Observation Points is a semi-regular discussion of key details in our culture.
Who do we become when greed, envy and entitlement consume our lives, and our very identities? In Jordan Peele’s Us and Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, both now streaming on Hulu, the dark side of humanity is explored in fascinating ways as the directors push their characters to extremes, acting in ways they never imagined they were capable of. In both of these films, opposites, visual metaphors and stairs define the boundaries between two worlds, layered one on top of the other.
In Us, Peele looks at how childhood trauma can have a deeper impact, causing it to affect multiple generations, and in Parasite—which Bong Joon Ho co-wrote with Han Jin Won—the lives of three families are used to demonstrate how a capitalist society’s need to push citizens into social classes creates a breakdown of said society. On the face of it, these two films may not seem all that similar. They are classified into different genres, showcase different aesthetics and were made by casts and crews whose experiences manifest a literal ocean apart from each other. All of this is true, but if you look below the surface (pun fully intended), both films are telling very similar stories.
The generational trauma in Us is mirrored in the class struggles of Parasite
As a young child Adelaide (Madison Curry) enters the dark recesses of a funhouse at a carnival, where she meets her literal mirror image, or “tethered”—as she and the others who dwell in the nether world of a forgotten underground train system, are called. After this shocking encounter, Adelaide is initially more withdrawn and less outgoing, but over time she seems to come back to herself, having an ordinary life as a teen and eventually creating a family as an adult. However, in one night, the truth of what happened in the past is revealed. The grown-up Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) who is shown to have a loving relationship with her kids, and husband Gabe (Winston Duke), isn’t the real Adelaide.
Us’s main conflict and plot revolves around the tethered Addy known as Red, her family—which are the tethered of Addy’s family—and the other tethered, rising up and going on a killing spree to claim the lives they believe were stolen from them. Red wants revenge for the physical and mental pain she was forced to suffer. She wants to reclaim the future that could’ve been hers, had Addy not confined her to living in the nether world.
Though they may not seem to have anything in common with Red and Addy, the characters of Parasite, share similar fates.
When Ki Woo (Choi Woo Shik) begins working as a private tutor for the wealthy Park family, he sees it as an opportunity for his family to finally get their piece of the proverbial pie. His sister Ki Jung (Park So Dam) becomes the art therapist of the young son, their mother Chung Sook (Chang Hyae Jin) takes over as housekeeper from Moon Gwang (Lee Jung Eun), and the father, Ki Taek (Sung Kang Ho) becomes chauffeur.
Everything for the Kims grinds to a sudden halt when Ki Taek meets Geun Se (Park Myung Hoon), a man who has been living in the hidden bunker of the Park house for over four years. In a metaphorical sense the Kims and Geun Se are tethered to the Parks. Their existence relies on the benevolence of a family, who on a whim, could replace them just as easily as the original employees. Geun Se in his own way is tethered because he centers his entire existence around showing respect and gratitude to a man who doesn’t even know he exists.
For the Kims, they see the life the Parks have as one they should have. Why should they be stuck struggling in a dank, moldy semi-basement hovel, when they could live in the open spaciousness of the Park home designed by a famous architect? Though Geun Se is his own character, what makes him interesting is that he doubles as Ki Taek’s alter ego.
In Geun Se, Ki Taek sees the man he no longer wants to be. A man struggling to survive in the dark, where he doesn’t matter. Just like Red and Addy, Geun Se is the person Ki Taek is most afraid of, because he reveals his deepest insecurities. When confronted with how dependent on Mr. Park Geun Se has become, it’s as though a switch has been flipped in Ki Taek, and he becomes even more determined to hold onto the double life he’s leading. Unfortunately, few things ever go according to plan as the ending of both films show.
Addy and Ki Taek’s actions throughout the films create a ripple effect that touches everyone in their lives, especially their children. Addy’s betrayal caused Red and her family to attack Addy’s, which in turn made them resort to violence to defend their lives. Yes, they won in the end, but at what cost? Their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) were forced to kill children and adults they knew. They saw their parents become violent, and while they may seem okay at the end, there’s no telling what the emotional and mental toll the events of that night took on them. In Ki Woo’s case, his inability to accept the loss of Ki Jung, Ki Taek’s disappearance and the public’s opinion on what occurred, has left him in an emotionally fragile state where he’s unable to accept that no matter what he does, he can’t ever go back to those few idyllic days in the Park house.
These families are all irrevocably changed. The actions of a few, even as they fight oppressive social structures, have led to the destruction and turmoil of many.
Stairs turn the world upside down, and nothing is the same again
One of the many interesting aspects of Parasite is how architecture plays an integral part of the story. The production design by Lee Ha Jun created sets that become characters themselves, most notably in the use of stairs. As innocuous as they may sound, stairs are used as visual and physical metaphors to show the characters mental state, and the same applies to Us.
