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.
43 responses to “THE SMELL OF SOCIAL SEPARATION”
Intravenous drips to get rid of their « old smell »?? Whoa.
You are spot on about the smell of your friends’ houses when you were a child. As soon as I read that it was instant recognition. In fact there was a girl in my class who smelled bad, just as her house smelled bad, the other kids taunted and tormented her, I was too young to be aware of how the teacher handled it but I remember it very clearly.
One of my most shameful memories is teasing someone about his smell at school. I will feel guilty forever over it.
It still haunts me.
And yes: the intravenous drips literally do exist. I don’t think I have written about it yet, but there is a thing called ‘smeru-hara’ or smell harassment, usually aimed at men by younger women who cannot abide their rank odour. People ‘purify’ themselves of these smells to smell younger.
I just use soap and perfume.
But perhaps my students smell it……I do worry…..
WOW, what a post! It left me almost in a stupor. I can also relate to it somewhat. Truly, after reading it, my head is double orbiting. It is so spot on and yet truly poetic. THANK YOU!
Really? It’s quite frustrating because I only had a designated hour to write it in as we have to leave to meet a friend in Tokyo in a minute. I HAD to get it out of my system quickly first but the parallels between my own experience and the film were rocketing through my consciousness immediately after viewing. Would you consider watching the film? We both thought it was kind of brilliant. Danger of potential triggering though I must warn you. For me it was a blast.
I would definitely be interested in watching the film if I can find it. Also, as to your post, sometimes the best things we write are spontaneous and not thought out and prepared…mostly because they come from our heart and our feelings.
I agree. This was straight from the central current: my fingers tapped at the keys ferociously at lightning speed
Your fingers tapped ferociously because you were inspired and had to put your thoughts and feelings in writing…much more meaningful then sitting in front of your computer and trying to think of something interesting to write about.
Oh god yes. I have been in that situation but not very often. That’s what mainstream magazines are usually for ! Uninspired, editor moulded verbiage.
Wow, what a very interesting and thought provoking post.
Tell me more
( you never do ….)
In what way (s)?
Until I just read your post I never really gave much thought to how we could smell to other people. I’m not talking about perfume we may use.Thinking back to when I was young….before I was about 10, my Great Aunt and Uncle had a chip shop.Their house always smelt of fish and potatoes.
When I go with my Grandaughter to visit her Indian friends,their house has a delicious spicy aroma.Lovely, warm and comforting.
That’s all I can think of for the moment X
FINALLY YOU APPEAR :
Interesting.. which city or town ?
I live about 7 miles north of Manchester UK X
Strangeways here we come..
Ha Ha. I’d hate to know what that smells like !!!!!
Interesting perceptions about smell. Your talk of Shield and Old Spice reminded me of Charlie, Elizabeth Arden’s Blue Grass, Panache by Lentheric, as well as Yardley’s White Satin and Lace. Not to mention Imperial Leather. I can still smell them! Certain smells transport me back to a particular moment in time.
I actually prefer all of these to the bullshit you often get in the perfumeries (which probably speaks volumes about my own origins..)
This is an interesting thread about a Guerlain bottle found in the Thames for you. https://twitter.com/TideLineArt/status/1204088451873816578?s=20
how utterly ( mudderly ‘), gorgeous : what scent was it actually ?
One person thought it was Mitsouko, which he said was still made today, but the Mudlark expert was not sure. She said ‘several different perfumes were used for this particular bottle. so it could be one of many, Mitsouko being one of them.. Also Shalimar, L’Heure Bleue and a couple others!’
You may also be interested to read this, something I came across:
People with autism use different brain regions than typical people do to distinguish between the scents of familiar and unfamiliar individuals. They also use more of their brain to detect odors, according to unpublished results presented today at the 2018 International Society for Autism Research annual meeting in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Both typical people and those with autism engage separate brain networks to process so-called ‘social scents’ (those from people) than to process odors from objects, the researchers found. However, the social- and object-scent networks differ between the groups.
Interesting. I have sometimes thought that I might be fortuitously on the spectrum actually, in perhaps just the right measure ( just in case you were putting this up with me in mind). Like a bouquet garni I feel like I have a pinch of spice or herb of virtually every psychological / mental abnormality under the sun but never enough to disturb the 80% ‘normal’, molten core
Everyone is unique and this should be celebrated. We all have different skills and abilities. No, I just thought the article was an interesting coincidence in what you were saying about smell.
Absolutely, and thanks for posting it.
Oh Ginza, you can not only write, you create!
Thank you for an early Christmas gift to tickle my imagination.
What a luxury your olfactory sense must be:
To my profit! I gobbled it up like a surprise bonbon.
Happy holidays et apres also for D beside or not beside a tree.
PS your house sounds wonderful, right up my taste path!
We are in the same basket, for sure.
Also, the person we have just had a lovely dinner with, Yukiro, an exquisite, polite Swedish beauty from the underground ( and the co-director of D’s films ) is going to be in Amsterdam quite soon : I would love to introduce you if that would suit you. His boyfriend is a Japanese classical composer. I have an instinctive feeling you would all love each other.
