Note: This essay contains significant spoilers of the film Parasite.
Unlike tangible objects, such as purses, eyeglasses and cars; or, how someone eats their food; crooked teeth, plastic surgery, limited or expansive vocabulary; and in the American context, growing up knowing what biscotti is; smell may be the most evocative marker of all. Fragile, intimate, and raw, smell cuts across geographies and borders and even historical temporalities as a symbol of class. Smell, as shared molecules touch your membranes and ignite recognition. To be close enough to breathe in signals intimacy. It’s smell that threads across the plot of the Cannes Palme D’or winning Parasite, a South Korean film that’s been recognized internationally. Parasite is a rare film that all cinematic elements–acting, cinematography, editing, screenplay, and set design–are masterfully orchestrated. Yet, the focus on smell in Parasite may make it a universal story. Like smell, Parasite shows us what a film can do–encompassing, deliberate, intoxicating, and human.
To watch a film, you step into a theatre, and sit in a plush red seat. You watch, in relative darkness and light, the flicking and moving images at 24 frames per second. We understand at her best, the cinema is a dream factory.
Directed by Bong Joon Ho (The Host), Parasite follows a destitute family (The Kims) Kim Ki-taek, his wife Chung-sook, son Ki-woo, and daughter Ki-jeong who scheme and infiltrate a wealthy family’s (The Parks) home. Like other upstairs downstairs films such as Sunset Blvd, Downtown Abbey and The Rules of the Game, Parasite plays with the dynamics between the working class and the upper class in S. Korea with comedic results. However, the twists and turns of the plot fuse genres such as comedy, drama, thriller, and horror and makes for one of the most provocative and engaging films of the year. Smell presses the plot of Parasite forward. The story of a poor family edging their way literally into the home of a rich one demonstrates how class, like smell, is universal.
Odor opens Parasite. Living in a semi-basement apartment, the Kim family rarely experience sunlight and fresh air. The four-person family of a father, mother, son, and daughter are the main characters who work together within their poverty stricken experience and yet with all good humor and love. When in an early scene, the father Ki-taek thinks its a good idea to leave the windows open in the semi-basement apartment during an outside fumigation to save money for free service, we see how the family suffers from their circumstances. The family gags from the odors, and smoke clouds up the screen. From there, the plot moves forward when son Ki-woo meets his friend Min who offers him a position as a tutor in a wealthy home. Min also gifts the family a “scholar rock” (from a Korean tradition of rock collecting) that can bring wealth to the destitute family. Ki-woo accepts the opportunity and the rock, and with his sister Jessica’s help as a masterful forger, he poses as a university graduate and obtains the position to tutor the daughter in the Park’s home. Then all members of the family follow suit. One by one, they are hired and act as unrelated workers and take over the Park family’s household.
The positions do not come easy, and much of the first act is centered on the lengths and comedy of the Kim’s manipulations and schemes. For example, Jessica now the art tutor drops underwear in the car so the chauffeur is fired and their father is soon hired. They plot the firing of the maid Moon-gwang through her allergy of peaches and frame her as too ill to work. The Parks, led by Mr. Park a CEO of a tech firm, are naive to these dealings, and his stay at home wife, along with the daughter, and the young eight-year-old son Da-song accepts the new employers are their own. However, the cracks to this stone tight scheme began to occur through smell.
In the first act of the film, young Da-song unknowingly and naively not yet attuned to nuchee–a Korean cultural trait of observing social graces, blurts out they smell the same with his nose smothered in Mr. Park’s, and then in Mrs. Park’s side. The scene is set in the wide opulent contemporary kitchen which encompasses a wide shot of the Park family. Da-song exclaims “do ga deh” the same, and when told to quiet by his family, he remarks that Jessica smells the same too.
Later, the Kims joke as a family in the semi-basement apartment whether they need four loads of laundry to smell differently. It is the youngest daughter Jessica who explains that they have a semi-basement smell. Throughout the film, she is the conscience and truth teller of the family and the person who has a keen awareness of the structural circumstances that keeps her family in their place. However, even with the challenges of poverty, the family is depicted as loving and caring with one another. For example, even when they plot out a ruse to oust the maid, the film picks up as we see the Kims deftly practice their performance. The humor rides in the momentum of the manipulation, and as the mother and Jessica eats popsicles and watches the rehearsals like a television set at a local Korean spa.
