‘Parasite’ burrows into the roots of class conflict

Scott Powell

Movie plots are like cakes; they have layers. Unless, of course, the movie is Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” in which case it’s still a cake, but it’s more like a funnel cake.

The story isn’t a stack of neat and tidy tiers that are meticulously peeled away as the narrative progresses. It’s more of a tangled nest of sporadic, anarchic twists, turns and loops. Despite their messiness, they add up to a dish far tastier and more satisfying than any pristine pastry pile Betty Crocker ever baked up.

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The film centers around the Kim family, a dysfunctional clan of down-and-out basement dwellers who decide to try and better their schlocky standard of living by hiring themselves out to the fabulously wealthy, extravagant and (lucky for them) hopelessly imbecilic Park family. 

I don’t want to give too much of the story away (and it wouldn’t do any good anyway, as trying to follow any written description of this plot is an exercise that can only end with your brain oozing out of your ear canals) but suffice it to say, things go awry. 

There’s blood. There’s guts. There’s strangers found tied up in basements. There’s people being held hostage at cellphone-point. It’s a masterpiece.

It’s more than a masterpiece, though. What makes “Parasite” a true work of art is the fact that it doesn’t sell its soul to its absurdity. It doesn’t just let its wild narrative run amok the way many films of its type do, but it is able to hold fast to the reigns of its bucking bronco plot line, upholding a genuine sense of dignity and humanity in its characters despite the ludicrous situations they find themselves in.

There’s blood. There’s guts. There’s strangers found tied up in basements. There’s people being held hostage at cellphone-point. It’s a masterpiece.”

This is something that even the greatest filmmakers and storytellers struggle to do. The Coen brothers did it in “Fargo,” Christopher Nolan did it in “The Dark Knight,” Charles Dickens did it in “David Copperfield,” William Shakespeare did it in “Hamlet” (yes, this movie is good enough to be compared to Hamlet — maybe not with regards to the intricacy of its language, but certainly in its mastery of plot).

By effectively bridging this gap between the kind of unpredictability necessary to make a plot compelling and the perseverance and humanness that makes for believable, empathetic characters, “Parasite” has carved out its place among giants.

Oftentimes, the authenticity of the characters is dampened for the sake of making their failure over their absurd situation more palatable. Other times, the complexity and extremeness of the plot is dampened for the sake of making the characters come out victorious in the end.

When characters are real and relatable on a deep human level, earning the audience’s sympathy, but fail to overcome their situation, a film just becomes a bummer of a flick. 

There’s nothing wrong with films that succumb to these compromises that nearly every movie has to some extent or another. And these compromises can be used to great effect in movies, depending on what purpose or message the film is trying to get across.

However, it takes a strong sense of discipline and commitment for an artist to be so seeped in both the unexpectedness of the world they’ve created and the pervasive principles of the characters in that world that the two elements can see each other through to a point of authentic, satisfactory connection. 

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That’s why when a film like “Parasite” comes out, a film that is able to find this connection and uncover an authentic sense of purpose in its characters despite the crushing and pervasive hopelessness of their situation, it’s a significant feat.

What really makes the film brilliant, though, is that it isn’t merely a story of class warfare. It’s not just the lower class rising up against the upper class as the result of some blind, primitive dissatisfaction or agitation.

The Kims are not barbaric, vengeful proletariats driven by a blind desire to wreak havoc on the upper class. They are highly intelligent, cunning and crafty people who use their wits, rather than their fists, to stand up against the world that has left them beaten and scrounging for scraps in a crummy basement apartment. They don’t see social ascension as a war, but rather as a mind game.

While the fists (and the knives, the rocks and even the barbecue skewers) do come out in time, the primary goal of the Kim family is not to destroy the Parks or to teach them some kind of lesson. They are not seeking to pull the Park family down into their own suffering, but simply to supplant them — quietly, peacefully and tactfully.

This is becoming an increasingly rarer means of approaching the topic of classism in modern cinema, primarily because it doesn’t make for as sensational a story.

Modern audiences want to see characters driven to the brink of madness because it looks cooler and because it makes us feel like our own confusion toward the state of the modern world is justified. But art is meant to help us make sense of this confusion, not to simply make us feel validated in our succumbing to it.

The Kims … recognize the inherent valuelessness of what they are pursuing, as well as the paradox in the fact that they continue to pursue it in spite of this knowledge.

Ultimately, the thing that conquers class division is not the destruction of the upper class — as history has shown, this only leads to the emergence of a new, often more savage upper class — but society’s recognition of the arbitrariness of these divisions.

This is what sets the Kim family apart from the other underclass heroes of film: their understanding and actual belief that there is nothing about them that is inherently inferior to the Parks.

Everyone acknowledges this, but we rarely are given film characters who actually seem to believe it. Rather, we see characters who say class divisions are arbitrary but then go on to nearly kill themselves trying to ascend this supposedly arbitrary social ladder.

The Kims, on the other hand, recognize the inherent valuelessness of what they are pursuing, as well as the paradox in the fact that they continue to pursue it in spite of this knowledge. This, in turn, makes the drama of the film more captivating because it internalizes the characters’ conflict rather than externalizing it.

It is not a battle between two institutions — capitalism vs. redistribution — but rather a battle between the more complex, mysterious and ever-unraveling internal forces that drive us to either uphold or reject these institutions.

On the one hand, the Kims want the stability that the Parks are able to enjoy. They want to be wealthy; they want nice things. They aren’t after justice or equality. They’re after the luxuries that can only be afforded to people operating within a capitalist system.

On the other hand, though, the fact that they were so readily able to snatch these things right out from under the Parks’ noses shows just how fragile and fleeting this goal really is. Thus, they can never feel wholly justified in pursuing it. 

It’s the film’s focus around this dilemma that makes it so effective and allows the plot to stay afloat as long as it does. This is the ultimate question of our existence: why do we pursue things that we intuitively know are meaningless, and can we find meaning or fulfillment in life without pursuing these things, even though they will ultimately lead to nothing?

While many films approach the topic of class division with the intent of assigning blame to a specific person or entity — pinning the plight of the poor on either their own lack of willpower or some corrupt upper class conspiracy designed to keep them oppressed — “Parasite” highlights the underlying, internal conflict that ultimately drives these divisions.

It is the knowledge that class isn’t so much a matter of who in society actually has power (whether that power comes from their own knowledge or their social standing) but rather who in society is willing to delude themselves enough to believe that they do.

Scotty Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.