Global income inequality has been on a steady rise for the past four decades, so it was only a matter of time before the class war eventually reached Hollywood. Bong Joon Ho’s sleeper hit Parasite is a mind-bending thriller that challenges our conception of parasitic relationships. But it’s also a meaningful parable about how the profound gulf that exists between the poor and the wealthy impacts our lives and relationships. What Parasite and a slew of other recent films have stressed, beyond just pointing to that chasm, is that it isn’t enough to eat the rich; it’s even more important to not eat each other. Regardless of how intensely we target the rich, the real havoc begins when the rest of us turn against ourselves.
In Parasite, the Kims, a poor Korean family, slowly but surely swindle their way into the lives of the wealthy Park family. The Kims insinuate themselves into various positions of employment in the Park’s household, charging exorbitant fees for their services, and preying on Mrs. Park’s abundant and irrational fears. The result is a significant flow of money from one household to the other. Despite their misfortune, it seems their luck has changed. But things take a turn when the Parks leave for a weekend camping trip and the Kims decide to treat themselves to a little stolen luxury. The Parks’ old housekeeper, whom the Kims had pushed out using an elaborate scam involving peaches, reappears when they are away, leaving the Kims to deal with a grim discovery.
The Kims discover that the former housekeeper, Moon-gwang, had been quietly helping her husband subsist for years in the Parks’ unused basement fallout shelter. Rather than recognizing a family struggling under similar circumstances, the Kims treat the old couple as another adversary to be dealt with. They are unstable elements in the alchemy that is their successful grift, and they can’t disturb the equilibrium. But it’s at this exact moment that the film veers wildly off course, and the Kims’ luck with it. From the moment they decide to align with the order of the Park household over the shared positionality of their financial struggles with the old couple, things go awry. It’s almost as if the family is being punished, not for grifting the Parks, but for not allowing the old couple to share in the good fortune they’ve managed to skim off the top of the Parks’ excess. It’s hard to pinpoint a villain in Parasite, but the closest you might get is the sense of scarcity that can turn struggling people against one another.
The conflict between the two parties leads to a final, unbelievable climax that is as fitting as it is unpredictable. But the central message remains the same: class warfare also necessitates class solidarity. In Snowpiercer—Joon Ho’s first English feature—the metaphor is also clear: the most treacherous enemies aren’t just wealthy, but the poor who betray each other to uplift the rich. It’s an idea that keeps cropping up as a secondary thesis in stories about the friction between the wealthy and the poor.
This year’s Hustlers is a perfect example. The women at the center of the story thrive when they set their sights on wealthy men. They enact their scheme to bilk them of their riches by drugging them and running up their credit cards. Their elaborate plan relies equally on the women as genius schemers (and amateur chemists) and the social stigma against sex work. The silence of their marks is almost built into the transaction—who, after all, is going to sympathize with rich men who blow thousands on strip clubs and private dancers? As it turns out, not that many. Most of their victims are embarrassed but resigned. It isn’t until the women get desperate and target a man of fewer means that things fall apart. Without unlimited funds and a desperate need to pay his mortgage, he’s motivated to pursue the matter and get his money back. The women get caught not just because they get careless, but because they become indiscriminate about the target of their Robin Hood scheme. You can steal from the rich and give to the poor, but you can’t steal from the poor and give to yourself.
In The Platform, the Pit is a terrifying prison of a near-future dystopia. Vertically stacked cells placed around holes in the ceiling and floor connect each level’s two lonesome captives to each of the others, and each day, a decadent feast is sent down to the prisoners through the tower’s esoteric delivery system, stopping at each floor for a brief time. Those at the top are kept well-fed, while those at the bottom starve. One citizen volunteers to serve a six-month sentence in exchange for professional credentials upon his release. But the horrors he experiences as he makes his way through the Pit force him to think about how the rich win when the poor turn against each other and we choose neglect instead of cooperation. It isn’t until he and his new cellmate decide to equitably redistribute the food within the prison that they find a glimmer of hope for redemption. Forced or not, their solidarity ensures that the poor are united against the rich. That’s where the power is.
Parasite is unique in its treatment of class and solidarity and is a singular cinematic experience. But the themes it explores are ripe for deeper exploration and exploitation. By focusing on the ways in which the poor have a duty to care for each other as well as to overthrow the systems that bind them, these stories create a framework for meaningful change in the real world, too.
Parasite, Hustlers, and The Platform are currently in theaters.