The Physical and Sociological Distance of Wealth Inequality: Bong Joon-Ho’s ‘Parasite’ and Akira Kurosawa’s ‘High and Low’

Above: High and Low (1963) Dr. Akira Kurosawa. Below: Parasite (2019) Dir. Bong Joon-ho

Something that comes of as immediately striking when I watched Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) for the first time last year is the film’s resemblance to Akira Kurosawa’s classic crime thriller High and Low (1963). The resemblance does not seem to be derived from Bong Joon-ho directly drawing cinematic parallels to Kurosawa’s work, rather it is by the virtue of trying to portray a similar systemic tragedy do the two filmmakers reach analogous conclusions. During the process of researching this article, I was fairly confident that I would not be the first or only person to have been troubled by this curiosity regarding the allegorical nature of the two films. Lo and behold, this article titled “A House Like Heaven: The Social Allegories of ‘High and Low’ and ‘Parasite'” by Calvin Law came to my immediate attention. Law managed to hit on some of the points that I have drawn up inside my mind: how the houses in the two films figuratively and literally, by their locations and elevations, represent the heavenly hills and hellish depths of poverty; how the rich patriarchal figures of the two films wield masks of kindness hiding the veil of protecting their status and place in the world; and the struggle of the poor against themselves in a manner that benefits the rich. I heavily recommend reading Law’s article to see a very comprehensive list of parallels that you can draw from the two films. With that said, in this article, I would like to take a slightly different direction by setting forth new ideas and expanding some of the points that Law have already brought forth in his article. I shall attempt to connect the parallels of the two films with existing theories and perspectives on wealth inequality.

The Heaven Above and The Hellish Pits of Despair Below

High and Low (1963) Dir. Akira Kurosawa

This is perhaps the most striking similarity that my eyes were drawn to between Parasite and High and Low. The houses in the two films are, for all intents and purposes, the most significant and visible marker for the wealth inequality that the characters of both films were separated with. Both houses of the rich family are located high in elevation, on top of hills and surrounded by similarly luxurious mansions nearby. If one were to look at such a location through a practical lens, locating your house in such elevations would be incredibly impractical as you would be required to traverse uphill and downhill every time you want to go in and out of your residential area. But such impracticality is used instead as a symbol of wealth and power, the rich would have the ability to purchase modes of transport such as a car (having a car does not necessarily indicate prosperity in the modern world, but in this context, signifies privilege) that allow them to traverse uphill with ease. Practicality, and having things with inherently practical values are worthless to the upper-class if they are able to bypass those impracticalities, especially if there is a purported reward and added value for doing so. In these films, the reward is having a grandiose view of the cityscape below to revel in their “hard-earned” success.

In the Ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, then known as Heian-kyô, the city was chosen as the capital city due to the location and geography being ideal for the Emperor to consolidate power. Kyoto is surrounded by basin-shaped hills, and there is a 40-metre drop in elevation between the north and south. The imperial palace would later be built in the northern area, and the geographical makeup would mean the Emperor and his people would stand above everyone, he would sit on a geographical pedestal with a throne overlooking his subjects below. The emperor at the time would also not build any place where people can gather and cause dissents, thus freeing him to impose his hierarchical vision of society. Additionally, the most southern gate of inner Kyoto, at the time, was the Rashōmon gate. Allegorically, the gate would represent people at the most bottom of the social strata, the gate was infamous for its criminal activities and people in poverty living nearby. It would not be a coincidence, then, that Akira Kurosawa would also use that same gate as the titular location of Rashōmon (1950). Kurosawa utilized the crumbling gate as a symbol of the deteriorating morals caused by such an oppressive system. Kurosawa is no stranger to portraying people at the very bottom of society, The Lower Depths (1957) similarly deals with those issues. But within the context of High and Low, we have the chance to view the perspective of those living up the hills gazing down. 

