Parasite: the fetid odor of the underground

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By Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez*

Joo-ho Bong's film shows brutal inequalities that go beyond South Korean national particularities.

1.

Since winning the Palme d'Or unanimously at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Parasite, the new film by Joo-ho Bong, has been gaining the spotlight from critics and moviegoers around the world. It has already been chosen as South Korea's candidate for the next Academy Awards, in the category of Best International Film. In Brazilian lands, the film was shown for the first time last month in disputed sessions of the 43rd São Paulo International Film Festival, in which it won the Best Film award by the public. It is now showing in some cinemas across the country.

After the weight and boldness of Bacurau, Joo-ho Bong's film establishes itself as another example of a disruptive cinema, which builds its plot from a state of affairs that has found its limits and exposes its contradictions without fear. In this sense, it is a cultural index of the irreconcilable and unsustainable state of the current modus operandi established in this era of such profound moral, economic and social malaise.

The film follows the story of the poor Kim family, who inhabit the basement of a fetid and poorly structured urban suburb. In a house of tiny proportions, the two brothers, Ki-woo and Ki-jung, have to compete for the coveted Wi-Fi of the neighbors to connect to the internet – a brilliant sequence that opens the film. Both were unable to access the country's competitive university education, being at the mercy of an uncertain, disqualified future that, in principle, will reproduce the poverty of their parents.

These, Mr. Kim Ki-taek and Mrs. Moon-gwang, unemployed, live precariously with the money they manage to save from the pizza boxes they assemble repeatedly for local restaurants, in addition to other jobs from which they try to make a living. The film, from the beginning, provides us with a faithful portrait of the growing precariousness of workers, thrown into informality and underemployment.

The family's prospects for the future begin to change when they receive a visit from Min, a young college student who is a friend of Ki-woo. As he is traveling, Min asks his friend to substitute for him during his absence as an English teacher to a young woman from a wealthy family. By falsifying the documentation needed to pass himself off as a college student, Ki-woo gets a temporary job at Mr Park's mansion and his family. From one recommendation to the next, daughter, father and mother also start to work in the house, each fulfilling a different role, from driver to housekeeper. Families, now united under the same roof through an unequal relationship between employers and employees, begin to tear apart the distance that separated them. With regard to the brutal inequalities that the film shows us, its story is detached from South Korean national particularities and serves as a universal plot of our time.

2.

Parasite it is a testament to those who live underground, but aspire to ascend to the surface, whatever the path. Their dreams and goals are under the model of life of the wealthy who live under the light.  It is through this key that the film can be interpreted: an account of what happens when the inhabitants of the subsoil emerge to the surface and no longer want to return to their fetid home. In this sense, the very moral code that comes from the depths and animates the characters is the one that calls into question the world that covers them, namely, the will to be able to enjoy a good life. Watching this plot of the meeting of those excluded from coexistence with the blessed residents of Solar Superficia, we remember the underground memories, by Dostoevsky:

But it is exactly in this frigid and disgusting semi-despair, in this semi-belief, in this conscious burying oneself alive, out of affliction, underground, for forty years; in this insurmountable situation created with effort and, despite everything, somewhat dubious, in which all this venom of unsatisfied desires that penetrated the interior of the being; in all this fever of vacillations, of decisions made forever and of regrets that reappear a moment later, in all this is what the juice of that strange pleasure I spoke about [1] consists of.

This pleasure in becoming an underground dweller is only possible in the face of a lack of choices, a situation in which acceptance would seem to be the best way out. An ignoble pleasure, even incomprehensible. However, it is to the detriment of this “burying oneself alive” that the film subverts the dictatorship of reconciliation and moves towards conflict between classes, placing them face to face to the point where their complete incompatibility comes to the surface.

It is because of this desire to unearth himself that the entire plot is built, from the rise of the Kim family to the upscale neighborhood of the city, leaving the basement where they lived towards the modernist house, full of flat lines and minimalist decoration of Mr. Park; or in the opposite direction, when they are once again victims of “frigid and disgusting semi-despair” and have to return, under a heavy rain, to their underground home: a sequence of shots in which the characters desperately descend stairs, slopes and winding alleys in order to to face the tragedy that befell their homes.

