Cities and Class Inequality in Neo-liberal Times: An Insight from Parasite

In current neo-liberal times, cities have become spaces of exclusion, where widening class inequalities are manifested. By reviewing the movie Parasite, the article attempts to present a narrative of the present Korean urban reality and how it resembles the situation in most cities across the global South.

The world is undergoing rapid urbanisation, as half the population is predicted to move into urban areas, by the mid of the present century, changing the locus of urban population to the global South (UNDESA 2018). Asia has, and will have, the largest share of the urban population in the world. Within the region, South Korea, in particular, has made noticeable progress in economic development and has come to be known as an “economic miracle” (Ha 2004). This economic development has been accompanied by high levels of urbanisation, with more than 80% of its population living in cities (UNDESA 2018).  

Despite its noticeable economic development, however, South Korean cities resemble other cities in the global South. Its success story is marred with an increasing population density, the housing crisis and rising class differences across its demography. Scholars like Shin and Kim (2015) have highlighted the government’s negligence towards pro-poor development in these cities, which has led to substandard housing and cheap rental accommodations to absorb the continuous influx of migrants.

Widening of inequality has become a reality of neo-liberal times, encompassing both the developed and developing countries. Poor citizens are being treated as disposable and have been deliberately excluded from equal opportunities of education, health, shelter and economic opportunities. In this context, Giroux (2007) has introduced the concept of “biopolitics of disposability” where the poor are treated as “waste.” In this context, he says, "those poor minorities of color and class, unable to contribute to the prevailing consumerist ethic, are vanishing into the sinkhole of poverty in desolate and abandoned enclaves of decaying cities, neighborhoods” (Giroux 2007).

Interestingly, this grim reality of class structures in the urban context have been captured by the imaginations of film makers. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) are examples of such masterpieces (Mennel 2008). Over time, many pieces of art like Jana Aranye by Satyajit Ray, Slumdog Millionaire by Danny Boyle, Metro Manila by Sean Ellis, also tried to show urban realities from the perspective of class inequality. Other than urban underdogs and the criminalisation of this section, several movies nowadays are focusing on the intricate details of urbanism. Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho is one such example, which has reflected the dark underbellies of South Korea’s cities in today’s neo-liberal times, and has captured the essence of widening inequality. Therefore, viewers from different parts of the world can closely associate their urban experiences with this movie. What is particularly impressive about the movie is its story-telling. Within a thriller genre, it beautifully reflected urban realities in a very intricate manner. It is no wonder that this layered story-telling has made history with a foreign language movie winning an Academy Award in the best movie category for the first time. 

In this context, the present paper tries to bring out the urban narrative of this movie with regard to the concept of Giroux’s “biopolitics of disposability” and widening class inequality under the neo-liberal regime. It also tries to explain how South Korean urban reality resembles other cities of the global South.

Visualising Stark Differences in Living Condition

In general, neo-liberal cities are exclusionary, characterised by stark differences in living conditions. East Asian cities are no exception to this, as can be easily seen since the beginning of Parasite. The movie juxtaposes the life experience of a poor Kim family and business tycoon, Park’s, family.

The movie starts with the depiction of a poor filthy neighbourhood, where the Kim family lives. Like other poor neighbourhoods, it is located in a downhill place where many families live in semi-basement apartments. Known as ‘banjiha’, these apartments are characterised by a lack of hygiene and ventilation. With the rising density in South Korean cities, banjihas has become a residential preference of the economically downtrodden. In 2015, more than 360,000 people, mainly low-income migrants and young students, lived in such apartments with meagre rental prices (Kim 2020). These cheap apartments severely lack a decent liveable environment. The desperation of the residents of such apartments could be understood with various instances in the movie. The frequently clogged sewerage, presence of insects in the apartments, and the presence of damp laden smells in the clothes of the residents, the resident’s desperation to enjoy sunlight, reflect the filthy condition of living. Unfortunately, the poor's choice of living in such semi-basement apartments, lacking proper ventilation and sewerage facilities, not only reflect their vulnerability but also indicate how the government has neglected the necessities of the poor.

