Parasite has taken the world by storm by being the first non-English suspense thriller to win Best Picture at the Oscars. If you’ve seen the film, you’ve probably had your fair share of opinions on it. But what may have slipped your mind is that your overwhelming sentiments towards the film may be due to how close to home it hits.
Bong Joon-Ho, the director of this 21st Century masterpiece, had initially intended for the film to be an analysis of capitalism in South Korea. However, after extended deliberation, he came to realise that the issue of capitalism doesn’t centre around just one country—it’s unfortunately universal. With its strong Asian roots, it’s no surprise that the film has such an intense connection to the Singaporean experience. There are inescapable parallels that, though uncomfortable, forces us to look at our behaviours as a nation through a more discerning lens.
For some context, the production features an upstairs-downstairs disparity between two families of drastically different socioeconomic statuses. The well-to-do Park family and destitute Kim clan go by their daily lives in strikingly diverse manners and are affected by disasters in conspicuously different ways. The Singapore scene parallels this with our similarly high Gini coefficient that naturally falls at 0.41 and 0.35 after government taxes, which is about 0.6 higher than that of South Korea.
If you didn’t know, the Gini coefficient(G) measures the income distribution of residents within a nation. The most equal society is one in which every person receives the same income, G=0. On the other hand, the most unequal society will be one in which a single person receives 100% of the income, G=1. That being said, the high Gini coefficients in Singapore and South Korea indicate that a small percentage of people within the nation receive the majority of the income obtained and vice versa.
In the story, your typical suburban has-too-much-money family splurges on help such as private tutors, a housekeeper, and a driver. These additional forms of assistance aren’t foreign to your average affluent Singaporean household, with billions collectively being spent on private tuition for kids every year. To top it off, every one in five households in Singapore has a maid which makes the necessity of having a housekeeper all the more relatable.
The concept of meritocracy in Singapore can be substantially critiqued by the harshly realistic storyline within this film. Despite members of the Kim household being fairly gifted and intelligent, their misfortune in income disrupts their ability as individuals to move forward in life. Instead, their talents are wasted as they spend days on end cramped in their semi-basementーfolding pizza boxes, struggling to obtain a source of income.
Despite having a roof over their heads, their living conditions are poor, and their sewage system is in ruins. It reminds me of the Singaporean homes featured in Channel News Asia’s documentary, Don’t Call Us Poor. Similar to the film, the breadwinners in these families work backbreaking and arduous jobs to get by but barely earn a decent wage and remain trapped in their hapless situations.
Despite its subtle nature, the film highlights how despite one’s brilliance, it’s difficult to get far in a society with a culture that’s taught to place social status on a pedestal. Especially when the rich are given stepping stones to opportunities through income-fuelled experiences.
To make matters worse, the Kim’s had to cheat the system and fabricate their identities to get ahead in life. But even then, Mr Kim was repeatedly narrated to reek of an old rag. This feeds the assumption that despite their advancementーthe stench of poverty inadvertently lingers around him even if it is not outwardly observed. Though they’ve come far from where they once were, their social statuses are still demeaned and condescended upon by the upper class.
Regardless of the effort that you have put in, society may not function in your favour
If you want to go the extra mile and look even deeper, the parallel of one’s lingering roots can be made in the context of Singapore too. Albeit not hitting the financial aspect of the theme, Singapore has had its fair share of chronic discrimination. For example, as of January 2017, non-Malaysian work permit holders from the manufacturing sector will no longer be eligible to rent a whole Housing Board flat, and can only rent rooms.
This only emphasises the desolating fact that regardless of the effort that you have put in, society may not function in your favour. Essentially, your identity stubbornly clings on to you and determines how far you can make it in civilisation.
One particularly prominent aspect of the movie is how oblivious the Park family was of the mass destruction that occurred to the homes of low-income families due to the pouring rain. They even regarded it as a blessing because of the blue skies and clear air they enjoyed the following day, nescient of the pain others had to undergo.
This concept appears as a recurring theme throughout the film. In this way, Bong Joon-Ho simply and yet perfectly accentuates how the poor consistently fight for scraps in this dog-eat-dog world while the rich enjoy their days blinded by their privilege.
Needless to say, the ‘parasite’ in this film is subjective as both parties leech off one another throughout their lives. It emphasises how atrocious the whole system is as people constantly and apathetically exploit one another and fight in a zero-sum game of survival. The rich enjoy their prerogatives and comfort, blissfully ignorant that it’s a result of the efforts of subservient low-income labourers.
Although not as heavy-handed with social commentary as his previous projects, the message that he tries to bring across with Parasite is direct and impactful while still capturing an essence of comedy.
Staircases cleverly play a quintessential illustration a division of power, which can be linked to how HDB flats in Singapore are more expensive the higher the floor. The film neither focuses on the individuals or their families but analyses society as a whole, bringing light to the human condition. It features the natural and yet unrealistic pursuit of an ideal and the chase of a dream that is impossible to reach.
Essentially, parasite displays the ultimate mirage and flawlessly showcases the longing for a reality that cannot exist.
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