Historically, in other major cities in the world, living high in elevation is a wealth marker; whether it is in locations such as Beverly Hills, or having an upscale condominium in a New York skyscraper. Elevation creates considerable physical vertical distance between the upper-class and the rest of society. Through a map, these locations may only differ a few kilometres from one another, not even the length of half a thumb in a physical map, but at ground level, the only place further might as well be the International Space Station. This feeling of inaccessibility to those high in status is also portrayed in the two films. In Parasite, we see that the Kim family have to physically climb multiple sets of massive staircases and then walk up a hill until they can reach the mansion. In High and Low, the kidnapper (Tsutomu Yamazaki) routinely looks at Gondo’s (Toshiro Mifune) hill mansion through a pair of binoculars while calling them from a payphone down below to ask them for the ransom money of the kidnapping. A similar occurrence also happens at the end of Parasite when Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) spies on the mansion’s new owners through a binocular. The visible fact that the upper-class are living above, in full view of everyone, would sow the seeds of loathing for people down below like what the kidnapper in High and Low experienced. Alternatively, they could also sow the seeds of aspiration, admiration, and envy; in Parasite, the Kim family largely aspires to one day take over the mansion by co-opting the habits and behaviours of Mr Park’s (Lee Sun Gyun) family. They are under the false pretence (or perhaps the correct one, depending on how you want to interpret it) that those traits are ones you need to be as successful as Mr Park and not his previous background.

It’s important that the characters are moving down, but what’s more important is that water is moving with them: Water is flowing from top to bottom, to the rich neighborhoods to the poor ones, and these characters they have no control over it. The water that flows down with them ultimately floods their entire home. I think that’s the really sad element of that sequence.

Bong Joon-ho

Perhaps a point of difference that needs to be pointed out here is that while Gondo in High and Low might not believe that there is any sort of distance between him and the ordinary person, Mr Park in Parasite is fully conscious of that distance and actively plays border control. This difference is reflected in the architectural design of the two mansions. In High and Low, Gondo is portrayed as a hardened yet an empathetic rich man who cares for the workers of his factory and generally more ‘down-to-earth’, his house is in full view of everyone to display a sense of subdued superiority; he has reached his status supposedly due to his hard work but believes that he is still a part of the larger populace as he is transparent about his wealth and might even want to act as an inspiration for the people below. Mr Park, on the other hand, chooses a house that is obscured from the outside world with walls and fences, he is self-aware about his alleged superiority over the common person and protects his wealth by obscuring (yet still show off) his luxuries.

 Cinephiles may be reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low.” In that case, the structure is simpler and stronger. The Japanese title is “Heaven and Hell.” On the top of the hill is a rich guy and in the bottom, there is the criminal kind of structure. It’s basically the same in “Parasite,” but with more layers. Because the story is about the rich and poor, that’s obviously the approach we had to take in terms of designing the sound and lighting. The poorer you are, the less sunlight you have access to, and that’s just how it is in real life as well: You have limited access to windows. 

Bong Joon-ho

In The Spirit of (Un)fairness

Parasite (2019, Black and White Edition) Dir. Bong Joon-ho

In both High and Low and Parasite, the characters who are poor have the conception that they have been wronged in some ways by the existence of a wealth gap that traps them down below and maintains the luxury of a smaller percentage of individuals; alternatively, they might also believe that they have not obtained a certain trait or talent required to be successful. The rich characters, in contrast, might think that they are hard-working and they have a special talent that gives them an edge over their competition, which explains their success and wealth. These lines of thinking often stem from traditional beliefs regarding human capital in a competitive meritocracy—the combination of intellect, life experience, training, social skills, and other personal characteristics—that dictates the return rate of your work in the marketplace and explains individual pay differences. What this concept does not explain is—all other things being equal—how people with similar training, hard work, intellect, and talent can earn drastically different incomes. In reality, you simply should not look at real-life through a cold, calculating lens of Economics in that manner, other things such as luck, family, country and city, and even birth year often provide powerful external influences over your destiny. The marketplace might also value certain skills over others, and it is rather difficult to draw the lines of what sort of talents does one need to be successful; if there is one at all. Those less talented can succeed if events have been set in motion which ensures that is the case.

