The 2019 film Parasite, directed by South Korean filmmaker, Bong Joon Ho, has provoked awe in audiences, both for it’s aesthetic construction and for its treatments of the themes of social inequality, fate, and chance. These two layers of the film–it’s artful construction and it’s provocative meaning–work in tandem to tell the story of the nearly destitute Kim family, and their aspirations toward financial security. The Kim family, through fate and fortune, encounter the Park family, who represent affluence, elitism, and the blissful ignorance of the struggles of poverty.
Themes in Parasite
There are at least a couple themes in this film that especially stand out to me, one addressing social and economic inequality and the second fate. But I think to properly understand these themes, we have to think more broadly about this story’s narratological heritage.
I would like to argue that this film is an excellent example of a genre I’m going to call, “The Ingénue Climber.” I’m going to make the argument below that this is an important dramatic form that deserves more attention and that Parasite is an excellent example of it. Second, I’m going to make the argument that the genre of the Ingénue Climber is interwoven with the tragic form, as defined by Arthur Miller and Aristotle. Placing this film within its narratological heritage will reveal how it echoes past stories and how it reveals something new and different.
Let’s start with the plot though. I’m going to be a bit vague, especially about the second half, for readers who haven’t yet seen the film. The story begins as we are introduced to the Kim family, whose poverty is represented by the fact that they literally live underneath a squalid back alley in a poor part of town. Their toilet is located above everything else in this house, which basically symbolizes their place in the bottom rung of society.
Other representations of their poverty reinforce their pitiful state. In more than one scene, they have a stumbling drunk urinating in the alleyway in front of their living room, and when someone comes by their house spreading insecticides, Ki Taek ( Kang-ho Song) tells his children to leave the window open so they’ll get a free bug extermination. To say the Kim family lives in poverty is an understatement, but they do not accept their station in life. They are constantly scheming, in ethical and unethical ways, to sustain themselves and to climb higher in society.
Through good fortune, the poor Kim family discover the wealthy Park family, and scheme to trick and lie their way into their lives. The daughter and son become tutors for the Parks, the mother, a maid, and the father, a driver.
Ho elegantly illuminates the power relations between the characters by having them living in geographically symbolic locations. The Kim family lives below a dirty, poor ally, and the Parks’ household is an elevated fortress in a part of the city that’s on higher ground than their poorer neighbors. From there, the plot develops twists and turns and surprises, but that gets us far enough into the story for me to make a few points about the themes of inequality and fate.
Genre of The Ingénue Climber
Much discussion about this film has centered around its treatment of financial inequality, but we can be more specific than that. It’s a film about someone (or some group) wheedling their way into a family or social circle. It’s about someone from the outside using a combination of deception and genuine talent to try to secure a place within a polite and refined–if only superficially so–higher society. And it’s about the tectonic forces of social design or fate that push them back down again.
These descriptors fit a pattern, which I would like to call the genre of the Ingénue Climber, Parasite isn’t a compelling story because it’s unique; it’s a story that’s compelling because it echoes a tale that’s been told time and time again. Let’s look at those descriptors again:
Characteristics of The Ingénue Climber
- A person or group climbing the social or financial ladder
- A person with genuine skills of talent
- A person using deception or manipulation–in part–to achieve their goal of social success
- Members of the elite group (usually a family or tight knit group) are considered gullible, nice, and somewhat welcoming.
- Paradoxically, members of the elite group also treat the aspirational figure as an outsider, who they don’t welcome.
- There are tectonic social forces pushing or pulling the Ingénue Climber down as he or she aspires upward.
I’d like to make a couple claims, a small claim and a larger one. The small claim is that the story of Parasite is one we’ve seen before numerous times, in film, as well as in theatre. I’d like to give this type of story a name, the genre of the Ingénue Climber, and the characteristics of this genre are those listed above. The second claim will come later, but it has to do with the connection between the genre of the Ingénue Climber and Aristotelian Tragedy.
Let’s explore a few examples of Ingénue Climbers:
Tartuffe (1664): This mid-seventeenth century play by Molière bears thematic resemblance to Parasite. In this play, the main character, Tartuffe, is a pious but hypocritical con-artist who befriends the wealthy Orgon and deceives him and his mother, defrauding them out of their home and fortune, until they are rescued in the end by the King of France, a type of deus ex machina ending. Notice how the story fits the six characteristics above. Notice how the gullibility of Orgon echoes the gullibility of the Park family, the scheming of Tartuffe matches the cunning of the Kim family, and how both stories seem to have an irresistible force pushing the pretenders back down again.
All About Eve (1950): This film tells the story of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who appears to others to be an ingénue aspiring actress, but she is in reality a cunning manipulator. Eve ingratiates herself to Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and her thespian friends. They consider themselves wordly-wise, but they naively underestimate Eve’s motives and ambitions. Eve faces countervailing forces that frustrate her ascension to the top.
A Place in the Sun (1951): A film based on the novel, An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser, this story is about the young, ambitious, and unscrupulous George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), who must rid himself of his working class girlfriend, so that he might wed Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). Eastman’s own wealthy extended family rejects him; the Vickers family naively accepts him. A combination of his own misdeeds, misfortune, and tidal forces (literally and figuratively) prevent Eastman from rising and lead to his downfall.
