Smell Matters: A Critical Reading of 'Parasite'

What makes Parasite a compelling film is its depiction of the transgressive potential of the body, specifically, of smell. 

The Oscar-winning South Korean film Parasite has deservedly been showered with critical praise and adoration. Glowing reviews have laid out the various cinematic achievements of the film and highlighted the themes that director Bong Joon-ho tackles in this masterpiece. We propose that although these reviews have accurately and eloquently reflected upon the many virtues of the film, almost all of them have missed the central reason that makes Parasite so compelling: its depiction of the transgressive potential of the body, specifically, of smell. 

This is not an accident. It is one thing to say Parasite targets the rotten reality of class inequality, as most reviews on the film do, but to see how the film turns on the human body requires stepping aside from the dominant perception informing our understanding of structures of inequality, such as class. We often think of these structures—class, caste, race, and gender—as abstract forces bearing down on our everyday interactions but not as a form of violence that is inscribed on the human corpus. The body bears witness to the violence of these structures everywhere and across time, not just in South Korea and its capitalist society. And, because Parasite foregrounds this witnessing of the body through smell, it is a film for all places and all times.

“That smell crosses the line,” the indignant bossman tells his fragile and gullible wife at one point in the movie, as the members of the basement-dwelling Kim family start to take over their rich lives, one faked skill set at a time. Smell crosses the line, it is important to remember, on its own, and despite the Kims’ best efforts. It is as out of their control as their poverty. The poor have their cunning to thank for their survival, but their body will betray them. The transgressive potential of the body does not depend on the subject’s intention, for better or worse. This is why the eruption of violence at the end of the movie takes everyone, including the perpetrators themselves, by surprise. Lines are crossed definitively and permanently before there is time to discipline the bodies. This is usually what we mean when we say “everything happened so fast” with reference to violence.

Let us think of a different place and a different time than late capitalist South Korea.

James Baldwin (1984) writes of the Black-American experience as one where the stench of the “nigger,” not the “Negro” or the African American, is ever-present:

“The ‘nigger,’ black, benighted, brutal, consumed with hatred as we are consumed with guilt, cannot be thus blotted out. He stands at our shoulders when we give our maid her wages, it is his hand which we fear we are taking when struggling to communicate with the current ‘intelligent’ Negro, his stench, as it were, which fills our mouths with salt as the monument is unveiled in honor of the latest Negro leader.” (Emphasis added)

Understanding the discursive construction of the smell of the African American, in Baldwin’s uncompromised expression: “the stench,” goes a long way in understanding the structure of racial inequality in contemporary America. There is nothing that threatens racial inequality, founded on the doctrine of the differential value of the human body, than the very body’s potential to make short work of the distances erected by the ideology of race. Interracial sexual relationships continue to shake at the subterranean foundations of American society, as Jordan Peele’s Get Out showed recently, precisely because of the unsettling that bodily interactions may cause. Obversely, in a recent United States court order, Johnson & Johnson was held responsible for the failure to put warning labels on their talcum products despite potential cancer risks being known since 1979. Internal company communication demanding more aggressive marketing, specifically targeting African American women, was revealed (Tinsley 2016). Jacqueline Fox, the African American woman who died of ovarian cancer after 40 years of using baby powder as vaginal deodorant, was the first plaintiff to receive compensation from the company. The body transgresses, but it also bears witness to profound violence.

Writing from the front lines of the Algerian war of independence from French colonialism, Franz Fanon (1963) reveals why the body always figures so centrally in the dreams of the native individual—he dreams he is jumping, swimming, running, climbing; that he is pursued by motor cars that never catch up with him, or that he crosses a river in one giant stride. In the world of settler colonialism that requires the colonial subject to “stay in his place,” the native’s dreams are always that of bodily transgression of the limits imposed on him. “..The dreams of the native are always of muscular prowess; his dreams are of action and of aggression,” Fanon writes.

Another example is that of “our modernity” (Chatterjee 1997) here, in India, reeking with the stench of caste. The substantial body of work on caste in India seems to have left the question of odour untouched, even as untouchability has been examined in great detail. This question must have at least equal salience as the other sociological and discursive factors in our attempts to understand caste.[1] It complicates our understanding of caste in productive ways that go beyond the familiar frameworks of “purity/pollution” and “touch/distance.” The question of odour opens the door to a critical framework that can investigate the various discourses of smell that traverse the landscape of caste in India: for instance, the discursive circulation of meen manam (fish-stench) in Kerala, or majju vasana (smell of marrow) in Andhra Pradesh.  These discourses of smell have historically excluded, distanced and ultimately dehumanised the men and women of the labouring poor and the lower castes, and it is time we actively reckoned with this fact.

In the eruption of violence at the end of Parasite, the father Kim loses his hitherto jovial and agreeable persona at a specific moment: when faced with the squeamish reaction of the bossman to the body odour of a fellow basement dweller. He snaps, and in a final act of crossing over to the world of his master, gives himself over to violence. He simply stamps his conscious agency over something that he and his fellow basement dwellers have already gotten in trouble for: the unintentional transgression of their bodies, specifically their smell, into the elegant world of the bossmen and their beautiful wives.

We might add a new category to Marx’s famous “freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman” formulation, that of the “aboveground and the underground,” after Parasite’s exposition of South Korean society’s fissures. What makes the movie truly significant is the fact that its central anchor—the transgressive potential of smell—renders it relevant across all the categories Marx deploys to emphasise the universality of his schema.  

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