Stairs—and more specifically an escalator in Us—and basements show the audience the descent the characters take physically and mentally. In Us, young Adelaide plunges into the funhouse’s dark recesses and deeper still in the forgotten underground train system where the tethered live. In Parasite it’s the stairs connecting the posh, obscenely expensive furnished and decorated, living quarters of the Parks to the cold bunker Geun Se inhabits. Additionally, a series of external stairs in the Kim’s neighborhood, demonstrate how far they actually live from their hope of wealth. It’s down these flights of stairs that their dreams begin to wash away in a deluge of dirty, flooding rain water.
It was in the depths of these two worlds that the characters’ lives were turned upside down, and they were forced to confront their darkest fears about themselves.
Addy finally came face-to-face with Red, who revealed just how deeply the years of isolation, and trauma of losing her parents affected her. In the basement of the Park home, the Kims began their descent into violence. The Parks’ former housekeeper Moon Gwang is gravely wounded when she is nonchalantly pushed down the stairs by the very woman who usurped her position in the household.
The darkness—tonally and literally through lighting and cinematography—that permeates these two specific locations reflects just how far the films’ respective characters have fallen. These people who for most of their lives believed they were incapable of such extreme acts, seemingly fell into them with an ease due to their social circumstances.
The struggle of people of color to change from the Have Nots to the Haves
As a family, the Kims live just above the poverty line in South Korea. They work what would be called “menial” jobs, trying to make ends meet. Chung Sook’s supervisor is younger than she is, but knowing she can’t risk losing her job, she shows deference and accepts a pay cut for unsatisfactory work. The age difference plays a role in the exchange and is especially grating for Chung Sook because of the importance placed on seniority in Korean culture. Further, the supervisor speaks to Chung Sook in banmal—the informal, familiar mode of speech used in the Korean language—which highlights just how low her status in society is. None of this is explicitly spelled out for English-language audiences, but it’s there. The Kims want out of this life, and the perfect opportunity is presented by their family friend Min (Park Seo Joon).
With their gradual infiltration of the Park household deftly orchestrated by Ki Jung and Ki Woo, the Kims seize their chance at finally bettering their lot. Though they may only serve in support positions within the house, they still revel at being surrounded by the best that money can buy.
While Parasite is obvious in how it points out the evils of capitalism and class structures, Us critiques them in subtler ways. With Us, it’s the father Gabe who’s more concerned with keeping up appearances. He likes being able to say his family has a vacation home. He competes with their white friends, showing a sense of insecurity about his status financially, by buying a boat he doesn’t need and the family doesn’t want. He encourages his daughter Zora to pursue a path toward the Olympics as a runner. (Peele’s nod to racial stereotypes perhaps?) Like the Kims, Gabe is always pointing out the things he wishes his family could have, revealing an underlying sense of envy.
Both families are concerned with meeting or exceeding the expectations of a society that keeps the disenfranchised down, even as it tells them to do whatever it takes to succeed on society’s terms. Capitalism keeps telling people of color to keep reaching for that brass ring, while holding it out of reach. And when the ring does come within reach, capitalism makes it seem as though a favor has been begrudgingly granted, rather than success achieved through one’s own will and hard work.
Echoes of these themes played out during awards season
In this sense it’s worth noting that life imitated art during the 2019-2020 awards season, when Parasite won four Oscars at the 2020 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best International Language Film. To many it seemed like these awards were validation for South Korean cinema—and movies made by people of color in general. But was it? America is often held up as the center of the cinematic universe. Filmmakers are encouraged to succeed there, because having the acceptance of Hollywood means creatives have “made it”—which is ironic when so many films held up as the pinnacle of American/Western cinema were influenced by South Korean and other international films.
It can’t be overlooked that as Parasite and its director were awarded, the cast that gave the performances the film hinged on were not nominated. Lupita Nyong’o, who gave objectively brilliant performances as both Red and Adelaide, was not nominated for Us, despite earning other accolades following the movie’s release. In truth, Nyong’o and the cast of Parasite were only awarded acting nominations and awards at smaller American ceremonies such as the African American Film Critics Associations Awards and internationally at the 28th Buil Film Awards where Best Supporting Actor went to Park Myung Hoon and Lee Jung Eun won Best Supporting Actress.
Whether it’s fictional or not, the world at times can and will demand more than we think we’re prepared to give. To feel like we belong, we’re made to feel as though we can’t be truly ourselves. We have to look at others to determine what’s important and worth having, and in turn we are made to feel guilty for not measuring up. Parasite and Us are both bound by the idea that society will exploit us for our labor and, in the same breath, damn us as society’s most parasitic leeches. But as these two films demonstrate, while there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting better for ourselves and our families, we need to be careful how we go about it, lest we end up further down than we started.