Snuggled up in the nest with the cat in the dark, we settled into a day of late afternoon viewing with the 2019 Palme D’Or winning Parasite by Korean director Bong Joon Hoo, a film that has generated a lot of excitement this year and is even being tipped as a potential Best Picture possibility at the Oscars.
Although initially a bit wary of the almost farcical, exaggerated aspects of the acting that reminded me of some of the Japanese social comedies I don’t always take to (the film deals with the widely disparate stratums of South Korean society, as an impoverished family living in the basement of a house in Seoul struggling to make a living find a way to infiltrate a very wealthy, protected high class family), the brilliance of the composition, camera work, percussive, acrobatic movement and ingenious flow and pace of the madcap narrative soon put any doubts about the skill of the director in front of our eyes and we were fully immersed and LIT UP ; for me, when your reality changes when watching a film and you find yourself bouncing up and down the stairs and your own house is tinged with the membrane of the screen, you know you are in the hands of a self assured director who knows what they are doing.
The Kims live hand to mouth, day to day, even though the children (pictured) are well educated and are thus able to pose as a tutor and art therapist/child psychologist by winging it and having the devil may care balls to do so as they have nothing to lose (or so they think). Scrubbed up, they are able to hoodwink the immaculate, gullible mother and wife who dwells within an exquisite, if cavernous, piece of gated, modern architecture that is surrounded by Korean topiaries and silence. Soon ensconced in this unimaginable luxe and space the family – all of them employed, as a driver and a housekeeper after various ruses to rid the former staff – are quickly sniffed out by their social superiors: the child prodigy/mischievous imp that is the mogul and wife’s nine year old son who ‘innocently’, yet almost scornfully notes that the new staff in the house ‘all smell the same’, prompts the family, in panicked lock-down mode,to realise that they will henceforth all have to use separate washing powders/fabric softeners in order to rid themselves of their olfactory stain of poverty and kinship.
This is not easy. The smell goes deeper, is ingrained at the abode level; the odour of their ‘semi-basement’ where they fold pizza boxes for a living having permeated their pores, their skin and breath : there is no escape from it. Mr Kim, dignified, gentle, good natured (until riled and demeaned to the point where his pride and the violence endured….. I won’t give any spoilers but the film goes demented half way through; exhilarating to behold in its slapstick visceral energy)… .. humours and placates his boss; says all the right things, but ‘never crosses the line’, except, crucially, as he later confides to his wife in an astonishingly erotic and tense scene in the living room where the ‘parasites’ (or is it the other way round) are hidden unknowingly in the space in the dark, in the unavoidable terms of his smell, as the parents, invigilating their son camping alone in the garden (a mesmerising tableau, the tent glowing in the green of the night like a talisman of the 1%) are disturbed by the familiar odour of the family : ‘Where is that smell coming from? I can smell Mr Kim’…..
Mrs Park has, until this moment, not consciously noted the scent of the family living among her but after his comments that he smells like ‘a sour radish….no, a cloth that has been hung up to dry and it does cross the line‘; we also see her stoppering her nostrils when being driven by Mr Kim, who is becoming increasingly paranoid and humiliated by the smell difference that has naturally risen up between the two families because of their vastly differing economic circumstances; a feeling I am also familiar with myself (the paranoia called autobromidrophobia I have experienced a lot living here in Japan where I become neurotically hyperaware, of my smell as a Caucasian, as a perfume freak, as a man in middle age (in a country where people submit themselves to intravenous drips on a regular basis to rid themselves of their ‘old smell’; purify the blood.. ); ;I feel the would-be chauffeur’s pain and mortification keenly.
Smell separation is not only linked to racism, age, and genetic difference: as the film so adroitly encapsulates, it also, quite obviously, comes from money. Even in my neighbourhood here in Kamakura, a well-to-do area with the highest citizen’s tax in the prefecture, though our rent is dirt cheap and we live in a ramshackle bohemian horror house, you notice it: dotted among the detached houses with their cherry blossom, camellia and osmanthus trees are the ‘ko-po’, or ‘co-ops’ (we lived in one for eleven years before moving to our current house after the earthquake), and there is no doubt that the people living in them are very different. On all levels. The occupants in our old place, a worn down family of five squeezed into the apartment above the one we used to live in, are clearly of a much lower social class than their very ‘respectable’, polite and financially comfortable neighbors ; they dress in wrong sized jumble sale clothes; they smell of hair or of very strong fabric softener; fleece jackets sharing the same olfactory link. The friendly people a few doors down, in a place I snootily sometimes refer to jokingly as Skid Row because the difference is so stark to everyone around them. all smoke, and the smell of stale cigarettes is always noticeable whenever you pass by the house (another difference: they are more friendly than a lot of other people around here;always say hello to me, cigarette hanging from the mouth of the smiling, leopard-skin coated grandmother…)
But it is on the bus that the distinctions, the social separation, is the most obvious and distinct. The bus – which everyone who cannot or has no desire to walk down the hill to Kitakamakura station but instead wants the convenience of Ofuna – must take, is a place of well to do people sitting upright, chatting politely or in silence, and sometimes the more socially unfortunate get on and you can smell them : the difference is undeniable. Like the sheltered Mrs Park in her stainless whites in the back of the Mercedes Benz unsuccessfully attempting to cover her nose from the smell emanating from the person in front, the passengers on the bus (including myself) do the same – it is a natural reflex – inhuman, snobbish and judgemental though that may seem. Olfactory disdain. Smell transcending rationality.
