Is Parasite Director Bong Joon-ho the 21st Century’s Answer to J.B. Priestley?

“This film is about the rich and poor and about capitalism” – Parasite Director Bong Joon-ho

The year was 1945. The British Conservative party were heavily defeated and the UK eagerly prepared to embrace the socialist Labour party who promised to end the plight of poverty, ensure better housing, medical care and employment opportunities. It was the promise of a new social order based on equality for all rather than austerity for the most vulnerable. Audiences were ripe for social reformer J.B. Priestley’s theatrical masterpiece An Inspector Calls, which was penned in the same year. 

Priestley’s play revolves around the rich, careless Birling family who systematically abuse a vulnerable poor woman called Eva Smith. Smith commits suicide as a result. Through the Inspector’s questioning, it is evident that all of the wealthy characters played their own part in her downfall. They were all accountable. Although Eva Smith does not physically appear in the play, she does not need to. Smith is a symbol of every woman and man who does not possess the extreme luxury and power afforded by wealth. She is the anonymous majority. Priestley’s play ends with the promise of a reckoning for the wealthy and the threat of social reform.

Fast forward 74 years: the year was 2019. Director Bong Joon-ho released Parasite. In 2020, it became the first foreign-language film ever to win a best picture Oscar. Set in South Korea, Parasite follows the poor Kim family who resourcefully and at times very immorally, gain employment at the wealthy Park household. The Kim family live in poverty and are treated as social vermin. At one point in the film they are literally fumigated in their own home. Gaining employment in a wealthy household is life-changing for them and the contrasting quality of life afforded to the Kims and the Parks is stark. While the Kims live alongside the city’s sewers, the Park family enjoy a spacious, bright house with views over a glorious natural landscape where the hills are alive with the sound of money.

Despite the divisions of culture and time, there are clear parallels between Priestley and Joon-ho that are deeper than their socialist agenda. Both stories suggest that whereas the poor seek to make money, the rich seek to take it. This message is communicated through the ineptitude of the upper class. In Parisite, the Park family have little understanding of how to run their own lives and rely on employing the working class to help them. The mother is unable to clean, cook or support the children to a sufficient standard, and the father is a brutish character. Likewise, Priestley viewed the first world war as a class-driven catastrophe where the working class were ‘sliced into sausage meat by idiots’. In An Inspector Calls, the wealthy mother Sybil Birling runs a charity but is utterly ignorant in regard to the plight of the poor and the family patriarch is a foolish character who declares the Titanic is ‘unsinkable’.

It is never confirmed how the upper class household make their money in Parisite. However, it is clear that they continue to gain wealth, whereas the poor characters are manacled by debt and literally washed out of their homes with sewage. The wealthy mother confirms that the family’s money has been ‘good’ recently. On the other hand, one of the working class characters is pursued by loan sharks and none of the working class characters are able to break the grinding wheel of capitalism that promises so much and yields so little. Similarly, Priestley has the Birling family toasting to ‘lower costs and higher prices’ at the beginning of An Inspector Calls. By ‘lower costs’ Arthur Birling means squeezing his already under-paid workforce even further so that the rich get richer and the poor become destitute. For both Joon-ho and Priestley, the poor are nothing more than an accessory that the rich use in pursuit of their increasingly hedonistic lifestyles. But while Priestley’s uses capitalism as a synonym for corruption, Joon-ho’s conclusion is ambiguous. There is perhaps a spark of hope at the ending of Parasite when the son dreams of becoming rich in order to buy the architect’s house and liberate his father. Is this a demonstration that capitalism can also provide hope or further evidence that it will never relinquish those it holds in its grasp?

Despite this difference, both stories at their heart criticise capitalism and the plight of the poor. Both suggest that, while the rich may treat the poor as vermin, society’s true ‘parasites’ are those who take the most (to the detriment of others) without giving back. Parasite’s release has perhaps been very timely. According to the United Nations, worldwide inequality is growing for more than 70% of the global population and according to Oxfam, the world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people.

An Inspector Calls was first performed in Leningrad as no British theatres were available for bookings. Despite the cultural and language division, the play was an enormous success. Priestley’s wife wrote home to their children: ‘Daddy made a speech, terrific applause, packed theatre stood and shouted.’ Similarly, Parasite has transcended the barriers of language and culture to gain acclaim with Western audiences. Perhaps this is because the language of poverty and inequality is universal.

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