Expect the Unexpected

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Why the film Parasite is as American as apple pie

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A scene from the Oscar-winning film Parasite, where the poor can serve, but never truly be part of the lives of the rich.

Wow, Parasite, a South Korean film took home four Oscars — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film!

But even though the film is in a foreign language and subtitled, its theme is as American as apple pie, unfortunately without the ice cream on top.

As I said in my previous blog post, Parasite is a good film. But I didn’t say much more than, “I completely identified with the family at the center of the film and their struggles.”

So here is my full explanation.

WARNING ***MAJOR SPOILER AND PLOT ALERT*** WATCH THE FILM FIRST, THEN COME BACK AND READ (PLEASE).

The plot of Parasite: Members of a poor family scheme to become employed by a wealthy family by infiltrating their household and posing as unrelated, highly qualified individuals.

Things go well initially. The poor family enjoys the fruits of working in a rich household. But things then turn to crap, literally and figuratively. Through a series of unfortunate events, the family’s lives are destroyed, the lives of the family they work for are destroyed and members of a rival family are destroyed.

Their South Korean dream, akin to our American dream, turns into a nightmare and comes to a crashing halt.

The film’s message is on par with the American classic The Great Gatsby, whose author F. Scott Fitzgerald said:

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.   

Fitzgerald’s thoughts are completely on point with Parasite. The rich couple in the film, though seemingly kind to the poor family, actually attributes a foul smell to them, the smell of the… “subway!”

The father in the family, particularly feels humiliated and shamed when he learns this. Any loyalty he felt to the rich family is destroyed. The class difference is front and center, and he knows he lies at the bottom of it.

My heart aches for the family, trying to climb out of austere poverty, but overtaken by their exaggerated sense of being nouveau riche, acting as if they can attain a rich life just by inhabiting its facade.

Jay Gatsby couldn’t do it either.

Adding further depth to class distinction, Parasite takes things a step further, showing the battle within the lower class itself. The first family encounters another poor family who has the same dreams they do, but with one member who has sacrificed his personal freedom for years just to get a scrap from the wealthy class.

So sorry for both families. They just could not clench and fight their way out of their station in life.

But some of us do.

Parasite also reminds me of Anton Chekhov’s classic short story Oysters which in just a couple pages shows the plight of the poor dealing with the rich.

In Oysters, a father who can’t find a job, can not bring himself to beg on the streets, even though he and his young son are starving. The son, however, learns real fast that you have to do what you have to do in order to survive, even if it means being humiliated by the rich. And he does just that. On a positive note, the son is the narrator of this story, so we know he survived. He became a writer!

The plot of Parasite touched me personally.

The oldest of seven children, I grew up in a poor household in suburban West Bridgewater, Mass, in the 1960s. We lived in a two and a half bedroom house with one bathroom and constantly failing septic system. I learned how to cook by turning U.S.D.A. government surplus food (unsliced logs of American cheese, cans of stinking mystery meat, powdered milk) into palatable meals. My mom worked like a dog as a police dispatcher in order to provide for us, while my dad, who was very sociable, worked odd jobs and gambled away his meager wages. I became the family’s nurturer.

I grew up fast. When I was eight, I saw the lay of the land. Other poor families mocked us, made fun of our dilapidated house and ratty clothes. We were at the bottom of the barrel when it came to being poor in the suburbs.

But I knew I had a ticket out of this life — Education. I studied like crazy, getting advice from some of the kindest teachers. My parents screamed at me for wanting to go to college, saying I needed to stay home and care for the family.  But three fine West Bridgewater teachers (Patricia Murphy, Marietta Kent, Marie Rosenthal) helped me with my college applications. My childhood plan worked. I attended Boston University, getting a degree in English.

Part of that time, I worked in the household of a Nobel Laureate’s family. They employed  someone to clean their house, someone to do their laundry, someone to handle their household expenses, someone to care for their children, someone to buy their food, someone to cook it…  I wondered, do these people even live their own lives, or do they just make guest appearances?

They were good to me though. They paid me a fair wage. But I knew, no matter how educated I was, they would never consider me to be on their level in life.

So you can be like the little boy in Oysters and make the best of your situation, learn and grow from it, and find your own way.

Or you can be like the family in Parasite and let jealousy and envy destroy you. Just as it did Jay Gatsby.

That’s the message I got from the film Parasite. As they say, your mileage may vary.

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The family in Parasite believes a rock will bring them good luck.

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