The Kims live in a ‘semi-basement’, at street level, where drunkards piss in the street by their window, never too far from the sewerage systems that later make their existence very known ; yet there are other (a)basements…….down flights of nuclear bunker-like stairs, dungeons; replete with much greater stench coming later as the movie – a black comedy that turns into a thriller-like horror film- but simultaneously never takes itself too seriously – takes us into even worse layers of social deprivation and dirt; filth; even as the beautiful, airy, structure in which the Parks live above – the physicality of this film, the sense of place and space is brilliantly fine-tuned – you feel the verticality architecturally in your body……. represents a beautiful, clean and fragrant place you can physically, if not necessarily psychologically , breathe in freely (you just know that the interior of this house smells very pleasant: a carefully constructed place in which the inhabitants can live out their individual, isolated and lonely existences.)
The fact is, rich people do smell different. Their houses smell different. Their bodies, their clothes, their bedrooms, smell different. I know from experience. Smaller houses, with lesser means, families living together in carpeted residences, generate their own specific odours; your friends’ houses smelled alien and totally different when you were a child and you cycled round, entering an unfamiliar world that was so distinct from your own house, whose particular, uniquely familial odour you were probably immune to. Children, especially the smell sensitive, notice these things very keenly. I did. And yet, when later in life I came into contact with the more privileged, even aristocratic people I met at university and was invited to their immense, vacant, tapestried, old houses in the countryside, I was in contact with an atmosphere, both visual and olfactory, that was entirely different from the people I had grown up with. Their houses had a totally different smell; the smell of space, history, wood, heritage, furniture, gardens, stoves, pressed linens, and I suddenly realized my (lower) middle class origins very potently in comparison. At cell level. Their bathrooms smelled of blue soap placed coldly on the porcelain guest basins, with the grounds, and tall oaks, and probably deer, out beyond – not an amalgamation of all my family’s toiletries, my dad’s shaving products, our Shield soap, the Old Spice.
There are people trapped in the Parks’ house. Underground. It is claustrophobic to watch. It also put me in mind of a very strange experience I had in 2002 when house-sitting in London, in Hampstead, one of the richest areas in London, with beautiful houses and mansions all leading down to Hampstead Heath, with its views over the entirety of London and where Watership Down rabbits run freely among the brush and the trees and you feel high up and removed ; I also worked there for a while, commuting up from Brixton and would walk there; it is an area that was, and always will be, economically impossible for me to even dream about living in (not that I would want to, in all honesty – smugness bores me, with all of its fritters and rigmaroles), but it was nevertheless fascinating to be staying there, not in a bunker beneath the earth this time , but up in the attic. A place where I caught pneumonia, or rather, it had been generating in my body slowly but surely….we were both tired and listless there; but as D had gone up to Norwich to prepare for his brother’s wedding a few days later and I took over house-sitting duties I found myself alone, very sickly, unable to move, in the foetal position in the tiny bedroom upstairs, sequestered; immobile; impossible to eat, or do anything for several days, the smell of the house and its boilers – and myself ….unpleasant – something rotten despite the other slow-drying laundry and fragrances that welled up in the space to my delirious consciousness……… you could sense the class difference, vividly, at gut level, and couldn’t escape it, physically nor mentally ; osmosed into my body to the extent that just writing this now I can smell it perfectly; it will never leave me.
Eventually dragging myself, unwashed, dishevelled, to a local doctor and pleading for help, she quickly listened to my rattling lungs and diagnosed severe pneumonia. Although I am a person who never gets fevers, never; on this occasion I had left it so long that I was up to about 41 degrees and in an emergency condition; not quite there; vulnerable, susceptible and stinking ; they stripped me virtually naked to wash me down; cool me off, and I spent eight days in hospital, often in a semi-delirious state. Unable to wash for several days after, I was aware of my greasy hair, my stench, and I remember crying in gratitude when Duncan came in with emergency toiletry supplies and combed my sorry strands.
Smell consciousness is ultimately what also sets off the feverishly exhilarating denouement of Parasite, when the patriarch’s supercilious revulsion over the smell of one of the characters leads to one person being so incensed, his sense of self respect so fully shattered, a bloodbath of almost comical proportions ensues (this is not how you want a garden party to end); yet it is done in such a way as to feel dream-like, semi-comical (savage) and surreal while simultaneously making its points very clear: money does divide people. It separates people into the clean and the unclean; the privileged and the poor. This film set off fireworks in my brain, smell memories coming to the surface; the strata of olfaction that are at the base levels of intinction : how we see each other……………………………………….how we smell each other.