The film turns from comedy into thriller when the ex-maid returns to the home. When the Parks decide to go camping, the Kims take over the house as their own, leisurely using the large pristine bathtub, and lounging outside in the grass yard with the sunlight and seen through glass walls of the house. Designed by a famed architect, the home Parasite is shot in exemplifies modernity. In the evening, the Kims enjoy a Korean traditional drinking party in the living room with snacks and alcohol. However, later that evening the doorbell unexpectedly rings, as the ex-maid Moon-gwang ominously returns and explains she forgot something in the basement.
The plot point of the opened door sets off a series of events, which transform the film from a comedy into a thriller. We discover in the basement, through a fast tracking shot of a dark hallway and stairs that Moon-gwang’s husband Geun-sae, deeply in debt, lives secretly in the basement. We learn he’s been there for four years. The film turns and changes, as power seesaws between the families. At first, the ex-maid Moon-gwang is begging the mother Chung-sook to watch over her husband. Then when the Kim family tumbles down the stairs and exposes their scheme, the power returns to Moon-gwang.
With their hands up like disciplined Korean school children, the Kim family is forced to sit and obey the ex-maid and her husband as they threaten to reveal the footage taken by cell phone. The film is still a dark comedy here, we’re exposed to the maid’s hilarious impersonations of North Korean anchors, and the two basement families trading insults during the process. It is also this part of the film, when it becomes achingly endearing and tragic. Moon-gwang and Guen-sae asserts that the unsophisticated Kim family could never understand the beauty of the high end home, nor comprehend how to enjoy the morning light that beams through the glass walls. In the morning, the couple enjoy the light. They dance with one another, moving slowly, and with pleasure. Their intimacy in the rhythm of an Ella Fitzerald rendition. Close enough to smell one another, and yet there is no dialogue here.
The gestures of dance haunts me still. How even through immense struggling, and with apparent mental health illness, the couple still find joy and pleasure within one another. Yet, the plot suddenly turns when the Kims now have power over the couple by taking the phone with footage, and we enter back into the basement. Here the film shifts from a comedy into a horror movie through a series of plot points and violence that cannot be contained.
“Mr. Kim’s Smell”
The plot spins again with smell. After the ex-maid Moon-gwang and her husband are tied up in the basement, the three members of the Kim family find themselves hiding under a table in the living room as the Parks unexpectedly return home early. While retiring in the evening, the Parks decide to sleep on the living room couch because their son wants to camp by himself outside in a Native American tent. Through the glass windows, they can keep an eye on him, and they ask Mrs. Kim to retire to her room. As a couple, lying horizontally on the couch, Mr. Park remarks that Mr. Kim almost but never crosses the line as his driver, however his smell does: “The smell crosses the line.” Mrs. Park, naive and unconcerned, asks if the smell is an old man’s smell? However, Mr. Park clarifies that the stench is like an “old radish” or when you “boil a rag,” and describes how the people who ride the subway stink differently. This moment of exchanging information about Mr. Kim’s smell humiliates him as he is hiding under the table with his daughter and son. The shame sweeps through the film, as the shot turns to a close up of his profile turning his chin in to smell himself.
Humiliation of smell doesn’t stop there. On the couch, Mr. Park suggests that it feels like they are in his car, and introduces an erotic role play. They then pretend they are in the car, and he is seducing her like their old driver’s girlfriend, and the panties Jessica left in the car are described as cheap panties. They begin to make love, as Mr. Kim and his children are still under the table and in this way makes it appear as if he is driving the Parks during this sexual act. The scene evokes the dynamics of Manet’s 1863 painting Olympia, where we see a naked white woman lying horizontally while a fully clothed Black woman servant is by her side. While the white woman’s depiction as a prostitute has been controversial, there has been less written about the Black servant’s role of humiliation. The leisure class is depicted as naked while servants are shamed in their labor as they are subjected to their mistress’s naked bodies. In a similar way, the erotic roleplay humiliates Mr. Kim as witness and through denigrating his smell. Smell upholds class and status in Parasite, and the working class largely does not know their own smell. When Mr. Kim begins to understand his smell, and how his employer smells him, he gains class consciousness.