From then on, the film moves towards the apex of the conflict. Under the climate of a false lull, the soap bubble bursts from the decision made by one of those who lived hidden in the basement for so long. Once again, the speech of the silenced is louder and more potent than any other, functioning as a kind of release from an instinctual renunciation that has been held back for so long. When given the chance to those who have never had a voice or a place under the sun, the film reveals the sheer artificiality of the current world order. We are given to revisit the much talked about homo homini lupus:

And by the way, do you want to know something? I'm sure our underground people must be kept on a tight leash. Such a person is capable of sitting in silence for forty years, but when he opens a passageway and steps out into the light, he keeps talking, talking, talking… [2]

3.

The encounter between the subsoil and the surface appears as a stain: the metaphor of “smell”. The smell of the “others”, the poor, is seen as the motivator of class “disgust” and “aversion”. Building a growing tension through their speeches, the characters of the Park family outline a discourse that draws a clear distinction between “us” and “them”: cleaning versus filth, order versus chaos, bodies and trained language versus spontaneity and carelessness.

The confrontation of such dichotomies increases to the point where one of the characters summarizes the issue with the precious statement: “Money is like an iron for ironing clothes: all the folds are ironed”. There is no clutter, stench or loss of control among the rich, kind and handsome. Freud, in The malaise of civilization, already pointed out how beauty, cleanliness and order are the cultural demands of the very notion of human progress. In his words, we ended up putting “the use of soap as a direct measure of the degree of civilization” [3].

The plot, however, was very good at showing how this entire universe of values ​​is pure artificiality, a mere reproduction mechanism that constantly replaces class hatred and establishes the abyss that separates such individuals. Although the “others” are accepted as employees, the smell of “subway people” is indistinguishable. There is no bath that makes them lose the traces of their origin. It is under such falsehood that the film moves towards its final barbarism.

Its climax is the very shattering of appearances: for a moment, the tearing between classes erupts as pure violence. In these terms, the film surpasses reality. And precisely because of this, because it echoes this “surrealist” tone, it becomes so real. It is through such a dose of absurdity that the artificiality of reality itself is laid bare.

4.

Although it borders on the absurd, the film ends in a tone of resignation. We get the impression that, in the end, it was better that the Kim family was kept underground. This impotent return of the excluded to their origin is proof of the fiasco of their strategy to rise to the surface: one hour or another, the farce would be revealed. Such a script resolution is the very realization of what Mr. Kim, at a certain point in the film, reveals to her son: “when we make plans, they don't come true”. What remains unknown is how to draw up action strategies without plans in sight. Perhaps we are deceiving ourselves about what it means to draw up a “plan”.

The marks of such resignation are placed by the director, intentionally or not, in Handel's own opera chosen as a soundtrack: Rodelinda, Regina de' Longobardi. Its libretto, full of kings and nobles disputing the inheritance of the throne, ends in the context of resignation and refusal to power: Grimoaldo, one of those who tried to usurp the throne, ends up giving up his obsession and returns, without a crown, to the his own dukedom, along with his wife.

The return to the fetid suburb, although it seems to indicate conciliation, keeps the problem posed in an inconclusive way, as conflictual and disruptive as before: back underground, what else will need to happen for the sun to reach everyone? This is where we leave the aesthetic dimension and enter the political game. In Marcuse's words, “…all art is 'l'art pour l'art' only to the extent that the aesthetic form reveals forbidden and repressed dimensions of reality, aspects of emancipation [4].  

*Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez is a graduate student in the sociology department at USP.

Notes

[1] Fyodor Doistoyevsky. underground memories. São Paulo, Editora 34, 2009, p.24.

[2] Idem, p. 50.

[3] Sigmund Freud. Civilization's Discontents. Sao Paulo, Penguin Classics. Companhia das Letras, 2011, p.38.

[4] Herbert Marcuse. the aesthetic dimension. Lisbon, Editions 70, 2016, p.26.

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