This dilemma and discrepancy are wholly explored in both films. The kidnapper in High and Low is a medical intern on his way to one day becoming a full-fledged doctor, yet he is down on his luck and lives in a small, barely habitable shack that gets extremely hot during summer and freezing during winter. It may be the case that despite his talents (and admittedly, propensity to sell drugs to addicts), he did not come from a medical family that may have connections with the directors of the hospital, which would allow him to get ahead in the medical world. In Parasite, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam), the two children of the Kim family, are portrayed as smart, witty, and ingenious. Ki-woo is shown to have the abilities and skills required to enter Seoul National University, a prestigious domestic university in South Korea, yet perhaps due to having to help with his family’s income and the family’s inability to provide the tuition fee, he has not applied yet. Ki-jung is shown to have artistic skills and after forging a document for Ki-woo, is teased by her parents that she could go to Harvard with her forgery skill. Both of these people have a high amount of human capital, yet the supposedly meritocratic marketplace doesn’t reward them accordingly. 

It should also be noted that in Parasite, the rich and powerful don’t seem to be as interested in an actual display of talent and intellect as they are in the appearance of talent and intellect. After Ki-woo presents his fraudulent university document to Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), the wife of Mr Park, she simply tosses it aside without reading it and says that a simple recommendation by a trustworthy figure is enough. Yeon-kyo also does not question the authenticity of Ki-jung’s claims that graduated from an art school in the United States and that she is qualified to perform “art therapy” on her youngest son, a recommendation by Ki-woo was enough. This continues later when all the Kim family have been hired by Mr Park. Yeon-kyo justifies her decisions by saying that she is creating a “circle of trust” through a pyramid scheme-esque cycle of recommendations and hiring. This seems to be par for the course for the nepotistic culture that the upper-class may want to maintain, a culture that favours their “kind” and creates a closed, self-sustaining ecosystem that repels people that threatens their position. Tangible qualifications become secondary in such culture and Mr Park’s family may have arrived in their positions under similar circumstances, thus they don’t question those of their class trying to do the same (i.e. Ki-woo and Ki-jung). 

Parasite (2019, Black and White Edition) Dir. Bong Joon-ho

On the other side of the same coin, Mifune’s Gondo in High and Low, may not have obtained his position through nepotism. On the contrary, Gondo is portrayed as an ordinary man you can find anywhere, he has become rich through hard work and maintains his down-to-earth nature by not sacrificing his integrity as the other executives of his company have. However, as film scholar Donald Richie pointed out, he is admirable under the threat of losing his wealth, but as the film continues we come to find out that this admirability stems from his being able to tolerate the idea of beginning again; a commendable trait yet also a privilege because he still has something to fall back on and while that place might be rock bottom, a poor person failing might fall into something below rock bottom. Certainly, Gondo fully believes that he has gained his wealth through hard work, and even Mr Park, even if he came from a privileged background, may also believe he became rich through his talents. That is not to say that the top 1% of the population in income did not reach that position through hard work, we simply just need to reframe our thinking into that where chance events that are not related to one’s skills often play a big role in one’s success. From Bill Gates being able to attend one of the only private schools in the 1960s that offer students unlimited access to early time-share computer programming terminals to Al Pacino’s casting in Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) being highly improbable as a fresh actor because Coppola threatened the studio to quit the project if they didn’t cast a Sicilian-looking actor for the role; strokes of luck often play a much larger role in success rather than pure talent and even hard work. And being the first to arrive often outweighs the competition. 

When we are fixated with the thinking that there is always a causal relationship between hard work (or having some sort of special talent) and success, we fall into the trap of what sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld called the ‘hindsight bias: when you think you already know what happened, it is not hard to invent reasons for why it had to happen. Sociologist Duncan Watts also expands on the concept of hindsight bias by noting that it is easy to create a narrative after the fact that portrays improbable outcomes as inevitable, often forgetting the complex interwoven sequence of steps preceding it. Watts also allegorizes this concept by reminding us of the history of the Mona Lisa, an almost mundane-looking painting that existed in obscurity until it was stolen in 1911 for two years before it was recovered, creating an international sensation, yet if people try to explain why the painting is so famous today, people would rather attribute it to solely its artistry instead of the historical events preceding it. Going back to the films, in Parasite, the youngest son of Mr Park, Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung), is always touted by his mother as being some sort of artistic genius, having a Basquiat-esque sense. If he does become a successful artist in the future, people would have the propensity to attribute his artistic skills and talents, instead of the fact that he has the massive luck of being born in such a privileged family that affords him art supplies, and an obsessive mother who hires an art therapist for him. This hindsight bias also applies to the bottom, a considerable amount of people attributes poverty to laziness and lack of skills, instead of simply astronomical bad luck. In Parasite, Mr Park ascribes a certain smell that he thinks is pungent to be the scent of a poor person or that of people in the subway. He jumps several steps in associating that smell with being poor, from birth or by choice, rather than the underlying poverty-driven reason of the inability to have perfect hygiene. 

