Bong Joon-Ho’s remarkable new film Parasite has garnered a lot of critical attention for its timely and dramatically satisfying depiction of class. It’s timely because everywhere you look, from Korea and Hong Kong to the US, from Chile and Argentina to Spain and Lebanon, working-class people (and some professional-managerial-class people) are in revolt, demanding an end to neoliberalism, desiring greater political freedoms, and wanting attainable visions for a more just future. The film explores the underlying wealth inequalities that feed these revolts without flattening characters into heroes and villains: Class solidarity is hard to come by and the wealthy aren’t obviously monsters. As insightful as reviews of this film have been, however, what they leave out is how Parasite’s class narrative hinges on the ways in which environmental disruption exacerbates simmering conflict between the working class and the wealthy.
In a brilliant review of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which collects a series of lectures by novelist Amitav Ghosh that bemoans the lack of attention to climate change in contemporary literary fiction, Kate Marshall insists that it’s a mistake to look only for narratives that comment explicitly on this phenomenon. Such narratives—including Ghosh’s own new novel Gun Island and recent novels like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, and Omar El Akkad’s America War—are certainly worth paying close attention to, but it’s just as important to consider how we read. What can a novel, or any narrative, that only marginally concerns itself with climate change have to say about this phenomenon? What happens if we start to put climate change squarely at the center of our attention?
These are the questions I was thinking about when I was watching one of Parasite‘s most memorable scenes. Kim Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) is running down flights of stairs with his two grown children in pouring rain. One flight leads down from the main floor of the house where Ki-taek and his family have grifted their way into working-class jobs. Another flight, longer and steeper, leads from the hill where the house sits down the side of an immense slab of concrete to a lower lying highway. These stairs lead yet again to another set of steps, shorter this time, that takes them to where their home, a basement apartment, is being flooded.
As much as I’ve tried to capture the power of this scene, prose fails to convey how dazzling this moment is. So much meaning is subtly embedded in these carefully composed shots, and the music heightens the mood of the moment, making it suspenseful and nerve-wracking in a way that simply reading silently can’t recreate. Such visual and sonic qualities of cinema are important to understanding this moment as commentary on climate change. Print fiction offers a lot of other qualities that film cannot, but here Bong’s film registers the impact of worsening extreme weather in immediate and spectacular fashion—but only if we have a frame for understanding this moment in this way.
Visually, the scene showcases the gap between the Kim family and their employers, the Parks. The Parks are a wealthy family who live in a large modernist house with a spacious, beautifully manicured lawn (something almost impossible to imagine in the middle of Seoul, where the film takes place). The wife is mostly idle, unable to do basic chores to keep the household afloat. She dotes on her two children, whom she’s desperate to believe are gifted in some way. This is especially true of her son, a rambunctious terror who’s always running around, playing Indian (!), and drawing pictures of decidedly ordinary quality. The daughter is mostly bored and starved for attention, more interested in kissing her tutor than learning from him. The husband is always working and aloof. For the most part, this family is not portrayed as evil or even horribly exploitative of the people they employ in their large house. If anything, they’re banal—decent to their employees and mediocre in the way they live their lives.
The employees are the Kims, who, when we meet them at the start of the film, are on the verge of destitution. None of them have a job, and the closest thing to employment they’ve been able to find is assembling pizza boxes for a small fee—a task they aren’t very good at. The son gets a chance to be the Park daughter’s tutor (he lies about being a college student) and in this position he arranges for his sister to become an art behavior therapist for the Park son (she has no formal training in this). In short order, the father and the mother are employed as chauffer and maid. Every member of the Kim family had to lie their asses off to get their positions and ruthlessly push out the people whose jobs they wanted.
About midway through the film, audience members might feel that the Kims have earned a night of celebration. After all, they have masterfully tricked the Parks into hiring the entire family and they can now look forward to a future bright with the possibility of more lucrative grifts to come. The Parks have gone camping to celebrate their son’s birthday, and the Kims do a little camping of their own in the large house, the daughter taking a leisurely bath while the son reads his tutee’s personal diaries for fun. They eventually converge on the couch in the living room, eating the Parks’ food and drinking their expensive liquor. Outside, the rain has started to come down hard but they are safe and cozy in the living room, admiring the rain failing on the large yard as seen through a wall of plate glass. They have accomplished something that seemed impossible at the start of the film: found gainful employment.
