15 March, 2020 • • 42.9FilmPhilosophy

Email This Article Print This Article

Above and Below the Storm

Daniel Kodsi

Parasite is in the mode of irony. It is characteristic of ironic works to explore the interplay of distinct meanings of the same symbol, without clearly privileging any of these meanings. Irony is thus opposed both to dogmatism and to relativism. The dogmatist insists that, given any question, one of its answers is clearly right; while the relativist declares that every answer is clearly right, by the lights of the party that holds it. Irony, then, is the ideology of the realist. Disagreement may be intractable for no reason deeper than that the world eludes our easy understanding. Not all truths are by their nature knowable; by the same token, there is no guarantee that one knows what one thinks that one knows.

Variants on these themes recur in Parasite. For one thing, it does not prejudge the question given by its title. The film concerns a poor family, the Kims, and a rich family, the Parks. The Parks are parasitic. They rely on the Kims to teach their children, to clean their house, and to drive their car. The Kims are parasitic as well. They rely on the Parks for much more basic things, including food. The Parks do not technically steal from the Kims; their personal interactions with them are perfectly hygienic. The Kims technically steal from the Parks; even their most personal interactions with them are coloured by deception. But it should not be inferred that the Parks really do not steal from the Kims, while the Kims really do steal from the Parks. To say this would be to presuppose that the Parks’ wealth is rightfully theirs, not merely in their possession. However obvious it may seem that to lie and cheat and steal is really to steal, if the Parks’ wealth is only legally theirs, then it is their demands of time and energy upon the Kims that are really crooked.

The nuances of possession are often tricky in this way. At the centre of Parasite, in the middle of a storm, the Kims have a family dinner in a family’s living room. They think that they are safe, at least for the moment. They are wrong several times over. The Kims take the house that they occupy to be theirs to enjoy for the night. But the family that owns it will, unbeknownst to them, soon be returning. Worse, also unbeknownst to them, is that their own living room is being flooded. They shall have to spend the night in a gym, surrounded by others similarly dispossessed. And worse still, also unbeknownst to them, the house which they occupy and which the Parks own is somebody else’s home as well. The Parks’ living room is unscathed by the storm partly because it is above ground and partly because its glass wall is designed only to let in the sun, while the Kims’ living room is flooded partly because their semi-basement is below ground and partly because it lacks a good way of keeping the elements out. But Park Myung-hoon, who lives—if you can call it living—even deeper below ground, in the Parks’ sub-basement, is also untouched by the storm. Far enough down, that is, one achieves an insulation that one also achieves far enough up. The Kims exist in a world that is beneath the Parks’ line of sight; Myung-hoon exists in a world that is beneath even the Kims’.

Thus, three failures of knowledge undermine the Kims’ carefully crafted plan. Until the storm, their campaign to infiltrate the Parks’ mansion had been an unqualified success, a rout. One by one, they displaced the Parks’ three previous employees, and secured a fourth job besides. They had no reason to believe that their war—a war, after all, that the other side did not know it was fighting—would not continue as it had begun. So, as they ate and drank in the Parks’ living room, they allowed themselves to daydream. Perhaps the house would one day be theirs—more securely theirs, at any rate. The Parks’ daughter Da-hye is infatuated with Ki-woo, even if she knows him as ‘Kevin’; their son Da-song is almost as attached to Ki-jung, even if he knows her as ‘Jessica’. Ki-jung seems naturally to belong in the house, anyway. Of course, it is not hard to see that she seems natural anywhere—even smoking a cigarette on a toilet that is overflowing with shit. But this is all the more reason that she belongs in the Parks’ house. Luxury belongs, one might think, to those who would best take advantage of it. Otherwise doesn’t it go to waste?

