively affected and the large number of climate refugees who had to sleep in the temporal camp. Mr Kim listens to the conversation from the driver’s seat and can barely hide his resentment as just a few hours ago he was going through sewage water and waste to save himself and his family.

However, the class tensions are not only between rich and poor. One of the most tragic class conflicts in Parasite is the lack of solidarity among members of the working poor, in fact some of the film’s more brutal scenes show the most deprived fighting each other. Parasite shows how these fine distinctions and the power relationships in society only function to keep those at the bottom divided, driving them to fight amongst themselves over the wealthy’s leftovers in the hopes of making marginal gains at each other’s expense.

The class tensions reach their climax at Da-Song’s birthday party. The explosion of violence is foreshadowed by Ms Parks table arrangement, which she models after the Kremlin formation, a famous Korean military manoeuvre. In the middle of the party we see Geun-Sae emerging from the basement, he is a man who lost all contact with society as a result of his business failure and being unable to pay debts to dangerous people. He is forced -by his poverty- into hiding underground in the bunker of the Park’s mansion. Small details such as the lack of sunlight are crucial in this film, showing the extreme difference between Geun-Sae (completely underground) the Kims (semi-basement) and the Parks. We see how Geun-Sae’s mental estate has deteriorated over time and is now merely focused on seeking revenge against the Kim family. In his final moments Geun-Sae looks and smiles at Mr Park, the man he has long glorified and screams “respect”. It goes without saying that the respect has never gone both ways.

The death of Ki-jeong and Geun-Sae show the disregard that the Park family have for the lives of those who they consider beneath them. The point that reaches Kim’s patience is the reference to the “smell of poor people” by Mr Park. In previous scenes there was a strong reference to the smell of the Kim family, which the Mr Park describes as “the smell of people who use the underground” – followed by the response of Mrs Park: “It’s been so long since I used the underground, I can’t remember the smell”, clearly referencing the symbolic use of private car as a measure of status in many places around the world. Kim ends up killing Mr Park and taking the place of Geaun-Sae in the basement (falling lower in the ladder).

I started the movie thinking the Kims were the parasites, but I soon discovered that maybe the Parks were the real parasites, they leach on the labour of their workers without giving anything back except the bare minimum means for survival.

The movie finishes with a small light of hope, followed by the sad shock of reality. Min creates a plan to study, work and save up enough money to buy the mansion and save Kim. For a minute we have hopes and we believe that this has been achieved, but shortly we go back to Min’s room in the semi-basement and abandon all hopes. The director Bong Joon-Hu, calculated the time it would take for someone like Min to save up to buy the mansion and that time is exactly 564 years. This number is a scary picture of how the status quo, social injustices and urban inequalities expressed in Parasite won’t change in our, or our grandchildren’s lifetime.

Parasite is an innovative way of showing the relationship between social inequalities and many social issues caused by it. I hope that winning the Oscar Award helps the message to be shared and the awareness to be created among all of us. The story, that happens in South Korea, could perfectly happen in any city of our world, but we are still on time to re-write these stories and modify the status quo. The urban environment has a big role to play, but structural changes are required.

Let’s stop the parasites.

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