The movie also portrayed a stark class inequality in the housing conditions by showing the luxurious villas located uphill (one of the best in terms of location), where the wealthiest families reside. These houses are gated with the best of security mechanism, so as to maintain privacy. All of these houses are endowed with the best facilities and latest technologies to provide residents with the required comforts. Also, the presence of lush green yards depict the differential living condition between these two classes. Notably, the majority of these houses try to imitate western architectural designs, which give them modern and global characteristics. Interestingly, the residential villas of the elite located in Vasant Vihar in Delhi, Banjara Hills in Hyderabad, and Bandra in Mumbai, India resemble these houses. A similar pattern can also be noted in the cities of other developing countries.

Back to the movie, the contrast and vulnerability become very explicit when merely a night of torrential downpour destroys Kim's semi-basement apartment and its neighbourhood. The downhill location and the mismanagement of the sewerage and stormwater network lead to the submerging of these dwellings, leaving most of the residents of the neighbourhood homeless. Not surprisingly, this phenomenon is widespread as more than 9000 households living in these semi-basement apartments were flooded in 2015 (Kim 2020). On the other hand, the upper class housing of the Park family gets hardly affected by this torrential downpour. 

In fact, it became an enjoyable moment for the family, and their son deliberately put up his imported tent to enjoy the weather. This situation indicates how urban planning is biased in favour of urban elites and has denied acknowledging the presence of low-income pockets and the rights of its residents. This situation closely resembles the story of the informal settlements of the global South where people get easily affected by a torrential downpour or fire outbreaks, whereas the wealthier neighbourhoods are hardly affected. This is indicative of how the poor are treated as “waste” (as Giroux put it) or disposable, whose destitute makes hardly any difference in the daily functioning of the city.

Cultural Differences and Class Conflict

Parasite most probably won the Academy Award because it could intricately portray the enormous cultural difference across class. The movie beautifully portrays this through the dominance of Americanised culture among the elite, especially in terms of speaking English. It also showed how elite Parks frequently import luxurious items from the US, as well as the rest of the west. The family is so fascinated with the English language that they not only aspire their teenage daughter Da-hye to attend a United States university, they give an Americanised name to their newly hired English tutor. The situation is similar in the aspirations of urban elites in the global South who frequently adopt western vocabularies and lifestyles, while the majority of the poor are excluded from formal education and healthcare.

The vast cultural differences are also depicted through the character portrayal in the movie. Most of the urban elites in the movie are shown to be soft-spoken, sophisticated, well-behaved, and kind in contrast to the smelly, dirty, loud, and ill-spoken low-income por. It depicts how poor people con or adopt immoral means to gain economic prosperity through Kim who cons the Parks to get various positions in a wealthy home, and Moon-gwang (the former housekeep) who silently hides her husband in the basement-bunker for years outside the knowledge of Parks. The low-income section are portrayed as literal “parasites” who use the wealth of their employers for their survival and eventually feed themselves with it.

Joon-ho has depicted the class conflict subtly, without which the present urban reality is incomplete. Although the elites have been imagined as sophisticated and kind, the harsh reality of class relations is de-throbbed when Park reminds Ki-taek to maintain the formal employer-employee relationship. It becomes even clearer when Park chooses to take his unconscious son to the hospital, when two of his employees are left bleeding to death. The ongoing class-struggle is finally justified by the murder of Park, by Ki-taek. The rebellion of the poor against the elite is the repercussion of exploitative relations and exclusionary nature of cities, where they are constantly battling for survival and dignified living. In this situation, many poor urban youths indulge in criminal activities where they remain outside the circuits of globalised capital and culture, as shown in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionnaire.

The Divided Urban Space

Besides, cultural dissimilarities, globalisation has created “places of exclusion” where the low-income are starved of resources (Short 2001). The residential space for the urban poor is generally characterised by dense build-up and mixed land-use with the presence of small eateries and enterprises, as depicted in the movie. Even the cheap eateries for the poor are overcrowded. In contrast, the space for urban elites is picturesque and resembles global characteristics.

