Parasite received much attention after it collected top awards at the Oscars last month. The film is an engrossing and fable-like story that lingers in your thoughts long after the credits play.
Set in South Korea, the dark comedy follows the lower-class Kim family who, seeking to escape their poverty, infiltrate lives of the upper-class Park family by posing as a chauffeur, housekeeper, art therapist and tutor.
Critics have thoroughly unpacked the film’s dominant themes of wealth disparity and social inequality depicted by the two families, but I was struck by something they shared: isolation.
The Kim family lives in squalid conditions in a basement apartment. They have no significant relationships outside of each other. The Park family lives behind a locked gate in an expansive house, where they further isolate themselves in their individual spaces. They too have no real relationships outside of their family unit.
This isolated nuclear family is a common aspect of Western culture and in countries heavily influenced by the Western world, like South Korea. By taking the concept to the extreme, Parasite lays bare the fragility and vulnerability of this idealized unit.
In “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake” published this month in The Atlantic, David Brooks argues that this family structure, which prior to last century was not the norm, has actually been catastrophic.
“We’ve moved from big, interconnected and extended families, which help protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which . . . ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor,” writes Brooks.
The nuclear family operates by a code of self-sufficiency. People are less likely to visit siblings and parents, and less inclined to help than in the past.
When flood waters breach those barriers (which they literally do in Parasite), the rich can stave off the wreckage — for a while. They can afford to buy what extended family used to provide. Those further down the income scale cannot.
With good intentions, many Western churches perpetuate nuclear family idealization. But this every-family-is-an-island mentality not only keeps us from forming the significant, family-like relationships to which Jesus calls us, it also perpetuates wealth, racial and social disparities in the church.
Brooks says we can’t, and shouldn’t, go back. Instead, we need to change the way we think.
“We think of kin as those biologically related to us,” says Brooks. “But throughout most of human history, kinship was something you could create.”
We see it in the New Testament families made up of brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, sons and daughters not by biology but by the blood of Jesus.
“For decades we have been eating at smaller and smaller tables, with fewer and fewer kin,” Brooks concludes. “It’s time to find ways to bring back the big tables.”
Parasite leaves me wondering not only how extended families might have changed the fate of the Kims and Parks, but how we can cross the barriers of our own individual and family islands to sit at the larger tables to which Jesus beckons us.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.