Match Point (2005): In many ways this film is a retelling of A Place in the Sun. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) aspires to climb into high society. He is torn between his obligations to the working class Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), herself an aspiring social climber as well, and the wealthy and comparatively innocent Cloe Hewett (Emily Mortimer). Due to director Woody Allen’s nihilistic perspective on life, this film’s ending is different from the other stories, but most of the characteristics of the Ingénue Climber match this story.
Succession (2018-2021, ongoing): This hit HBO series is really about the Roy family, who are a vague parody of the Murdochs. But there’s one character in this ensemble cast, Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun), who makes this an ingénue climber story. Greg is the cousin of the Roy children and nephew to the wealthy and powerful Logan Roy. He comes to New York to advance his career, but by the end of season 2, questions arise. Is Greg really that innocent? Is he the most cunning of all the characters? Will the tectonic forces around him thwart his attempt to climb his way into the Roy family and ultimately destroy him?
Parasite and The Ingénue Climber
Parasite follows the same basic archetypal characters and plot. We see a family trying to climb the social ladder, feigning innocence, while practicing cunning and deception. We see a wealthy family that haughtily puts physical and metaphorical barriers between them and the working class and lower class. And we see the tectonic social forces pushing or pulling the aspiring pretenders down to their prior social station.
The Ingénue Climber and “Tragedy and the Common Man”
This overall structure of rising above one’s station and falling reminds me of an article written by Arthur Miler in The New York Times called, “Tragedy and the Common Man.” In this article, Miller argues that the tragic form still has emotive purchase in our own time; indeed, he argues that the tragic figure–when dissolved down to its essence–is a universally empathic idea, that it transcends cultures, periods, and geographies. In contrast to the Aristotelian definition of tragedy–or, in contrast to the traditional understanding of Aristotelian tragedy–Miller argues that being of noble birth is immaterial. The essence of the nobility of the tragic figure resides in his/her indomitable will to aspire to be something greater, to rise to a higher station in life:
As a general rule, to which there may be exceptions unknown to me, I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing-his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his “rightful” position in his society.
Sometimes he is one who has been displaced from it, sometimes one who seeks to attain it for the first time, but the fateful wound from which the inevitable events spiral is the wound of indignity and its dominant force is indignation. Tragedy, then, is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly.Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man”
What Miller is arguing here–and I think he’s on to something–is that the tragic figure is someone who refuses to accept his or her assigned place in society, what we sometimes call one’s “lot in life.” In this conception of the tragic figure, anyone can assume the role, whether it be Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark, or Willy Loman, a low salesman, who dreams of being someone bigger.
But to understand Miller–and to see why I’m referencing him in relation to the Ingénue Climber and the film, Parasite–it’s important to understand what Miller calls the “seemingly stable cosmos” and its relation to the tragic figure:
But there are among us today, as there always have been, those who act against the scheme of things that degrades them, and in the process of action everything we have accepted out of fear of insensitivity or ignorance is shaken before us and examined, and from this total onslaught by an individual against the seemingly stable cosmos surrounding us-from this total examination of the “unchangeable” environment-comes the terror and the fear that is classically associated with tragedy. More important, from this total questioning of what has previously been unquestioned, we learn. And such a process is not beyond the common man. In revolutions around the world, these past thirty years, he has demonstrated again and again this inner dynamic of all tragedy.Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and The Common Man,” emphasis mine
The seemingly stable cosmos is the weight of the world bearing back down upon the tragic hero. It’s the wires pulling the hero down from his or her ambition. It’s all of Claudius’ conspirators; it’s Willy’s inability to catch a break; it’s fate directing Oedipus exactly where he doesn’t want to go. And in the Ingénue Climber, it’s all of those gale force winds pushing back on the social climber, frustrating his or her ambition. In the film, Parasite, there is plenty that could count as the seemingly stable cosmos, and since I don’t want to spoil too much of the film, I’ll leave you to discover them, or reflect on what they are.
Finally, there is Miller’s use of the word “dignity” in the quotations above, and in the following one, where he tries to reframe what the tragic flaw really is:
“The flaw, or crack in the characters, is really nothing-and need be nothing, but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity.”Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and The Common Man,” emphasis mine
The key phrase here is “challenge to his dignity.” Consider what happens at the end of Parasite. There is the word, “Respect,” spoken by one character. There’s a world of meaning in that word, and I would propose that the meaning of that word is wound up precisely with what Miller’s talking about in his essay. Parasite is about a family–and if you want to narrow it down to one person, the Kim father–who wants to fight what Miller calls “the seemingly stable cosmos” and through his fighting and his destruction, we all grow more aware of our own place in the cosmos and experience the pity and fear that comes with the tragic hero’s predicament.
What I’m suggesting is that Parasite can be thought of as an example of the genre of The Ingénue Climber, and that this genre partially overlaps with Aristotelian tragedy, especially as Arthur Miller redefined it in 1949. These two narrative traditions explain largely why Parasite resonates across cultures and why it won best picture. If you haven’t seen Parasite, I’d highly recommend it, both as a film in its own right and how it fits within these two larger storytelling traditions.