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Gisaengchung (2019)

Kafka's parasites — Written by vepro on 19.03.2020

A discussion about The Parasite with a friend, which was abruptly aborted, led me to seek out traces of Kafka's work and philosophy in Bong Joon Ho's film and its characters and themes. Apart from the immediate parallel between the film’s title and Kafka's novella Metamorphosis, there seem to be more similarities in these two works of fiction, which unfortunately share an uncanny resemblance to our everyday life and the condition of our society.
Let's get the obvious one out of the way. Gregor Samsa's degradation from a human being to a vermin is caused, at least among other things, by his inability to provide for himself and to help his family financially. As soon the metamorphosis starts, his immediate family and friends abandon him, as he is now less than human, cease to take care for him and, basically, leave him to die. We find the Park family in a similar situation. Slowly slipping down the society’s ladder of success, the Parks live in a kind of semi-world, not among other 'proper' employed humans, but, at the same time, not so far from the very bottom where other vermin reside. Their metamorphosis isn't finished yet and still we see some indication of their final form. Living in a damp, poorly lit and narrow space, they act like bugs, working jointly on projects, always together, cramped, and sharing their prey, which is the only immediate thing they care about. How to get something to eat.
The Parks’ situation at the beginning of the film is similar to the situation K. finds himself in Kafka's The Castle. In constant fight between employment and imminent downfall, K. is stuck in place, unable to make sense of the world and his surroundings. He is, it seems, invisible, and more important, he seems unimportant, not an agent of any kind in the world or his own fate. Park family is also mostly invisible to the 'real' world. Only those in the same circumstances communicate with them, but not without a healthy dose of malice and distrust which works both ways. Until the deus ex machina moment, the Parks are unable to make a move to improve their situation. However, as in most Kafka's works, this isn't really their fault. The world is fixed in a way that the individual cannot take agency over their fate, and the absurdity of society and relations within it keep him in place.
The Parks, however, possess an uncanny life force and will to survive. At the beginning, this seems like a positive and praiseworthy quality of a down-on-their-luck family. Reading a little bit deeper in the film’s body of text, sadly it is clear this isn't the case. The fear of not slipping furthermore in the gutter of society is the real instigator of the Parks’ false hope. The same fear is central to Kafka's characters. First and foremost, there is the fear of insecurity and finality in the face of the infinity of space and society. Second, there is a fear of the bizarre nature of society and interpersonal relations. And, third, there is a fear of insignificance of the individual in the grand scheme of things. In the case of the Park family, and so many more families across the globe, the fear is more about surviving, but nevertheless, fear is what keeps them imagining a better future for themselves.
As so many characters in Kafka's work, the Parks seem to try to make most of their situation and keep the optimistic attitude with an idea of resolution of their problems being just around the corner. For a while it seems to be working, and they liberate themselves from their semi-underground position, basically living their dream lives, leastwise as servants. However, it all slips away fairly soon, as Parks see they are vermin to the people on the top of the food chain, and they dislike that denotation. Also, they become aware of their nauseating appearance, mainly linked to the smell, which they couldn't distinct while living among others like them. As Josef K. puts it in his dying breath: " 'Like a dog!' he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him." The pride and the rage of Ki-taek is the breaking point of the Parks’ new life. Only in relation to the rich, and consequently, the clean, can they see who they really are. It's not dissimilar to Gregor's situation, where he can assess his repulsion and unimportance only in the relation with the rest of his 'normal' and healthy family. “The animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself in order to become master, not knowing that this is only a fantasy produced by a new knot in the master’s whiplash.” The quote by Kafka reads like it's cut right out of the page of The Parasite screenplay. The downfall of the Parks leaves them where Ki-taek always knew all their plans and non-plans will leave them. At the bottom. Only this time, they all know how strict and impenetrable the boundaries between two worlds are.
The final theme of the film, which is also profusely present in Kafka's work, is the theme of alienation. And, as it is pretty easy to spot the alienation between the classes in these works, as it is in real world, the alienation between people in all other spheres of life is what's truly depressing. Even before Marx's theses of capitalism alienating working class from itself, the product, and the working process, the world is divided on those who have and those who don't. It is sad, though, that in this day and age if you are born as a have-not, it is almost impossible to become a have, which ties back to the theme of futility and submission. You would think that this kind of economic segregation would unite the have-nots in some kind of mutual struggle and solidarity, but as we see in the film, it is really an all-out war for the crumbs which fall of the table of the rich. So, in reality it is a parasitic circle of life, with two highly separated types of vermin, one a true parasite, and the other perceived as one by the parasite.

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