When the Kim family finally gets the opportunity to escape from under the table, the film again shifts and transforms. This time, through long shots of the three family members running through Seoul, from narrow tunnels of the highway to the high mountains stairs, the film turns into a moving snake. Like a roller-coaster we have descended and one cannot go back.
Good plot also acts this way. Instead of the theater chairs, in Parasite, we are now at a drive in theatre and our car has begun to move. We too fall up, run down stairs, and loop around as the lives in Parasite come crashing down. In what I understand as the sixth act of the film, the family make it down to the basement apartment only to find flooding. The other family is tied up and frantic in the other basement. The stake of the circumstances have turned. If you had audience members snickering about the film perhaps not understanding the Korean at various scenes, it is at this point where they too are enraptured and became and stay utterly silenced.
The Party Day
Smell catapults the film into the unbridled and tragic rage by the final act. From here, the families have found themselves in tragic predicaments. With the basement apartment flooded and having “no plan,” the Kim family is left without a sense of hope and how to negotiate the family tied up in the basement. Earlier in the film, Moon-gwang tries to run up the basement, however, the mother Chung-sook kicked her, and she toppled violently down the stairs. The ramifications of their actions have become grim. The characters are all invited to a garden party celebrating the Park son’s birthday. Evoking the pristine upper-class white outdoor setting of Get Out, Parasite then moves into the idyllic setting of an upper class Korean birthday party complete with a Korean socialite attendee singing opera on the lawn.
Ki-woo in the room of Da-hye asks, “Do I fit in here?” while gazing out to the party from the window. From her confused and naive expression, she doesn’t seem to understand the question, but says yes. Unlike her father, she is wholly unaware of class and smell. Confronted with the circumstances, Ki-woo creates his own plan to take care of his family through holding the rock in an apparent attack on the basement couple. However, the tables turn when the husband freed himself now attacks Ki-woo and leaves him for dead.
Odor returns. When attacked with the knife, Jessica is killed and the party-goers run in panic. Mr. Kim needs to decide whether to throw the keys to Mr. Park and he does. When the keys land underneath Guen-Sue, we see Mr. Park’s gestures and contortions as stench grips his nose. It is then Mr. Kim picks up the knife.
To characterize the lower class as foul smelling is to render them repellent at the most basic physical and emotional level. To tell someone you smell is the deepest cut because it encompasses every facet of identity for a person. Out of all the senses, smell means a proximity even more intimate than touch, because it is the embodiment of a person. When Mr. Park gags from the odors, Mr. Kim is enraged not by his own smell but how Mr. Park reacts to the stench of the other basement dweller, who he begins to feel a class solidarity with and triggered to enact violence in the final macabre scene of the film. The epithet of stink is enough to provoke rage, and while the upper class did seemingly nothing wrong, we understand that smell is a metaphor for collapsing structures, difference and doles out suffering for one family or the other.
Intoxicating, like smell, the best films are immersive and draws one in until you forget what’s around you except the screen. Perhaps you sniff the buttery salty popcorn, the muster of old theatre seats, and whiffs of lavender from your lover’s collarbone as she learns into you. Her hair and the aroma of hairspray tickling your nose. Credits roll. Olfactory begins even if we don’t realize it. The immersive sense that is live-ness is smell. Perhaps this is why insulting how someone smells is the deepest and greatest injury of all. Smell, like film, is a verb and a noun. Smell organizes Parasite and shows how the film is a moving smelly and dangerous animal by its end.
Margaret Rhee is a poet, media scholar, and she currently teaches at SUNY Buffalo in the department of Media Study as an assistant professor. As a journalist, I have written articles on feminism, robots, technology, and poetry for Bitch Magazine, M.S., Jacket2, and Publisher’s Weekly.