Nevertheless, the question arises whether cities are really divided to such an extent that both of these groups never meet. Surprisingly, the answer is no. The poorer section supplies their labour to the elite households, in the form of domestic workers, nanny, tutors or chauffeur. They step into their doorsteps to fulfill their demand for manual labour. They accompany them to shopping malls and high-end restaurants for assistance. However, their independent entrance is controlled and managed through strict supervision. The poor try to bridge the gap with following certain dress codes of the modern and aspirant middle class to impress their potential employer. Still their presence is unwanted because of their culture and the stigma attached to them. All these situations depict the exclusionary nature of the South Korean cities. This can also be seen in the case of poor slum dwellers in Indian metropolitans who cannot even dream of entering luxury malls, which are exclusive spaces for the more affluent section of the society. Capitalist aspirations, reflected in popular media, reinforce this divide by promoting exclusive spaces for the elites.

On the other hand, the poor’s residential area is considered shabby, unhygienic, and considered as a forbidden space for urban elites. In the movie, Park describes to his wife how Ki-taek smells and equates it to the subway where the richer people do not venture into. 

Director Joon-ho has also beautifully depicted the dichotomous situation, wherein the poor aspire to be part of the spaces left exclusively for the elite, and the elites tend to avoid poverty-stricken parts of the city. However, the poor’s aspirations are never met, they remain disposable and unwanted by the elites.

Urban Reality Check

Despite its economic progress and urban development, South Korea is facing several issues related to increasing poverty in the urban area, instability in its society and labour market. Casualisation of the labour market has not only created tension among Korean youth but also led to a significant proportion of the population falling into despair. From the start of the movie, it became clear how the youth from economically weaker families struggle with temporary jobs and are unable to pursue higher education. Their desperation reaches a point where conning becomes the last resort. As the story ends, Joon-ho makes it clear how hopeless the situation truly is, with no cause for hope left for the poor residing in such unequal capitalist cities. 

Presently, in many developing countries, economic crises persist, with increasing casualisation and informalisation having hit the youth most critically. For example, India is going through its highest level of unemployment since independence, with its presence among the educated youth becoming an alarming situation (Mitra and Singh 2019). Parasite portrays the discomfortable reality of today’s global urban labour markets.

The Housing Crisis and The Real Estate Market

Besides the economic crisis, the housing crisis has been one of the central issues in urban planning in many developing countries. The rapid rate of in-migration from the countryside to the large cities has led to a rapid increase in the substandard rental options and slum-like informal settlements. The cage houses in Hong Kong, semi-basement apartments (banjiha) in South Korea, slum and squatter settlements in other Asian countries are examples. Therefore, substandard living of Kims in semi-basement apartments reflected a reality which has become the living truth of many in Asia. Despite the risk of submergence during monsoon, these houses become housing choices for many low-income families and young students who cannot afford rents in cities.

This rising population in the cities has put a demand for real estate, which has resulted in the quick resale of properties. At the end of the film, the quick resale of the upper class housing of Parks goes through without any background check, which indicates rising demands. 

Persistence of Inequality: Concluding Remarks

Parasite is an urban masterpiece that is very apt in its depiction of dark urban realities in the globalised cities today. All the megacities in Asia, Latin America and Africa are characterised by such stark disparity where the poor have to deal with housing crises and inadequate services and amenities. Besides, the planning tends to focus on creating world-class infrastructure and spaces which are exclusive for the elites. Also, these cities are marred with economic crises with rising unemployment and underemployment. The movie portrayed all these issues, interweaved in a darkly humorous way.  Appreciably, the dark side of urban realities is shown without focusing on urban underdogs, as in the case of Slumdog Millionnaire and Metro Manila. This hopelessness is beautifully narrated by the ending of the movie where Ki-taek, even after aspiring for social upliftment, in the end, only gets the basement-bunker of the Park's villa, and accepts the capitalist reality that is. With this, Parasite has brought into being a new edition to the world of cinema, where viewers are able to see the dark urban realities that belie modern cities.

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