The children in both of these films are more important than they seemed initially when we explore these concepts. Childhood represents a time where wealth markers and distances exist, but children are more prone to be oblivious of them. Da-song from Parasite is the closest person to the previous housekeeper of the mansion, a working-class person, and is even still in contact with her after she left, and he was the one to point out that Ki-woo and Ki-jung have the same smell as their parents, oblivious to what that smell indicates to his own parents, especially Mr Park. Although I think children take an even more central role in High and Low. The son of Gondo and the son of the chauffeur are both described to resemble one another greatly, and it is due to this resemblance that the son of the chauffeur was mistakenly kidnapped instead. They almost seem interchangeable at a glance, both children of similar personality, interests, and appearance, and yet one of them would lead a different life than the other, possessing different levels of opportunities. That is to say, sociological distances between the rich and poor seem to have the potential to be socialized and learned once growing children are aware of their place in the world. 

Meritocratic Dilemma and a Tragic End

High and Low (1963) Dir. Akira Kurosawa

In both films, there is also the prevalence of an illusion of agency and choice among the working class. In High and Low, Gondo figuratively (yet also in reality) holds the key to his chauffeur’s son’s survival by having the ransom money, and the chauffeur’s only choice is to beg Gondo and promise to pay him back. During the phone calls with the kidnapper, Gondo who holds the capital negotiates with the kidnapper despite the person kidnapped being someone else’s son. Gondo holds the future of the chauffeur and his son. In Parasite, the Kim family is under the illusion that they have finessed Mr Park’s family and infiltrated their ranks, until Kim ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) realizes at the end of the film that they have been dancing on the palm of Mr Park, enforcing the subordination of themselves.

The two films seem to portray, by varying degrees, the myth of a competitive meritocracy. Simply because competition seems to disproportionally be more intense for people at the bottom compared to the top. The competitive struggle at the top comes in the form of the quest for more power. In High and Low, Gondo conflicts with the rest of the company’s executive because of different opinions on business decisions, so he is trying to perform a takeover of the company by purchasing a majority stake. The rich family of Mr Park in Parasite is even more content and are simply enjoying their luxurious lives, absent of competition except those from the bottom such as when the Kim family “invades” their space. In contrast, life, death, and the struggle for survival are happening down below. The kidnapper in High and Low kills his accomplices through a drug overdose, and in Parasite, the Kim family kills the previous housekeeper and subdues her husband just to maintain their previously successful plan of infiltrating Mr Park’s family. The tragic ending to both films is that systemic inequality problems are continuously ignored after the events; Gondo gains the public’s trust and the media might not even care about the kidnapper’s poverty-driven motives, and the criminal acts of the Kim family overshadow their initial desperation to get out of their sub-basement apartment. The crimes of the poor become a source of dissent and nuisance rather than cries for help and change. 

References

Frank, R. H. (2016). Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

O’Falt, C. (2019). Building the ‘Parasite’ House: How Bong Joon Ho and His Team Made the Year’s Best Set. Retrieved from https://www.indiewire.com/2019/10/parasite-house-set-design-bong-joon-ho-1202185829/

Law, C. (2020). A House like Heaven: The Social Allegories of ‘High and Low’ and ‘Parasite’. Retrieved from https://reelandroll.blogspot.com/2020/02/a-house-like-heaven-social-allegories.html

Richie, D. (1970). The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

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