The daydreaming explains the first failure of knowledge. The Kims’ campaign of infiltration is one of stealth, and thus requires constant vigilance—for it to succeed, they must know everything that they are in a position to know. Because he is distracted, Ki-woo misses texts from Da-hye telling him that the Parks’ camping trip has been cancelled because of the storm. Had the Kims realised that their access to the Parks’ house in the short run was compromised, they could have taken firmer measures to secure their access to it in the long run. Instead, they find themselves, as foreshadowed, hidden like cockroaches underneath the Parks’ living room’s couch and table—the audience, if not witnesses, to several things that they might rather not have heard. Of course, their presence there depended on the third failure of knowledge as well. The Kims had done as much as they could to achieve double vision—to know the Parks’ lives as well as their own. Yet it turned out that what they needed was triple vision—to be aware of the existence of a life which it was impossible for them to know existed. This illustrates a second, deeper weakness of the Kims’ plan. Not only did they need to know everything that they were in a position to know, they also needed to know everything that they were not in a position to know. Yet since, trivially, they couldn’t know anything that they weren’t in a position to know, this implies that they needed there to be nothing that they weren’t in a position to know. And given that this variable was unavoidably outside their control, there were no precautions the Kims could take to guarantee their plan’s success.

It was not obviously inevitable, given Gook Moon-gwang’s appearance at the Parks’ house that night, that the Kims’ position was lost. But the range of options available to them ought not to be overestimated. Consider, for instance, Chung-sook’s lack of pity in the face of Moon-gwang’s pleas for help. It is tempting to read this as a failure of working class solidarity. Couldn’t Chung-sook see that the significant line was between the Parks and both Moon-gwang and herself, rather than between both the Parks and herself and Moon-gwang? If she had tried showing mercy, might not Moon-gwang have shown mercy in return? The observation that Chung-sook treats Moon-gwang not as her ally but as her enemy is alright as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. For the deeper point is that Chung-sook surely recognised that, however nice it might be to pretend that Moon-gwang and herself were on the same side of all relevant lines, they were not. Just as the Kims did not hesitate to do whatever was necessary to secure their own prosperity, even if this entailed misdeeds against Parks, Moon-gwang would not hesitate to do whatever was necessary to secure her own prosperity and her husband’s, even if this were to entail misdeeds against the Kims.

From Chung-sook’s perspective, then, Moon-gwang must have appeared to be a basic threat to her family’s position. The Parks might have much more powerful weapons than Moon-gwang, but if all went well, they could be kept indefinitely from deploying their arsenal in combat; while Moon-gwang understands the value of knowledge—the Kims’ own preferred weapon—at least as well as the Kims. (This is in part the force of the Kims’ earlier complaint that ‘of all the people in the house, she’s lived there the longest’.) Moon-gwang keeps in touch with Da-song; she cuts the security camera to the Parks’ house; and she immediately perceives that the living room mess is likely the meal of more than one person. Most strikingly, witness how quickly Moon-gwang’s pleas for pity transform into a more honest cruelty as soon as she gains the epistemic advantage: as her husband, who lives in a bunker built in case of nuclear war with North Korea, lounges on the Parks’ couch, Moon-gwang taunts the Kims by comparing her evidence that they are related to each other to a nuclear missile. In other words, it was impossible that Chung-sook should extend mercy to Moon-gwang precisely because they were on the same side of one line—where, if one is on that side, one knows that one is in a fight—yet on distinct sides of another—Chung-sook is presently employed as the Parks’ house-keeper, while Moon-gwang is not.

