“Bad Genius (2017)” directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya, based on real-life SAT cheating, covers the exploits of four high school students and their international exam cheating scheme. “Parasite (2019)” directed by Bong Joon-ho, narrates how the struggling Kim family deceives its way into the wealthy Park family’s household. What truly connects these two films however, instead of their focus on duplicity, is their strong class consciousness and critique of capitalism, especially as it manifests in Asian nations.
ENGLISH AS SOCIAL CURRENCY
In “Bad Genius,” well-to-do Grace and Pat, students whose parents could afford to pay their prestigious high school exorbitant fees or else donate valuable assets (like a class’s worth of laptops), conspicuously have English names despite living in Thailand, contrasting with lower-class students Lynn and Bank. Parasite’s Kim Ki-woo and Kim Ki-jung, as they attempt to infiltrate the Park household as tutors, disguise themselves as “Kevin” and “Jessica.”
The possession of an English name, both in Thailand and in South Korea, confer or signal an elevated social status. It means that the possessor has traveled to or can expect to travel to English-speaking nations; it is a marker of wealth, of mobility — especially when it comes to the educational system. In “Parasite,” Kim Ki-jung (as “Jessica”) claims to have attended Illinois State University, so as to establish herself as a credible art tutor. In “Bad Genius,” Pat expects to go to Boston University (if the smart but impoverished Lynn can help him with the exams). Either way, fluency in the English language and English-language education serves as another way for the upper-class to distinguish themselves from the lower-class, emphasizing one socioeconomic group’s expansive opportunities and the other’s confinement to one place.
“Bad Genius” has Pat and Grace (and to a lesser extent, Lynn and Bank) eager to go forth to America for their education. In “Parasite” the Park family seeks out tutors fluent in English and educated in America for their children, believing them to be more talented, middle-class at least, and superior. Whether “America” as a symbol of sophistication is a place to go to, or a source of talent to bring back, it functions to separate the upper and lower class.
THE CASUAL EXPLOITATION OF THE LOWER CLASS
To use a blunt illustration: you simply cannot throw ten thousand dollars at a software engineer to make him commit a crime for you. That software engineer doesn’t need the money; she can provide for herself. The point is, you can’t use money to coerce someone who’s economically secure.
“Parasite” and “Bad Genius” both demonstrate how the offer of money is used to manipulate and pressure lower-class individuals into compromising their own morals and dignity. Mr. Park, throwing an Indian-themed birthday party for his son, tries to make his driver Kim Ki-taek act more enthusiastic about wearing a feather bonnet and participating in a humiliating and racist “Bad Indian and Good Indian” skit by reminding him that he is being paid overtime. Pat ropes Lynn and Bank into putting themselves at risk for his own academics’ sake by offering them millions of baht. From the upper class’s perspective, they can treat their workers as tools willing and able to perform any kind of service as long as enough money is funneled down to them.
What the exploited class finds most infuriating is how the rich regards them and their labor without respect. Pat expects Bank to still go along with his scheme even when Bank finds out that Pat was behind Bank’s hospitalization (which led to Bank missing his opportunity for a scholarship). The Park family, while not directly responsible for the Kim family’s troubles, expect the Kims to be at their beck-and-call right after the Kims are flooded out of their semi-basement home. Both movies show how the rich dehumanize the poor, regarding the latter as beneath notice.
The lower class, although sometimes given the opportunity to strike back at their wealthier counterparts, generally fights itself more than it fights its own oppression. Bank exposes Lynn’s cheating scheme in the beginning of “Parasite”, and at the end threatens to blackmail her if she doesn’t join his new exam-cheating scheme. The Kims, upon discovering Moon-gwang (the Parks’ old housekeeper who Kim Choong-sook replaces) and Geun-se’s existence hiding out in a bunker underneath the Parks’ basement, throws them back underground after a brutal fight which results in Moon-gwang dying of a concussion. Forced into competition for limited resources, the poor have to compete with each other for the rich’s leftovers.
In the end, both films close with the fundamental societal structures enabling the lower class’s exploitation to go untouched. Social mobility is portrayed as unattainable.
This is where “Parasite” and “Bad Genius” diverge the most in regards to how the lower class should proceed, given their position. In “Bad Genius,” Bank is shown to have profited from his participation in the exams-cheating scheme (which follows his physical abuse at the hands of Pat, indirectly), having refurbished his and his mother’s laundry service with a gleaming row of new washing machines. He probably would’ve hung on to it if Lynn didn’t confess everything, resolved to now live an honest life and become a teacher. She decides to change the system from the inside, and the rich students who profited from her work and talent are implied to soon find themselves unequipped to deal with the rigors of tertiary education. The film ends on a hopeful note; the system may not have been overturned, Lynn and Bank may not have achieved significant upwards social mobility, but the truth has been revealed and presumably action will be taken to combat corruption.
“Parasite” is much more cynical in its ending. Kim Ki-woo has a fantasy of going to college and earning enough money to buy the Parks’ house, but as the ending shot of him in his semi-basement establishes, it is nothing but a daydream. His failed venture at taking a place in the Park household establishes that no matter what the lower class tries, whether it be hard and honest work or trickery, a system where the rich favor the rich will never allow for true social mobility.
Claire Fang | firstname.lastname@example.org