Note: This article contains spoilers for Parasite and Us.
Just as cinema in 2018 was all about race, cinema in 2019 was all about class. The divides between the uber rich and everyone else became more clear than ever as the phrase “eat the rich” became a frequent social media catchphrase. It was more than just a catchphrase: it seemed to guide some of the biggest hit original films of the year. Knives Out featured an immigrant outsmarting a family of rich elite assholes, Hustlers showcased a make-shift family of strippers stealing from lustful Wall Street bankers, and Joker displayed an uprising of the lower class and anarchists inadvertently led by a psychopath in clown makeup. That’s not even including Ready or Not and its devilish depiction of a family of rich idiots. Yet out of them all, the two films that arguably have the most interesting things to say about class were not dramas, but thrill rides.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Jordan Peele’s Us are both about mirror-image families. The critically acclaimed South Korean satire tells the story of the Kims, a nuclear family unit so poor that they live in a semi-basement and rely on free fumigation from city cleaners, while the family whose lives they infiltrate, the Parks, live in a modern and luxurious house with a perfectly green backyard. One by one, the Kims replace the help of the household through a series of deceptions. Blinded by the wealth of the Parks, the Kims consistently praise them for their generosity and kindness. It’s not until the Parks think that they’re alone that the truth comes out, much to the displeasure of the Kims. “People who ride the subway have a special smell,” Mr. Park comments to his wife, not knowing that Mr. Kim is hiding beneath their massive coffee table. It’s not malicious evil, just plain ignorance from those too clueless to know the real world.
As Parasite twists and turns, the shock reveal that the old housekeeper’s husband has been hiding in a secret bunker in the basement of the Park home throws everything into a different light. The poor blindly defend the rich, but resentment slowly comes to a boil. The rich trust them, but aren’t afraid to mistreat them or talk shit behind their backs. When Mr. Kim realizes that the family will always look down on them despite their “generosity”, his hope vanishes. There was really no other way for the end to film: a bloody garden party where a starved and crazed member of the lowest class comes up from the underground swinging a knife at anyone in his way. It’s a frenzied finale where the classes are finally made equal by brutal violence. Both the old housekeeper’s husband and Mr. Kim lash out in rage, spurred on by the callousness of the uber rich. However, despite the bloodshed, nothing changes. The film’s coda is a hope-crushing moment: there will always be someone above, and there will always be someone below.
Us takes the idea of “upstairs-downstairs” and runs with it. The film’s been picked apart by just about everyone, including yours truly, but it says something about the current state of the union that the year’s biggest original horror film was all about class. The central family, the Wilsons are comfortably middle class, with their friends the Tylers being even more affluent. And the poor can’t even live on the surface: the freak experiments known as the Tethered are animalistic and savage. The only one that can speak is Red. When Adelaide (her surface-level doppelganger) demands to know who they are, she merely replies in her croaky, throttled voice: “We’re Americans”. Such is the class system in the United States: we ignore the poor until it’s too late. And in the world of Us, Peele has crafted a scenario where the poor, cursed to life in a series of tunnels and abandoned hallways deep below the topsoil, strike back with fury – and golden scissors.
Peele points out the parasitism of the American class system by reminding the viewer how we all benefit at someone else’s expense. The surface dwellers get to live freely due to their Tethereds (a failed government experiment aimed at controlling the population) suffering in silence underground, feeding on rare rabbit meat and wandering hopelessly in dim hallways. Due to their lower position in society, they are afforded no luxuries or even the basics of modern life. No wonder they saw Red as a savior who would lead them to freedom in the sunlight. Does that make Red – and Adelaide as well, considering they switched places in the beginning of the story – class traitors? Possibly. They both exploit the system to their own personal ends: Adelaide wishes to keep her bourgeois life secure, while Red uses the angry populace of the Tethered to reclaim her old life on the surface. In the end, it’s a draw: Red may have been killed in the tunnels, but the revolution she sparked unleashes a wave of chaos that overtakes the entire country. Peele ends the film before we see any ramifications of that night, but it’s not hard to imagine what’s going to happen afterwards.
The tick-like behavior of the upper classes is on full display in Parasite and Us. It might be blunt to call them leeches, but both films showcase how the class system that’s been prevalent for centuries in countries as disparate as the United States and South Korea have encouraged them to leech on the lower rungs of society, while the poor have to fight their way up just to find some form of comfort. It’s a brutal tug of war with no clear winner at the end. When the chips are down, everyone loses. In light of the Oscar nominations, which showed love for Parasite in ways that no one could have imagined even five years ago, class warfare has become a more pressing topic in cinema than ever. It’s in our genre films, it’s in our award nominees, it’s even in our comic book adaptations. With a new decade on the horizon, it seems that class will be the overarching theme in cinema – and I can’t wait to see what discussions we’ll be having nine years from now about a decade of films about it.
21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.