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Wish me and the D could also be there and share a hot toddy along the canals…
You make it sound imperative to see this film !(Parasite)
I live in a “family” area, of London, not too far from Hampstead actually. I suppose it’s a middle class area. I am disappointed that no one seems to smell of anything, I mean it’s really unusual to smell anyone wearing perfume. On the tube, the shops, the galleries, equally unusual, so much so that the occasional waft of something tantalising and unfamiliar, leaves me in an agony of daring to ask what they are wearing, and possibly chasing after them.
Bad smells are, as you point out, a class thing.
Visiting washing machine engineers, or builders often wear the strongest foulest aftershave.
I just wonder in general why people here are so uncultured, and disinterested in the art of perfumery.
When I went to vote last week I was wearing Femme, which aroused some interest and compliments. Giving a slight lift to a depressing day.
I’ve so enjoyed the generosity of your writing on this blog (and of course your book) over the last year, thank you!
Seasons greetings Deanna
Hello ! My siblings live in Muswell Hill and I lived in Crouch End, and yes…. precisely. So fucking dull on a daily basis.
The film… cinematic taste is as individual and personal as perfume – everyone recommended Joker to me, and it is possible I will watch it at some point, but I know in my heart I would hate it for a multiplicity of reasons so – not just now.
For me, many films are a direct hit, like an easy, fast food hamburger. The instantaneous pleasure quickly dissipates / disappears.
This film is possibly ludicrous and unbelievable, but as I write this, I have just left D in Tokyo and the rest of the social night because I need to be back in that living room and shadowed garden again.
This film is GROWING in my mind – not receding
Have you seen the French film, “The New Girlfriend”
The title doesn’t give away the secret, unless you’ve read the meagre short story by Ruth Rendell.
Superbly directed and acted, IMO
I will check it out : thanks for the recommendation.
That is a film I think I would find fascinating.
House smells. Interesting. I enjoy experiencing the house smells of other people’s; it’s not so much the enjoyment of the smells themselves, but rather just an experience of the unfamiliar. I get queasy when I smell that smell of old clothes and greasy, meaty cooking odours. I enjoy cooking smells when they’re fresh. Even garlic or onions or heavy spices. But when they’re old, layers and layers and years and years of what smells like cheap tomato sauce and ground beef . . . the horror. Or fish, yesterday’s fried fish. Oh my lord, I’m feeling that churn in my stomach just typing this.
I love the smell of old churches, of barns, of hotel lobbies, of theatres and cinemas and concert halls.
My own home is minuscule, and I am fastidious about keeping its odors pleasant. I must have a kind of displaced autobromidrophobia: I’m not worried about how I smell to other people, but how my home smells to them, that first impression. I never want it to have a whiff of “eeuch, Robin’s place doesn’t smell good.” I would be painfully self-conscious if I had what I knew was a house that smelled of anything but something fresh or neutral. Get this for odd: I won’t cook here. I go up to Ric’s (which smells like woodsmoke and furniture wax) when I want something cooked. I feel my place is too small to handle it. I’m not a clean freak by any means. I just find that it’s a small price to pay for having the luxury of walking into my cottage and inhaling the faint smell of Lampe Berger or the Japanese incense you turned me onto or lemons in a bowl or garden roses or lilacs in a vase. It’s a pleasure that never gets old. And hell, I like salads and fruit plates and find cooking for myself boring and a big chore with a small payoff. Right now I’m catching a hint of the dianthus brought in from the porch this autumn that has miraculously continued to grow in its pot. And I am happy.
I can totally relate. I have a friend coming over this evening and am paranoid about all of what you mention. Don’t have the luxury of going somewhere else to cook though!
I’m sure your square footage is quintuple mine and can much more easily diffuse day-to-day smells! Mine is a single room with a pull-down Murphy bed. I couldn’t fall asleep in a room that had the lingering smell of dinner. It’s a trade-off I’m willing to make for waterfront property in this very expensive patch of British Columbian coastal real estate. Seeing the sun set behind the Pacific and falling asleep to the rhythm of waves on the beach below is worth the culinary sacrifice.
I just thought of a Ric thing. When he was a child walking home from school and caught the smell of his mother’s infamous cabbage soup partway down the block, he would keep on walking straight past his house and be absent from the family table that evening until the air was relatively clear from the stink of hot sulphur compounds. Hardly a loyal Ukrainian boy.
My god how I love the borscht though
( this is so vivid it hurts )
I am dying to see this movie!! I love that their “smell” gives away who they really are.
It is true though, some people just give off an odeur that, while not unpleasant, is not quite what one expects, or wants to experience. I always worry that my aura is pleasurable to others, but then again, there are days I douse myself in Bal à Versailles and could give a care less😏
The film is definitely worth seeing if you take it as a ridiculous romp ( with serious undertones ); it definitely fired me up !
Just back from watching it. And the first thing I knew I had to do, on returning home, was to read this. Utterly spot on. xx
I also loved the soundtrack
Me too. It really worked. I loved the use of SPACE. It stays with you.
Oh good. I mean, it wasn’t one of my favourite films of all time or anything like that (I do find it all a bit stagey and caricature-like in some ways), but there is also a brilliant FLOW to it and it just works as a kinetic whole I think. Did you like it?
I did xx