In this year’s Oscar winner Parasite, the Park’s kitchen is dreamy, almost to die for. Gleaming, polished wood and concrete. A feature wall. A massive refrigerator stocked with Perrier. Wall to wall windows overlooking a perfectly manicured garden. Indoor-outdoor living at its best.
This kitchen could be anywhere in the world. It would be featured in glossy lifestyle magazines as an exemplar of what one could do to one’s home, with a lot of money. In the movie Parasite, it happens to be in the higher reaches of Seoul. The Park’s wealth and comfort, like their kitchen, applies a glossy veneer on what lies below. A foolproof bunker under the house, just in case. And further down the hill, the cramped, leaky and smelly living quarters of the city’s working poor. The wealthy family members are aware that their servants all exude the same unpleasant odor, though they cannot quite place it. Of course they cannot, this is the smell of poverty, and they have never seen it up close. Even the weather works for the Parks: the deluge that strikes the city washes off air pollution for the people on the hill while drowning the bottom dwellers in overflowing sewage.
Who is the Parasite in this movie? At first glance, it might seem to be the husband of the housekeeper, hidden away from creditors in the bunker of the Park’s sprawling home, coming out at night to eat their food and drink their alcohol. Or the Kim family, who dupe the Parks to give all of them jobs and quadruple-dip for their salaries. And when the Parks leave town, they take over the mansion, luxuriating in soft sheets and a massive bathtub, hoping that maybe, just maybe, they can wash off that smell. Without a model of moderate consumption in a dignified life they fantasize about being as rich as the Parks. It is easy to think of them as the parasites, because they appear to be leeching off the rich.
But maybe the real parasites are the Parks? They take their massive consumption for granted, feeling secure in that they can take that bubble bath whenever they want. This security allows them to be kind and generous to the Kims as long as the latter ‘do not cross the line’ of their class position. The global elite and middle classes like the Park family consume a disproportionate amount of space and resources; the top 20% of earners emit almost 70% of global carbon emissions. Money inures and protects them from the extreme weather events that are only going to become more frequent due to climate change. Seoul, which is often held up in the development studies literature as a shining example of the successes of economic globalization illustrates a parasitic overconsumption which thrives on the underconsumption of the poor. The two are ontologically- connected and intimately coiled. Just think of the ecological debt.
It all ends violently. But the violence is not only along the poor vs. rich axis. The poor are also killing each other, fighting for the crumbs that the rich distribute among them. Through this violent end the movie seems to say that this is all unsustainable, in any configuration.