Verticality in Bong Joon-Ho’s "Parasite"
As a work of social satire, Bong-Joon Ho's award-winning “Parasite” brings together extremes – the wealthy Park family who lives in their sleek villa with wide windows looking over the greenness of the yard and snacks on fruit salad prepared by their maid, and the Kim family whose community spirit underlines their success to gradually infiltrate the Parks' home as their employees. The Kims live in a sub-basement apartment where the only privacy you get is in the bathroom (which is also where you can find the best signal from your neighbor’s WiFi router). Even though both families live in one city, physically they would never have the chance of meeting each other. Bong Joon-Ho masterfully uses an arsenal of visual and sensory representation techniques to highlight that this connection of the two poles would sadly be an unlikely one in real life.
Where do you live?
When the Kims’ son Ki-woo (under the alias of Kevin) is newly appointed as an English tutor for the Parks’ daughter and steps inside the yard of their house for the first time, he suddenly gasps for air while the camera spins around him; the colours seem elaborated, and the sky as blue as it gets. This might be the first time he has seen such a sight – the greenness of private space, a luxury hard to imagine for someone living in Ahyeon-dong, one of the poverty-stricken areas near downtown Seoul. The light in the set design was consciously used to establish a contrast between both worlds and thereby create atmospheres – for the Parks, it was an ambient interior lighting design, the colour of the light being warm and aesthetically pleasant. Conversely, the semi-basement of the Kims had a greenish-looking light that seemed almost unhealthy to be around. As for the sunlight, the Parks had the entire front wall of their house turned into a window so that the natural light could come inside from the yard, whereas the window of the Kims’ house was dirty due to pollution and overshadowed by high-story buildings, which almost makes their residence resemble a cave.
The mastermind behind the film’s set design, Lec Ha-Juan, also acknowledged that the initial idea was to show the opposite worlds of the families by using sunlight as a metaphor, and later on they found other natural phenomena that suited the picture just as well. Topographically, Seongbuk-dong, the Beverly Hills of the South Korean capital, home for businessmen and foreign diplomats, is located higher than other parts of the city, thereby granting it the luxury of fresher air, clearer sky, and large private yards.
In one scene, as rain floods the city and forces people living in the lower areas of Seoul out of their homes, the residents of Seongbuk-dong use the mountain as a natural drainage system for their properties.
The arguably most emotionally intense scene of the film was shot on the staircase of the Jahamun Tunnel. It metaphorically draws a picture of poverty as the water flows downwards and the Kims run to their home only to find it flooded and demolished. For the Parks, in the words of Ki-Taek himself, “the rain was such a blessing”.
Upwards and Downwards
Bong Joon-Ho has publicly called his film a “staircase movie”, and the idea of the vertical being the dominant axis of the film was employed even on the story level. The act of infiltrating the homes of the rich as a worker is something that the director has tried doing himself. As a university student, he was a tutor for a very rich family, a job he got thanks to his girlfriend at the time (similarly, “Kevin” brought his sister, mother, and father into the Parks’ home later on). Sadly, he was fired from the job after just two months because he did not really teach math, but he still managed to get a tour of the house. Bong remembers, “He secretly took me to the second floor and showed off his private sauna at the house. I remember feeling very shocked to see a sauna in a house.” (1)
The first part of the film depicts this sense of upwards verticality that opens up privacy, with “Kevin” getting involved with the Parks’ daughter and “Rachel” building a close connection with their son who sits in his Indian tent for hours. After the midpoint of the film, when the con artist family opens the door to the Parks’ ex-housemaid, the story enters the so-called 'nightmare stage', the fourth stage of the classical five-act arch. This is the moment when things start to go increasingly badly for the protagonists. It marks the part that Bong was fantasizing about after leaving the rich family.
From this point onwards, the audience develops suspenseful expectations, and the characters reach the point of no return.
It is the end of their outward journey and the beginning of their new lives. However, Bong Joon-Ho uses the classic trick of changing the spatial atmosphere of the film by adding a new color scheme, thereby introducing the audience to the verticality of the home and the city: suddenly, the house has a maze-like basement, and the viewer explores the topography of the city with grand long-shots that follow the family down the road towards the flooded surroundings of their home. Bong makes use of geometry in his filmic space and creates the basis for the architecture of story and space, while camera movements and cinematography follow the cardinal directions.
Importantly, the Parks never come close to this verticality; they even have no knowledge of the small world hidden in their own basement. They remain ignorant in their horizontal home. This characteristic is quite similar to the train in "Snowpiercer", another class-inspired film by Bong, which is instead characterized by the horizontal: while the people at the back of the train are forced to get past a variety of obstacles (militarized guards, weapons, gates) and physically pass through the whole horizontal of the train, the wealthier passengers in their upper-class cabins only experience the horizontal by observing the outside world through the window, an extra only available to the ones at the front of the train.
The end of “Parasite” features an epilogue of Kevin meeting his father in the once home of the Parks; it is clearly constructed as a dream sequence, for, in the world of the Kims, climbing the mountain is almost impossible with all the rain, pollution, and financial struggle coming your way. As Bong himself puts it, "It’s quite cruel and sad, but I thought it was being real and honest with the audience. You know and I know — we all know that this kid isn’t going to be able to buy that house. I just felt that frankness was right for the film, even though it’s sad." (2)
‘Parasite’ and its take on the class divide could break South Korea’s Oscar dry spell, Gregory Ellewood, LA Times, 12.11.2019.
The Twisty, Gnawing Ending Of 'Parasite', Olivia Ovenden, Esquire, 07.02.2020.