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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Wretchedness and absurdity: Thoughts on Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite

By Teo You Yenn
(760 words, 4-minute read)

I watched Bong Joon-ho’s award-winning film Parasite later than most people I know, and after many people had told me I had to see it. It is indeed, as everyone promised, amazing.

My first reaction to art I admire is often a sort of professional envy: artists at their best can achieve what social scientists simply cannot and shouldn’t bother to try. There is fluidity and light and air in this film that makes my book on a similar topic feel clunky and heavy and damp. I am 20% jealous but 80% grateful for this; to feel, after watching a film, that I can use a word like ‘damp’ to describe a book seems to me exactly the kind of magic we should hope to occasionally experience.

The film actually conveys more dampness than I was able in my book. The semi-basement the Kim family lives in is obviously damp, enough that its four members smell—separately—the same to the young master of the Park family living in the hills. Class privilege is partly about not having to witness visual squalor but apparently smells pierce the edges of this privilege, though the price of this breakthrough continues to be borne by the smelly and not the smeller. There is the dampness of the stray drunken man peeing near the Kims’ window and indeed the nearness to toilet bowls that poverty brings. The wealthy have damp bathtubs and saunas—completely optional and potentially sweet-smelling—but being poor is compulsory proximity to the corporeal realities of human waste.

Dampness is wretched. The film does not hold back on this. A wretched life is embroiled in wretched habits and wretched worldviews and wretched scruples. This is an extraordinary piece of work because most people telling stories of class inequality cannot confront this aspect of the humans with whom they feel solidarity. The other recent work that also does this in a beautiful and excruciating way, with a similar relentless honesty in storytelling, is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Death stares at grime and slang and peace waiting to boil over into violence, and withholding of rose petals. The one piece in Parasite that offers directive on how to properly read wretchedness and its corollary of grace, so that the audience is given some help and prevented from becoming pathetic enough to misunderstand these for inherent traits, is when Mrs Kim admonishes her husband for thinking that Mrs Park is “rich but still nice”: “Hell, if I had all this money, I’d be nice too.”

Wealth buys niceness because wealth buys order. There is order in the Park’s mansion – all clean lines and right angles; jars on shelves and fruit on plates. Wealth buys niceness because wealth buys predictability in a day and through the years – private tutoring, college, art classes, dinners, parties, holidays. The predictability offered by abundance is a big buffer against risk; niceness costs nothing in the now nor for the future – everything will come out of the interest, nothing from the principal. Wealth buys niceness because wealth buys labour – the body that displaces labour barely has to bend and never needs to squat. Hips and feet and necks and arms move through space, get from point A to point B, without exertion. There is a lot left to be nice with.

The symmetry of wretchedness to absurdity that the film sets up is stunning. The clean lines and smooth silk and sunbeams and green lawns, after you soak in them, become absurd. The other major film on class in recent history—Crazy Rich Asians (full disclosure: I did not watch it)—stews in this absurdity, misrecognising it for gorgeous. Like those pages in newspapers that pretend to live in a separate dimension—where accumulating a lot of money and spending it on property or fast cars or designer goods is inherently virtuous – it wants the audience to buy into the absurdity, to accept that what the 99% does not have in real life, they should revel in as fantasy. You can be nice too if you are rich. Parasite toys with this familiar fantasy, and then messes it up – no one is the obvious villain in this film, but everyone is; no one a victim and then everybody loses.

I wonder what it means that Parasite has won international acclaim – that audiences have looked past the specific to recognise the universal, allowed themselves to sense dampness both downstairs and upstairs. Is this the same audience that last year clapped for other Asians? The contemporary human condition—bouncing between wretchedness and absurdity—laid bare, with hardly a pause between beats. Is the willingness to see a sign of a beginning, a middle, or an end?


Parasite by Bong Joon Ho is distributed by Clover Films and Golden Village Pictures. It is currently screening in Singapore at various cinemas, including The Projector. There is also a black-and-white version screening at The Projector.

Teo You Yenn is Associate Professor and Provost’s Chair in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University and author of This Is What Inequality Looks Like (Ethos Books, 2018). More information about her work at: https://teoyouyenn.sg

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