engines of oppression
what parasite and snowpiercer say about capitalism
Spoiler Alert: Endings of Parasite and Snowpiercer
In an interview promoting Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho offered his answer for why the film has become a worldwide phenomenon: “I tried to express a sentiment specific to Korean culture…but all the responses from different audiences were pretty much the same…Because, essentially, we all live in the same country called Capitalism.” Although Bong has made films spanning genres from Godzilla-esque horror to rambunctious comedy, his entire body of work is concerned with how inequality structures his characters’ relationships and informs their motivations. However, Parasite and 2013’s Snowpiercer stand out as the ones most explicitly concerned with class difference.
The spatial metaphors for inequality in both films are simple: In Parasite, the rich live above ground and the poor down below, while in Snowpiercer, a dystopian sci-fi in which the last surviving humans live together on a speeding train, the lower class reside at the back and the upper class at the front. But even if these spatial arrangements are clear, the failure of the lower class in both films to improve their situations shows that overcoming this inequality is much more complicated than simply moving from below ground to above, or from the back of the train to the front. The possibility of simple, linear class mobility implied by the spatial arrangements in both Snowpiercer and Parasite reveals itself in both films to be an illusion filled with hidden twists and obstacles.
Of course, it’s much easier for the impoverished Kim family of Parasite to cross physical class lines than the rebels of Snowpiercer. The Kims can readily walk to up to the wealthy Park family’s house, whereas the tail section rebels in Snowpiercer must fight their way through multiple armored cars to reach the head of the train. But even though the Kim family manages to infiltrate the Park household with relative ease, earning jobs by posing as tutors and helpers, they are unable to surmount their class difference in their roles. The family soon encounters a “line that should not be crossed,” as Mr. Park puts it in his description of what he expects from his hired help. At one point, Ki-woo, the son of the Kim family, anxiously asks the Parks’ daughter if he could pass for one of the wealthy people who have gathered in the yard to attend a party. Simply being in the house of the wealthy is not enough to mark the Kim family as belonging.
At the end of Snowpiercer, meanwhile, it’s revealed that Wilford, the conductor at the head of the train, has been giving the rebel leader Curtis instructions for his uprising all along. Wilford explains that rebellions are periodically necessary to keep population numbers stable on the train. The capitalist logic that justifies the train’s very existence relies on narratives that run against themselves. And again, mere ascension to the physical location of the wealthy is not enough to grant the oppressed entry into the ranks of the powerful.
In Snowpiercer, the rebellion never belongs to Curtis at all, and his attempt to destroy the class divisions of the train fails. We see him break down when Wilford guides him to the heart of the engine, unable to resist its quiet, orderly hum: the literal gears of capitalism. Similarly, Ki-taek, the father of the Kim family, is too inculcated by the logic of capitalism to escape its effects. As the Kim family folds pizza boxes at the outset of Parasite, Ki-woo pulls up a video of a woman folding pizza boxes with mechanical speed and efficiency. Even as gas fills the house from a nearby exterminator, Ki-taek remains transfixed by the video, never breaking his gaze from the phone and continuing to replicate the woman’s mechanical movements. In Parasite, characters who cross class lines are punished: Ki-woo’s sister Ki-jeon, who Ki-woo admiringly says “acts like she owns the place” in the Park family’s absence, is the only member of the Kim family to be killed. An arguably more horrible fate is reserved for Ki-taek, forced to hide in the Park family basement indefinitely after fatally stabbing Mr. Park in a moment of unchecked rage. The burst of anger that prompts Ki-taek to cross this class line and murder his employer is Mr. Park’s reaction to the smell of Geun-sae, a man forced to live in the secret underground bunker after being hunted by loan sharks. This is not the first time that smell marks class difference in the film, with Mr. Park previously describing bad body odor as something that also “crosses the line.” But as Ki-taek hides in the basement himself, he apologises to a photograph of Mr. Park in the same way that Guen-sae, trapped in the same prison, once worshipped Mr. Park for providing his shelter. Ki-taek’s act of rebellion proves insufficient to free him from the logic of capitalism and only drives him lower, from his semi-basement to the below-ground bunker.
Even though Curtis fails in Snowpiercer, the film ends optimistically—the solution is not to reorder what is inside the train but to abandon the train entirely, to literally blow up the capitalist system and seek a radical alternative. In Parasite, no such outside exists, so Ki-woo is ultimately forced to make a plan within the system—to earn enough money to eventually buy the house his father is hiding in. The song that plays over the credits ends the film on a dispiriting note; the lyrics describe Ki-woo drinking a glass of soju at the end a day of hard work, the possibility of success remaining a distant hope.
A running gag in Parasite is Ki-woo’s description of his scholar’s rock, a gift of good luck given to him by a friend, as “metaphorical,” and it seems the film itself is warning against the danger of lettings things remain only metaphors. Joon-ho very clearly maps the structures of capitalism onto his movies, as if to say that if we ignore how it functions in the real world, it might come back and hit us in the head.