Economic inequality is growing and becoming ever more entrenched, and the South Korean film, Parasite demonstrates viscerally and compellingly the peril of this trend. The film’s primary focus is on a lower-class family, the Kims, and how socio-economic inequality affects their relationships with both their wealthy employers, the Park family, and their fellow poor. In comedic and horrifying ways, Parasite explores how the wealth gap breeds ignorance among the rich and competition among the poor, which descends into indiscriminate violence. In terms of our Christian calling, Parasite reveals in raw and extreme ways how inequality can prevent us from loving our neighbor.
Early in the film, we see contrasts between the spaces occupied by the poor and the rich. The Kim family is introduced in their cramped and dirty semi-basement, searching for free wi-fi and opening their windows for a free extermination as their street is fumigated. They must poach what they cannot afford from the outside world, which leaves them exposed and vulnerable to toxins, inebriated passersby and bad weather.
The Parks’ home, meanwhile, sits atop a hill and is surrounded by a concrete wall with an electric entryway. Inside, there is a lush, green lawn and a spacious house. The Parks occupy a different world, as their wealth has allowed them to construct an enclosed paradise with walls meant to keep people like the Kims out.
But this walled-off home also reflects their ignorance of the world beyond their wealthy bubble. The family’s naivete allows Ki-woo, the Kim family’s son, to get a job tutoring English with fraudulent credentials and a fake name. He then seizes an opportunity to orchestrate a con job that gets his whole family employed by the Parks in the same way.
The Parks want nothing to do with society’s poor, which is demonstrated by their recurring disgust at the odor of their new employees. The Parks’ father, Dong-ik declares, “That smell crosses the line.” It is the smell that comes from a semi-basement and constant exposure to the city’s underbelly. This smell triggers the Parks’ suspicion that something is amiss in their pristine, self-contained world.
While ignorance and classism set the rich and poor at odds, competition antagonizes the poor against one another. To gain their positions, the Kims push out the established housekeeper and driver through subterfuge. Later on, when the former housekeeper pleads for help from Kim Chung-sook, the mother of the Kim family and new housekeeper, Chung-sook contemptuously refuses. She will not risk her newfound status by associating herself with this woman’s pathetic state. The conflict descends from there and the viewer wonders with anxious suspense how far the Kims will go to protect their privileged employment.
The film ends on a despondent note that leaves the viewer dispirited about the prospects of change. As Christians, though, we must ask if this hopelessness is as inevitable as the film suggests. My assessment is that in a society in which wealth is idolized, yes it is. Parasite demonstrates that when wealth is a society’s sole goal, the rich will insulate their possessions and preserve their status while the poor will do anything to inch closer to their ranks to find security and dignity.
Jesus is very blunt: “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Our faith provides a different social model in which our dignity is not found in wealth, but in God’s unconditional love. In such a society, the love of neighbor is our central aim. The Parks recoiled at the Kims’ odor, but Pope Francis has called for pastors to smell like the sheep. The walls around the Parks’ home call to mind the border wall but also the physical and mental walls within countries, ours especially, that segregate classes and too often go unnoticed. Love compels us to overcome these barriers, to encounter and accompany the marginalized.
St. Ignatius said the strategy of the evil spirit is to first entice us with riches, which bring honors and pride, and in this way we become self-absorbed and deaf to Christ’s call. To follow Christ and love our neighbor requires relinquishing our attachment to wealth. This does not necessarily entail giving away all material possessions (though in some cases it can). But it does mean that everything we have is to be used for the good of others, and Scripture and Church teaching make clear that when considering others, the poor have priority. The power of Parasite lies in its gripping and haunting depiction of the evil we, rich and poor alike, are capable of when we neglect this call and choose to love wealth over our neighbor.
Image from IMDb, used under Fair Use Laws