Like Joker, Parasite uses stairs as a metaphor for social inequality. This article analyses some of the themes in Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 film. SPOILERS.
What is Parasite about?
The Kims are barely surviving. They share a tiny, basement apartment and work for peanuts: life is hard. Then a family friend suggests Ki-woo takes his place as English tutor for the wealthy Park family. The job involves a simple deception – convincing the Parks that Ki-woo is a college student.
What starts as a small lie snowballs into an elaborate ruse. Once hired by the Parks, Ki-woo sets about getting the rest of the Kim family bogus positions. He recommends his sister, Ki-jung, as an art teacher. She recommends their father, Ki-taek, as a chauffeur. And he in turn recommends the mother, Chung-sook, as housekeeper.
Once installed, the Kims enjoy the perks of the job. There’s money and free food, not to mention the luxury of the Park’s home. Then disaster strikes: the original housekeeper, (whom they had fired) discovers their deception. And there’s a problem – she’s been letting her own husband secretly live in the basement for years.
Stairs in Parasite
Parasite’s main theme is the social gap. There’s a huge gulf between being poor and being rich. When you’re poor, it’s hard to cross over to the other side. When you’re rich, there are lots of barriers you can put in place to protect yourself from poor people.
This hierarchy is there in the film’s opening scene. The Kim’s apartment is below ground level, with a window that looks up at the street. The rest of the world looks down on the Kim family – drunk people even urinate on them.
The family’s journey in the film is a universal one: moving up in life. At the start of the film, they’re at the bottom of society, and literally at the bottom of their town. Infiltrating the Park’s home is one way to climb the social ladder.
This becomes most apparent when things go wrong (following the run-in with housekeeper Moon-gwang). Leaving their mother behind to carry on the deception, the others flee to their original apartment. The journey back involves tumbling and slipping down countless stairways – as though the Park home is up in the heavens, and they’re running back to hell.
When they get there, a flood has destroyed their home and all their belongings. As if to hammer home how much trouble they’re now in, sewage spurts back up and into the apartment: they’re literally in the shit.
Of course, being so poor is its own punishment – having so little to lose, they’re most likely to lose everything. The flood may illustrate this, but in fact the Kims are already financially drowning at the start of the film.
The basement as metaphor
Ki-woo declares several things to be a metaphor (most strikingly, the ornamental boulder that later becomes a weapon). The mother of all metaphors, however, is the basement. It represents secrets, hidden selves, and the way poor people are expected to live underground or out of sight, like a sub-class.
The Kim family already live in a basement apartment. Through their deception, they temporarily get to enjoy life at the same level as the Park’s. They think the Park’s house is their lucky break, but events quickly pull them back … into a basement. The secret basement they discover at the Park’s house is no doorway to Narnia, however. It’s another kind of jail – one that’s impossible to fully leave.
The metaphor reflects social invisibility, the same way Joker shows us we don’t notice (or train ourselves not to look) when others need our help. It’s invisibility that traps the Kims in poverty without sympathy or respect from others. But because they’re poor, they’re un-seen in other ways, too. For instance, when they’re lying trapped just feet away from Mr and Mrs Park.
The Parks don’t even notice Chung-sook’s second basement home within their home, because they can’t see poverty, and have excused themselves from their moral and social duty. Early in the film, Mrs Park is said to be gullible. In fact, the Parks are so wrapped up in the fantasy of being wealthy, successful people, that they can’t imagine anything else.
The film within the film
The Kims are talented in their own way, but are shut out of legitimate opportunities. Ki-jung has Photoshop skills; father Ki-taek is an experienced driver; Ki-woo is a decent English tutor. They have all the abilities, but are locked out by the social hierarchy. Experience doesn’t count for much without the official paperwork, or the connections Mrs Park is so mindful of.
The Kims get around this through fraud – by crafting a whole performance. This becomes a ‘film within the film’ (rather like Hamlet’s play with a play). They each build a role for themselves with detailed backstory. They have costumes. And they rehearse the scenes, with Ki-woo ‘directing’ the other players. The Parks are like an audience: they believe what they see, and only want the performance, whatever the cost to the players.
The thing about pretence is that most of us can’t keep it up forever: reality finds a way to disrupt the artifice. The Kims find themselves in the lap of luxury, yet quickly revert to their lazy and messy selves. They think they can hide who they are behind the performance, but the Parks can still smell them. Similarly, the deception Moon-gwang thinks she can hide away in t he basement (her husband) breaks free and comes bursting into the sunlight.
Whether it’s stairs or basements or the contrast of the two homes – one squalid, one hand-crafted – the film continually comes back to the social hierarchy.
Everyone has a place in life, sometimes not of our choosing. And much as we celebrate the self-improvement or self-made myth, climbing out of poverty is much easier when someone lends a hand.
It’s hard to commend those who live at others’ expense – but it’s hard to fully condemn them, too.
Parasite (2019), dir. Boon Jong Ho
Picture credit: Doil Oh