The point is general that, under conditions of necessity, the moral rules are suspended. But that they are suspended does not mean that what one morally ought to do has changed. Rather, for the moral rules to be suspended is for it no longer to be clear that one should regard the dictates of morality as having authority over one’s actions. For instance, it plausibly remains the case that, morally, the Kims ought not to deceive the Parks. Certainly, they ought not, morally, to have tricked the Parks into dismissing their previous employees. Nor ought Ki-woo and Ki-jung, morally, to ingratiate themselves so closely with Da-hye and Da-song—they’re just kids, who might get hurt. But it is nowhere written into rationality that necessarily, what one morally ought to do, one ought to do simpliciter. Ki-woo seems to understand this, explicitly stating that he takes invading Da-hye’s privacy to be justified by its epistemic benefits. Yet it is, unsurprisingly, Ki-jung who sees the point most clearly. ‘Fucking hell!’, she says, when her parents stupidly let their defences down far enough to be concerned about the welfare of the Parks’ previous employees. ‘Just focus on us, okay? On us!’ It is perhaps fitting that Ki-jung should have been the Kim family’s fatality, given that it was Ki-jung who epitomised their strengths. None of the other Kims would have been so quick, for instance, to pivot on the threat the Parks’ chauffeur posed in offering to drive her home. Had she let him, it would have been game over; the extent of her poverty would have been revealed. Instead, brilliantly, Ki-jung realises a different respect in which the offer is threatening—thus, she quickly slips off her pants, so that Mr Park might discover them in his car.

As it happens, Ki-jung’s ploy was more effective than even she herself might have anticipated. Mr Park is indeed upset to think that his chauffer should have had sex in his car—or, more precisely, on his side of the line in their shared car. But he is also clever enough to figure out that something is not quite right about the situation: who goes home without their underwear after car sex? This question sets up one of Parasite’s best punchlines. Mr Park whispers to his wife what he thinks, horrifyingly, could have happened. When Mrs Park gasps in shock, the audience believes that Mr Park has suggested to her that it might have been rape. But instead Mrs Park exclaims: Drugs?. It turns out that the prospect that his chauffeur had sex with an incapacitated woman is much less disturbing to Mr Park than that an act involving such vulgar ingredients should have been performed in his car’s back seat. The misdirection by which Ki-jung tricks the Parks is mirrored by the misdirection by which Bong Joon-ho tricks the audience. Ki-jung exploits the fact that the Parks are repulsed by impropriety, together with the fact that they have a naïve conception of impropriety. While Bong exploits the fact that we too are repulsed by impropriety, together with the truth universally acknowledged that any audience to one’s film must be in possession of good taste.

These subtleties of sensibility are operative throughout Parasite; and they interact, still more complexly, with the question of moral transgression. According to the Kims, the Parks are nice because they are rich. The shadow of this remark is that the Kims are not nice because they are not rich. That they are not rich, that is, serves as the Kims’ excuse for not being nice. Poverty, on this picture, requires moral compromise. It is not to be denied that it would be better to be rich; if one were rich, compromise would not be necessary. But it does not follow from this concession that, if one is not compromised, this reflects some distinctive personal accomplishment. If the Parks do not lie, it is because they do not have to. Further, if the Parks wouldn’t lie—if their niceness is robust—it may simply be because they have never had to. Their privilege, ideally, will have allowed them to cultivate precisely those dispositions of authenticity that the Kims noticeably lack. The Kims surely recognise that they will not really succeed in acquiring the Parks’ house. But the house, it seems, is not exactly what they want. Rather, they need just enough wealth to wash away the smell of poverty—to iron out their creases and resentments. As already observed, a significant consequence of precarity is that it requires a kind of constant consciousness. Insecurity precludes ignorance; and ignorance is bliss. Thus, through a sustained application of cynicism (that servant’s tool), the Kims hope to win for themselves, if they cannot have the master’s house, at least the master’s peace of mind.

