[contains spoilers for Parasite] I saw Parasite recently and walked away thinking about similar themes to those widely written about (class, mostly), but also about one scene that brought me to tears.
After a flood washed away most of their possessions, Mr. Kim (the father in the poor family) and his kids wound up spending the night on the floor of a gymnasium. There was a shot zooming in on his face as he lay on a cot surrounded by chaos. Moreover, the scene was not long after Mr. Kim overheard the rich (Park) family discussing his unpleasant odor. The actor conveyed an incredible depth of emotion; you could feel in his expression rage, defeat, and shame.
Something about this made me really sad, and it reminded me of a sadness I felt when watching Beasts of the Southern Wild (and when reading The Road and when watching The Pursuit of Happyness, but I’ll save those for later thought).
It reminded me of when I was a child looking to my parents for answers they didn’t have. I think this happens to everyone who has parents at one point or another; we look at the people who seem all-powerful and realize even they are powerless against some things. I think this is when many of us begin to grow up.
I think this reaction of sadness is tied to the interaction between our tendency to be hopeful and the unending suffering and pain all around us. When I’m feeling down about something I often have something else that I use as an “at least…” and that makes the thing I’m feeling down about more tolerable. Many children are shielded from a lot of suffering and pain, trusting fully in their parents to guide them and to make things okay as many adults trust in God. The world is terrifying but at least there’s someone to watch over you. And in the same way that any hope of a God (or at least of a benevolent one) comes crashing down when something awful happens, realizing that your parents are flawed and powerless against inequities and natural disasters and messed up power structures destroys the trust that everything will be okay.
Maybe I think about this often because I spent a lot of my childhood absorbing the shame of others who should have felt more of it. Standing outside on a chilly midwestern evening while your dad dumpster dives for coupons in a recycling bin in a dimly-lit parking lot puts you in a confusing spot. On one hand you think rationally “this is not normal,” but on the other hand you’re fighting against a power dynamic innate to parent-child relationships and a deep intuition to trust the actions of your progenitor. And since your father is unashamed in his actions you absorb that shame and feel it for him, because without shame you have to submit that your rational understanding of what’s happening is wrong. You absorb and feel it for him because being gaslit is even worse than feeling so much of someone else’s shame that your stomach drops and you want to vomit.
At the cash register when your father argues with some drugstore employee (who’s filled with disbelief that someone can combine a newspaper coupon with a rebate with $300 in ExtraBucks to buy 12 diabetes test kits) you make eye contact with the drugstore employee and the expression they had when looking at him, one full of indignant pity, flickers at you for a moment. You want to say “I don’t know him,” but your long lanky limbs are a dead giveaway and you look too young to have just spent an hour and fifteen minutes at CVS of your own volition looking at greeting cards. You think they must hate you too, and so your shame and guilt not only make up for what he should be feeling, but become your own as well.
Maybe this is why I felt something of what Mr. Kim was feeling so deeply. Because even though I’ve never been a parent, I’ve felt a lot of things in place of my parents, and shame has always been the most painful.
Mr. Kim and his wife rely on the ingenuity of their children to survive (or at the very least to turn their wifi back on) and this, too, speaks to something quite universal. The prospect of every generation being more successful and ideals (that are less common in the West) of giving back to those who raised us are positive. But maybe there’s something distressing about the notion that someday my mother, whose eyes have held the whole universe each time I gazed up into them since my eyelids first peeked open, might someday need more from me than I need from her. Sometimes I still want to curl up on her lap and trust that things will be okay, and on whose lap will I curl if one day I have children and they want me to tell them what I will never stop wanting to hear from my own mom?
The feelings evoked when I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild are perhaps less tangible because they speak directly to feelings I had as a child, often forced to forge my own way and foolish enough to think I was old and mature enough to do so. We see a triumphant Hushpuppy, the film’s hero, facing hardship head-on, perhaps not pausing to even view it as hardship. Her bravery and the love and support from her community are inspiring, but throughout the film I had the creeping feeling that she was facing more than she ever should have had to. That we celebrate her triumph is great, but that doesn’t justify that she is forced to grow up so quickly in the first place.
It’s because of this that I found the film far more moving than most and also more unsettling. It captured in gorgeous images poverty, albeit a very different kind of poverty than I once knew, without fully acknowledging that Hushpuppy was the hero she never should have needed to be.
Of course, both films describe experiences that are inherently not my own and the vignettes I describe primarily aid in each film’s discussion of other things (capitalism, white supremacy, colonization). There are certainly aspects of Parasite that I missed given my ignorance of many aspects of Korean culture and history. Beasts of the Southern Wild was rather polarizing; some thought it captured several specific themes around race in the US well, particularly relating to Katrina and its aftermath (one take). Others found it voyeuristic, likening it to the ‘othering’ of problematic pseudo-ethnographic work (another take). My perspective on both films is mostly not particularly relevant, so I’ll heed to the nuance of what many others, especially those with a closer relationship to the experiences of those in each film, have written. I acknowledge this because I’m not trying to co-opt themes relating to the victimization of marginalized groups I’m not & have never been part of. Instead, this is a meditation on vignettes I haven’t been able to stop thinking about and pain that is universal, particularly that felt by children and their parents. Both films touch on unbeatable hardships in poverty and climate change and the intersection of those things and many others. The vignettes speak to some part of me still that believes I can rely on the people who brought me into a world with those unbeatable hardships to have the answers I’ve always hoped they’d have.
“It seems that reality is something that the worthy, practical realist does not ever wholly love and take seriously. As a child he crawls under the table, when his parents are not at home, by this brilliantly simple trick making their living-room into a place of adventure; as a growing boy he hankers after a watch of his own; as the young man with the gold watch he longs for the woman to go with it; as a mature man with watch and wife he hankers after the prominent position; and when he has successfully attained the fulfilment of this little circle of wishes and is calmly swinging to and fro in it like a pendulum, it nevertheless seems that his store of unsatisfied dreams has not diminished by one jot, for when he wants to rise above the rut of every day he will resort to metaphor and simile.”
-Musil, The Man Without Qualities