- James Kunovski
The Housemaid: Comparing Parasite’s Influence
Spoilers for Parasite and The Housemaid below. Note, that the spoilers for The Housemaid could reward your viewing, especially if you liked Parasite…
By now, Parasite should require no introduction. Bong Joon-ho’s bona fide commentary on class relations, through the indigent Kims' infiltration into the home of the wealthier Parks, has culminated into a flurry of theme analysis. Bong has been vocal about the inspirations that led him to a career in film and to his best work yet. He has been particularly enthusiastic about the work of Kim Ki-young. Kim’s works are noted as Korean cinema’s best, and his taste for melodrama and psychological thrillers paved the way for Parasite. One of his films, The Housemaid and its socio-sexual discourse on class interactions inspired Bong’s social analysis in Parasite. Bong once said the definite phrase: “Kim Ki-young is truly a master”. The Housemaid revels in its claustrophobic peril as we follow a dangerous maid’s insinuation into the middle class Kims' new abode. At the time of its release in 1960, Korea still had a few more years before an economic growth would instil a western bourgeoise over the country, and develop a new middle class. The family in The Housemaid, exist before this trend, acting as a warning of what may come. The wealthy family in The Housemaid are the Kims, while the poorer sub-basement residents in Parasite are also the Kims. Just to avoid confusion. While their motives are different: adultery in The Housemaid and wealth in Parasite, the similarities manifest themselves in a study of class. A clash between the lower and upper class, and the disparity and circumstances these create, pioneer a biting critique of Korean society in both masterworks…
“Rich people are gullible” asserts Parasite patriarch Ki-taek. Deliberated action to take advantage over the wealthy bookends these two films. In both instances, the lower class welcomes themselves into the home of a wealthier family by unorthodox means. In The Housemaid, the villainous maid, Myung-sook is initially described as slow-witted, but hard-working. A less direct way to say ‘working class.’ She pronounces herself into affluent society through manipulation of the patriarch and an ill-fated pregnancy. The working class in Parasite connive their way, through an onslaught of firings, into what they perceive to be an ideal standing.
Myung-sook desires her employer, Dong-sik, the husband of the household. She gets her wish, but this brings down the walls around her, coming to a head in the third act. The Kims, especially son Ki-woo, who has an elaborate plan at hand, crave wealth. The wheels are set in motion by each conspiring family member, but these overactive gears threaten to break up.
The ladies in the dormitory of factory workers where Myung-sook initially hides away pretend to enjoy the music lessons of Dong-sik because it makes them seem cultured. The Kims in Parasite masquerade as domestic workers to achieve a prosperous wealth. This is just a small dose of the lies they expel. Deception, and the false promise that this achieves what they desire seals each film.
In a snippet for The Criterion Collection, Bong Joon-ho expressed his admiration for the excessive featuring of the family’s staircase. At the time, single-storey households were most common making second storeys a confident display of wealth. Demonstrating this boldly in both films serves as a reminder of the ascent of social climbings. In Parasite, there is an olympic staircase, plastered like a ladder against a concrete wall, that separates the Kims, and their sub-basement home, from the lavish lifestyle above.
This concept implies that each element of a story should contribute to its whole. “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Both films are littered with these setups. They may be sinister or subversive but their inclusion solidifies an inescapable outcome. In The Housemaid, rat poison is given the treatment. “You see this, this is poison”, Dong-sik expertly proclaims. The poison is used to facilitate revenge, suspicion, and murder. Parasite’s smoking gun is less on-the-nose. It reveals itself as the scholar’s stone (and weapon) that the family is gifted, symbolising the family’s desire to jump classes; the dangerous leap that in the fullness of time weighs them down.
Bong expresses the idea that people of two different social standings can share such close quarters, close enough to smell one another. Such is the premise of domestic life. Each motive requires the façade of a domestic worker. Maids show up in both films. The demeaning and dated notion of working for someone above you adds fuel to the fire. Even in the wealthy Park or Kim household, where they have a sensory connection with one another, in the uniform of a maid, they are still considered lesser.
It is through the children of the household, may it be a gifted artist with a penchant for smell or a brat who belittles his crippled sister, that plans for higher gain start to unravel. They are beaming with suspicion and childish hyperawareness, at once refusing to drink poisoned water, or sniffing out the basement mustiness in the home's newly-appointed workers.
Both films start out with an idea. They desperately want to achieve these plans to fulfil their dreams. In the end, they fail. Is it an allegory of plan-making or dream-building, as the Parasite quote goes “you can't go wrong with no plans”, or a reassurance that bad people and their wrong outlooks get their due? Either way, as the characters in each film end up worse than when they began, an overbearing arc of disillusionment is created. The front and end points of The Housemaid and Parasite are massively different.
These two works are separated by sixty years of social change in the turbulent Korean landscape. Despite this, the work of directors Kim and Bong have evinced our fascination with class dynamics. They are joined at the hip by each reflecting symbol and narrative ploy. It is noble when a director cites another as inspiration. It is another when they truly prove their capability and conjure up a piece that successfully counterparts their influence. Such is the case with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.