Yet, in this aspiration, the Kims betray a residual misunderstanding—a failure fully to grasp the mechanism by which wealth secures obliviousness, and thereby obviates personal ugliness. Their juxtaposition is of naivety and niceness—the one conduces to the other. But cynicism is not easily ironed out; as Bernard Williams often emphasised, there is no route back from self-consciousness. Just as the newly rich do not iron the creases from their old clothes, but instead buy new ones, the promise of wealth is really that it lets one afford a new identity. Eventually, perhaps, one’s past self—the one that has suffered distortions and ruptures—can be discarded. But this would not be a transformation; it would be a replacement. More generally, wealth functions not as an iron but as a filter—it keeps the world from getting under one’s skin in the first place. And indeed, contrary to the Kims’ condescending assumption that the Parks are strictly more naïve than they are, this point is firmly grasped, at least implicitly, by Mr Park himself. It is from this perspective that his instinctive opposition to crossing the line is best understood. The insistence reflects a basic grasp of the fact that his indifference is unstable—that, if his shield fails, then, even if the enemy should ultimately be dispelled, the war has already been lost. Consequently, he recognises Ki-taek’s smell in the only way that he could be expected to recognise it: as a warning sign that his family’s filtration system has gone awry. Notice after all that, like an infection, awareness spreads. As soon as Mr Park mentions Ki-taek’s smell to his wife, she cannot help but sense it herself.

These points jointly suggest that there are structural barriers to virtue. The dilemma is not absolute, but it may be presented as if it is. Let us suppose that either one is rich or one is poor. If one is poor, then one’s circumstances preclude that one is nice, so one is not practically in a position to be virtuous. While if one is rich, then one’s circumstances permit that one is nice in virtue of being naive. But that one is naive requires that one has never been required genuinely to handle threats to one’s ignorance. If all goes well, any threats will fly below one’s radar—both the Kims and the Parks have a vested interest in the Parks not learning very much about the Kims. So while the rich might be in a practical position to be virtuous, they may not epistemically be a position to be virtuous. Their niceness may simply be superficial: a vestige of circumstances that applied too little pressure for any interesting personal characteristics ever to develop. In other words, it is possible for the Parks to live rich and happy lives—they could, for instance, be kind without much cost to themselves, while the Kims cannot risk letting anyone else’s concerns take up room in their psyche. But this luxury, in the Parks’ hands, is a kind of spoilt luxury. The very same mechanisms that safeguarded the Parks’ peace of mind left them too insensible to the world to realise the extent of their good fortune. The Parks may be nice; but they are simple. By contrast, the Kims may not be simple. But their plan to become nice was a fantasy from the start, almost as tragic as Ki-woo’s concluding fantasy of rescuing his father from the house on the hill. Of course, the two fantasies are tragic in quite different ways. The Kims could not have known that their plan would fail, although it turned out to be inevitable that it would. While Ki-woo ought to know, and perhaps does, that any new plan will fail; but allows himself to slip into the dream regardless.

Ki-woo’s half-willed retreat into naivety—a naivety that the audience can easily identify, even as it could not recognise the extent of the Kims’ earlier optimism—marks Parasite’s denouement. It will be appropriate, then, to conclude with its climax. Three scenes are crucial. First, Ki-woo asks Da-hye whether she believes that he could belong amongst her class; the suggestion here, illustrated further by his desperate attempt at murder shortly after, is that he has finally come to believe that he cannot. Second, Ki-taek decisively confirms, in a single stroke, both that Mr Park disdains him and that he does not love Mrs Park. Earlier, in asking whether Mr Park loved his wife, Ki-taek seemed genuinely to hope that he did, as well as that he and Mr Park could talk to one another as men. Now, Ki-taek repeats the question, in a darker cast. While he has no hope of either thing, this does not help to mitigate the humiliation of being reminded by Mr Park that he is being paid. Third, Ki-taek watches as Mr Park recoils in physical disgust, when confronted with the smell of Myung-hoon’s bloodied, grinning body. Ki-taek knows that there is nothing he can do to save Ki-jung. But while Mr Park is in a position to save Da-song, he cannot seem to fight his way through Myung-hoon’s smell. It is one irony that the same system that made Myung-hoon perverse—the system that made him smell like that—enabled Mr Park to live an unscarred life. It is a deeper irony that Myung-hoon remains human enough to seek to harm those responsible for the death of his wife, while Mr Park, insulated so far above the storm, cannot weather it when at last it arrives.

That Ki-taek should have killed Mr Park can thus be understood as retribution—not only for his riches, but for having failed to reap their reward.