Uncertain and volatile lives

Almas Talib watches the Oscar-winning 'Parasite'.

The Park family reside high up in an angular and pristine house. Everyone walks around in slippers on stretches of stone and wooden flooring; it looks barely lived in. As the Kims run back to their home, the camera pans as they glide downhill, downstairs, moving perpetually downwards in the rain until they reach their small, enclosed, and now flooded, semi-basement; to the bottom of society.

In Parasite, Bong Joon-ho artistically portrays class disparity through the interaction of two families living in Seoul. The Kims are a lower-class family, earning a living by folding pizza boxes in a semi-basement, based on Seoul’s banjiha apartments that make city living affordable. The Park family, on the other hand, depend on the patriarch and business tycoon, Dong-ik, for their healthy income. This allows them to reside in a deliciously modern abode. 

Parasite seamlessly transitions between genres, such as satire, black comedy, slasher, thriller, indulges in symbolism and social commentary. What I enjoyed the most was the way Bong Joon-ho uses his characters to show the way adversity can stretch the human mind, and the lengths we will go to adapt to it. Anthony Giddens (1991) discusses the existential difficulties that arise from ‘ontological insecurity’, when a person has lost faith in how reliable the world around them is, and cannot trust their understanding of external realities. Developmental psychology also talks about how unpredictable environments and adversity can lead to behaviourally and emotionally dysregulated psychological function (Ellis et al., 2012), risky behaviour (Ellis et al., 2009) but also creativity (Jovchelovitch, 2014). Parasite touches upon all of these. In the context of a capitalist society, where money can buy a family stability, we observe all characters experiencing life uncertainty, but the impoverished ones struggle the most to navigate them.

The Kims end up as employees for the Park family, gaining this employment in questionable ways. As their façade reaches new heights in its complexity, their morale reaches new lows. Lying in a temporary refuge, away from their flooded house, Kai-taek laments: “If you plan, something will always go wrong… Do you think these people got up this morning and said, “Tonight I’m going to sleep on a dirty floor with hundreds of strangers”? But look where they are now. Look where we are.” The Kims are driven to initially light-hearted and amusing, but eventually undignified and tragic ends to navigate the precarity of their lives.

The film does illustrate how this same uncertainty affects wealthy families as well. The Parks deal with deceptive employees and troubled children, but they have the financial means to tackle or evade these problems. This is demonstrated by the housekeeper, Moon-gwang, explaining why bunkers exist in the houses of rich families: “. . . in case the North Koreans invade, or in case creditors come knocking on their doors.” Precarity is an existential challenge for all, but the Park family, as in the bloody climax of the film, have the money to move away, receive due justice and nurse their wounds. 

As perhaps a commentary on the rigidity of social class and the myth of meritocracy, rejected by Ki-woo when the scholar’s rock (believed to bring prosperity) is put back in a stream, the Kims remain where they are. Their uncertain and volatile lives cause them injury, death and criminalisation. They sit and imagine new futures in different places, whilst still trapped below in basements. 

- Almas Talib is a masters student in social and cultural psychology at the London School of Economics.

References

Ellis, B. J., Del Giudice, M., Dishion, T. J., Figueredo, A. J., Gray, P., Griskevicius, V., ... & Wilson, D. S. (2012). The evolutionary basis of risky adolescent behavior: implications for science, policy, and practice. Developmental psychology48(3), 598.

Ellis, B. J., Figueredo, A. J., Brumbach, B. H., & Schlomer, G. L. (2009). Fundamental dimensions of environmental risk. Human Nature20(2), 204-268.

Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Jovchelovitch, S. (2014). The creativity of the social: Imagination, development and social change in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. In Rethinking Creativity (pp. 100-116). Routledge.

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