Korea’s “Parasite,” the Pandemic, and Class Warfare

How one film represents the contrast of class as revealed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Examining the wealth gap through a new lens…

Photo by Chronis Yan on Unsplash

“She’s rich, but still nice,” Ki-taek comments to his wife about their employer, Mrs. Park.

She’s nice because she’s rich. Hell, if I had all this money. I’d be nice, too!” Chung-sook responds.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, I can’t seem to get the film Parasite out of my head. The South Korean dark comedy directed by Bong Joon-ho uses class differences to highlight societal issues from his own culture. But I believe these same issues are global concerns between the “have” and the “have-nots”. And for this particular reason, I think the film was able to cross between cultures, reach across subtitles, and impact an American viewer in the same way as the Korean movie goer.

Parasite won the 2019 Best Picture and broke barriers as it became the first non-English film to take home the lauded prize. The film ranks an astounding 99% on the popular film review site Rotten Tomatoes. And ever since I first saw it at the start of 2020, the symbolism and class contrast has left a mark on how I interpret “the rich” in times of crisis.

If you haven’t seen the film, I highly suggest you do.

The main plot follows the life of a young man Ki-woo, who is offered a job opportunity from a high school friend who is returning to college. The job is tutoring the daughter of a very wealthy family. Even though Ki-woo reminds his friend that he hasn’t gone to university himself and doesn’t have the credentials, the friend says he’ll personally recommend Ki-woo to the Park family, and they’ll accept him as part of the staff. Since Ki-woo comes from a poor family (the reason why he can’t afford to enroll in college), he accepts the ruse.

Thus begins the intricate web of lies that Ki-woo begins to weave within the Park family. Once he has earned the confidence of Mrs. Park, more lies build throughout the film, creating a sense that the Kim family is taking advantage of the Park family’s trust.

The turning point and crisis of the film is centered around a torrential rainstorm, which creates massive flooding.

The wealthy Park family had planned to go on a camping holiday, but due to the storm, they are forced to return home early because the campsite is flooding. Their home sits high atop a hill with an overview of the entire metropolitan area. They are safe at home inside their warm, luxurious mansion.

In contrast, the Kim family home (a basement tenement) has flooded up to the ceiling. They are forced to vacate, leaving everything behind. While the wealthy Parks feel put-out by the storm, the struggling Kims live through a true disaster — losing their home, their belongings, and their dignity.

Just like in the movie Parasite, the difference always existed, but the external natural disaster forces the viewer to see the stark contrast with clear eyes.

Take the pandemic “essential worker,” for example. Most of these employees fall into a lower economic class. Servers, bartenders, mechanics, sanitation workers, janitors, grocery stockers, cashiers, field workers, crop pickers, meat plant workers — these are the people who have suffered the most. They were forced to choose between staying home to stay healthy or working to stay afloat.

When taking two weeks off to quarantine means a missed paycheck, most working class individuals choose the lesser of two evils — go to work. Will that mean other people might get sick? Yes. Does that mean others will be exposed to a highly contagious virus? Yes. But does going to work mean there is a paycheck and food to feed a family? Yes.

And so far, it appears most politicians and business leaders are willing to sacrifice the worker bees. Keep the hive alive, and those at the top will still survive.

Why? Because those at the top have access to healthcare. Those at the top have the luxury of selling assets. Those at the top have the minor setback of having their travel plans derailed.

I don’t have the answers to how to solve the growing wealth inequalities. But I do know as I watch politicians grapple with the issues and pit us against each other — don’t be distracted by the noise.

During the pandemic, I’ve watched family members make decisions I firmly disagree with. But we’re all facing difficult choices. We’re all weighing our options.

And we choose the best possible options to keep our families safe.

So while the parasites in the movie at first appear to be the Kim family, leeching off the resources of the wealthy Parks, in the end, the already wealthy dismiss and forget their working class employees.

And so I see the reality of consumerism, capitalism, and corruption trickle down to marginalize the poor even more.

As we globally struggle to return to “normal,” may we reconsider the wealth inequalities that created this parasitic lifestyle in the first place.

Born a Midwestern American, now a permanent Mexican resident. Outdoor adventurer, language enthusiast, and lover of classical music.