Nepal | May 29, 2020

What does Oscar winner Parasite tell about unequal societies, including Nepal?

Sabin Jung Pande
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The 2001 Nobel laureate in Economics Joseph Stiglitz’s body of works have shed enormous light on the great divide in American society and how economic imbalances impede greater welfare of the society. In one of his books, The Price of Inequality, Stiglitz inferred that the top 1% with vast wealth ignore the fact that their fate is tied with how the rest live. Other influential academicians and economists have also been telling us how inequality is linked with mental health and crime rates, and how it affects our society.

All their voluminous works with models and assumptions may be too erudite for many, but the gist is clear that wider inequalities push people, society and economy into risk zones. In the end, society at large pays the price when many is left out and ignored under the wraps of poverty and deprivations. The rich, the powerfuls and more so the middle-class needs to understand this and reflect it on their behavior too.

That task may have been perfected by movie director Bong-Joon Ho with his recent gem on social realism – Parasite. The movie received widespread acclaim and even made history at the Oscars. The widespread appeal for this sardonic movie may or may not have solely come for its plot that is firmly based on grim realities of South Korea’s wealth inequalities and, in general, the failures of capitalism but its timeliness, at a time when inequalities echoes throughout the world, is a respite. Economies around the world should take a moment from the wild race for magical rates of growth and draw some lessons why inequalities should go away.

In exemplifying stark wealth division in the Korean society, the movie draws distinction between two families who live starkly different lives. In one of the scenes, the two families must manage an unexpected event in their respective lives – one having to manage a sudden downpour in their city that inundates their crammed and filthy semi-basement room, the other having to host a grand birthday celebration at their posh residence in a matter of few hours. In another scene, a poor woman expresses her resentment towards the rich in a disapproving tone – ‘the rich are nice because they are rich’.

Another central element to this movie that makes it the kind of gem it is – is how it touches on the issue of mental health without its explicit reference. Many individuals may be calm and cheerful at the outset despite living an unfulfilled life where they constantly improvise with whatever little is at their disposal to meet their necessities. But that resilience may not last forever. At some point of their lives, when situations become much dire, all those life’s inadequacies may push individuals to the brink of impulsive and violent indignation. As a result, crime and violence may become the ultimate resorts.

Kim Ki-taek, a central character of the movie, plays out similar trajectory and climax, where his poor miserable life culminates in shredding an entire family – a rich family that he and his family members infiltrated to make their ends meet but with no intention of harming them.

But what Kim and his family end up doing is terrible and indefensible. Some of the measures they take to win their employers’ confidence is deceitful and vile too but there’s an uncomfortable realism in all that they do.

Kim lives his days with umpteen deprivations. He lives in a cramped basement room with a family of four. The family go through perpetual financial struggle with low-paying temporary jobs as Kim watches his gifted children lack the opportunity to obtain higher education, face unemployment and resort to becoming frauds. Good meals are out of their league, and so are modern needs like internet and home pesticides.  Kim is also unaware that his body emanates unpleasant smell and that it has been causing discomfort to his employer.

With turn of events, Kim suddenly realizes that their lives mattered little for his rich employer who seems to perceive it as some filth. The weight of deprivations, low-esteem and resentment compound when his daughter lay beside him dead and that triggers him to act in a horrific way. In a fit of anger, Kim also reveals his mental struggle, contrary to his personality that looked so calm on the surface.

With a title as Parasite, the movie alludes tension, so there must be more thrill and tension in this funnily doomed and gloomy realism. The Kim family isn’t the only one who lives a miserable life due to financial stress. There is another class of people who live much below them and literally. Hiding underground in a bunker away from the threat of loan sharks, the couple live a much more complicated and distressed life than one can imagine. As they discover that the Kim family is the one who unjustly derailed their only means of life and later torn apart their love as well, the movie inventively captures the poor’s dog-eats-dog world.

In all the chaos that ensues, the rich pays the dearest price. Their happy family collapses in seconds of someone else’s madness while they are clueless about what struck them and why. Their only blame is their excesses that many of us crave, envy and resent.

Bong-Joon Ho paints a picture where the rich live in their own bubble so fascinated by the glitters of their wealth and privileges that they are ignorant and aloof about the plight of poors and its possible consequences on lives as theirs. They believe that they own their workers and are entitled to make unreasonable demands from them. People with riches also don’t like to engage in small talks. There are unspoken rules of etiquette that rich don’t like when people with low income, class or status cross them.

At lower echelons of societies are people who perform menial and humiliating jobs who conform to their masters’ unreasonable demands fearing loss of jobs. They have little or no access to wealth or state benefits. State institutions don’t work for them fairly. They live compromising on their daily needs and with clear understanding that they will hardly achieve a simple and dignified life, let alone making big in life.

But what becomes excruciating for them is the compulsion to go through the ordeals of this divide on a regular basis in a society filled with consumerism and cosmetics. Temptations are natural in such scenario. What lies beyond these tribulations and temptations are the choices they make in moments that define them. Clearly, as inequalities boom, it also lays foundation for crimes, violence and even revolutions.

Parasite makes a stark characterization of the people with fewer or no means and the ones with the excesses, but by no means a generalization of the rich and the poor. What we should understand is that such social consequences have occurred, and more are possible. Expecting to live in harmony when your neighborhood is festered with destitution comes only with a false sense of economic growth rate as a measure of prosperity.


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