This story contains some spoilers for Parasite.
The answer lies, as it sometimes does, in instant noodles. Halfway through Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, when a rainstorm washes out the ultra-rich Park family’s camping trip, the matriarch (played by Jo Yeo-jeong) calls her housekeeper with a dinner order: “As soon as we walk in, chapaguri.” The popular dish is an amalgam of two instant-food products—black bean–flavored Chapagetti noodles combined with spicy, seafood-based Neoguri udon—and costs $2 to make. But in the film, Mrs. Park’s recipe includes a genuine luxury: Hanwoo beef. At an August screening in Sydney as part of the Korean Film Festival in Australia, many of the Koreans in the audience laughed twice—first at the mention of the noodles and again at the mention of the meat. The rich were just like anybody else, and the joke was their effort to deny it.
Parasite, which became the first Korean title to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May, is a movie about class set in an unequal country. Though it will likely be remembered most for the violent fever dream of its final act, the film also depicts the subtler injuries of economic disparity through its story about the down-and-out Kim family conning their way into the employ of the wealthy Park family. In South Korea, as in many other nations, such differences are coded in the vocabulary of distance: People are divided by “chasms” and “gulfs.” Yet the driving insight of Parasite is that, while the Korean class system’s injustices may stem from its distancing effect, its most profound harms result from proximity—from the intense relationships of interdependence forged between the rich and the poor under capitalism. The entanglement of the Kims and Parks stems from this paradox: The efforts of the rich to isolate themselves from the rest of society only bring them nearer to those whose life circumstances they wish to escape.
In the film, the economic gap between two people becomes clearest in the moments of greatest intimacy. When the Parks first hire Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) as an English tutor for their daughter, he is welcomed into her bedroom. As a maid, Ki-woo’s mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), is allowed within earshot of the family’s quarrels and gossip. The rich outsource their most basic needs to the poor, who need the income, and the tight connections created by this exchange tend to be self-reinforcing. Because Mrs. Park hires only through recommendations, Ki-woo is able to smuggle his sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), into the Park household as an art tutor; Ki-jung then secures a job as a driver for their father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), who brings in his wife as a housekeeper. “I don’t trust anyone anymore,” Mrs. Park confesses at one point, though her fear only makes her more vulnerable to the Kims’ deception.
After Bong’s successful foray into English-language films with Snowpiercer and Okja, many critics have called Parasite, shot entirely in South Korea, a “homecoming.” Indeed, his portrayal of universal economic themes draws specifically from this setting. The city of Seoul is home to some 10 million people, and its greater metropolitan area houses 25 million—or half of the country’s population. Seoul’s density, at more than 40,000 people per square mile, ranks among the highest in the world, which means that while some corners of the city afford anonymity, few offer privacy. In Parasite, as in Bong’s greater cinematic universe, subterranean spaces such as basements and bunkers make for crucial settings. In a city where land is scarce and much of life is vertically stacked, people have to find ways of inhabiting the spaces in between.
When I spoke with Bong earlier this year, he mentioned two stories to illustrate his fascination with the underground. The first was about Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who was discovered to have locked up and abused his daughter in a basement for 24 years; the second was about English civilians surviving German air raids during World War II by hiding out in bunkers. “Both feelings—life and death—are present in basements,” Bong told me. The most important twist in Parasite hinges on what dwells in the cavernous space below the Parks’ home. When this hidden place is revealed, the two feelings that Bong identified with basements are exposed to the light. And the suspicion of the rich—that they will never fully elude the poverty and violence of their society—is proved true.
The anxieties of proximity explored in Parasite are rooted in South Korea’s past. The first half of the 20th century in the country was marked by brutal Japanese occupation and the devastation of the Korean War. But since the 1960s, the gross national income per capita in South Korea has risen from $120 to $30,600. This rapid economic growth, which was driven by a handful of family-owned companies known as chaebol, relied on extensive government support for enterprises deemed most likely to succeed. The development strategy of rewarding the moneymakers has neither the scholarly propriety of supposed meritocracies based on exams nor the implied inescapability of heredity and, after nearly 60 years, this approach remains embedded in the country’s economic policy.
The antipathy between rich and poor that lies at the core of Parasite, then, is rooted less in the difference between the two families than in their similarities. The Kims and the Parks bear two of the three most common last names in South Korea and, like 96 percent of the population, they share the same ethnicity and language. Each household’s wealth was likely made within a single generation. In theory, the financial inequality between them is recent and precarious enough to be provisional, but is undeniable in material terms. Both sides eat the same instant noodles, yet only one can afford the beef.
Though Parasite is mainly about interclass conflict, its most brutal scenes depict fights between members of the working poor. Here, as in the rest of Bong’s films, violence is not a path to liberation; it instead offers a fleeting catharsis that upholds more of the status quo than it destroys. For families like the Kims, advancement under capitalism involves beating out their peers for limited opportunities, to the extent that parity with others in the working class begins to feel like failure.
In their attempts to get ahead, the Kims end up replicating the abuses of the wealthy—fraud, conspiracy, blackmail, and assault—against the poor, whose ranks they desperately wish to leave. When Ki-taek wonders about the fate of the driver his family schemed to get fired, Ki-jung snaps: “We’re the ones who need help. Worry about us, okay?” But unlike the rich, the Kims cannot hide their transgressions behind masks of respectability and institutional legitimacy. When the basis for their employment by the Parks is revealed to be nepotism, a mainstay of elite consolidation, the news media and their audiences are scandalized.
There is a Korean phrase that is commonly used to police people who act above their station: niga mwonde? Though the most faithful English translation is “Who do you think you are?” the sentence literally means “What are you?” South Korea is not the only country in which the rich and poor continue to live in close quarters, even as the disparities between them widen. The danger in such a system, Bong’s film suggests, is that one day people may find it easier to discount the humanity of fellow citizens than to address the unfair divisions in their heavily stratified society. That is the nightmare world of Parasite, where the question niga mwonde? is earnestly posed and yields no easy answer.