I won’t spoil the amazing plot twist that comes next, because it’s not relevant to the point I want to make. What’s more important is that in the midst of the ensuing narrative bedlam the Parks return from their camping trip, their trip having come to an abrupt end when the river they’ve set up besides bursts its banks. The Kim family get short warning of their imminent arrival, and are forced to clean up the mess they made and hide. Only the mother can remain visible, as she is supposed to be taking care of the house while the Parks are away. Eventually, the Kim father and children escape, making their memorably downward escape to their flooded home.
This scene is pivotal to the arc of the film’s narrative, for this is when Ki-taek transforms as a character from being a genial and ever-ready-to-please—if conniving—worker into someone capable of murder. We see the transition take place on his face, which is ever smiling for most of the first half of the film but becomes a blank mask when he is hiding under the massive living room coffee table, overhearing his employers talking about how bad he smells. After their flight in the rain, his face becomes something else again. His look is menacing impassivity as he sits inside a crowded gym-turned-camp for people displaced by the rain. He is talking on the phone with Mr. Park, who is asking him to come over right away and help organize a fancy impromptu birthday party they’ve decided to throw for their young son. Ki-taek’s face takes center stage one more time when he and Mr. Park are hiding behind a bush, wearing ceremonial Indian headdresses and holding small toy tomahawks in their hands. They are waiting to pounce on the Kim daughter, who has been asked to bring the cake for the Park son. They are going to attack her, playing Hollywood savage, so the son can save them in the role of the good Indian.
The startling Indian imagery aside, what’s noteworthy is the transformation in Ki-taek’s affect. He sees something he had been willfully blind to before. He and his family, no matter how successful they are in pushing other poor working-class people out of their jobs and in tricking the Parks into giving them work, are ultimately disposable. Their suffering is invisible to the Parks, who carry on with their lives oblivious to the fact that a whole nearby neighborhood has been flooded, its residents forced to seek refuge in a gym. The Parks are oblivious of the fact that Ki-taek and his children had waited in a long line for free food and scrambled to get the free clothes that were flung at them. Even if they had caught a glimpse it seems unlikely that they would care very much at all.
All this becomes visible due to the rain and flooding, which drive home the ways in which the Parks are immune from having to worry about something as trivial as the weather while the Kims are painfully vulnerable to it, especially when it turns extreme. Climate change is never mentioned, but the visual display of all that rain pouring down on their neighborhood, and the horror of the image of the Kims wading waist high, and then neck high, in water mixed with raw sewage as they try to salvage what they can of their possessions in their home, is a powerful reminder climate change-related destruction is becoming more common and more extreme. The fact that the river has burst its banks, forcing the Parks to scurry home from their camping trip, recalls breathless news stories of the flooding that’s been happening all over Korea in recent years, as heavy rains do their work to reconfigure the country’s lower-lying landscapes in particular.
We might also keep in mind that Bong himself has signaled in previous films a keen interest in environmental concerns. Okja (2017) is about the moral hazards of industrial agriculture, focusing in particular on the mistreatment of livestock. Snowpiercer (2013) is set in a world destroyed by a failed attempt to reverse the effects of climate change. And even his breakthrough film The Host (2006) is a meditation on the consequences of environmental racism; it’s story alludes to a real-life event, when the US military disposed of toxic waste into the river that runs through the center of Seoul. Taken together, these films make clear that environmental issues are never far from the director’s thinking.
Even the smell that wafts off the Kims, which seems to come from the subways and their musty basement apartment, suggests that members of the working class are connected intimately with something earthy. Even as they seek to escape such connections, it clings to them, an olfactory sign of vulnerability and endangerment. When conflict erupts in the film, no family is spared, while members of the working class continue to pay the heaviest price as the weather keeps getting worse.