Common aromas: how a Parasite puts smells at the heart of class warfare

You can’t hide from smell in Parasite. It’s oppressive. It clings to you, seeping into your skin. It is omnipresent and sinister. Beyond being a mere symbol of social status, the smell threatens to expose one’s identity and the dark secrets lurking beneath. How did Bong Joon-ho make undetectable scents so indispensable to his film?

The film, set in modern-day Seoul, depicts the down-on-their-luck, basement-dwelling Kim family as they inveigle their way into becoming servants for the affluent Park family. As the Kims begin ascending the social ladder, the lies they have engineered are threatened with exposure. Smell is central to this twist of fate.

In Parasite, social inequalities are explored not through money or codes of conduct. The word “poor” is never uttered. Instead, the Kims’ social standing is revealed through body odours and scents. A pivotal moment comes when the Parks’ young son, Da-song, comments quizzically to his parents that the new driver and housekeeper “smell the same”.

In Parasite, smell shifts its note. In an earlier scene, the Kims’ apartment is inadvertently fumigated by street cleaners. The stench is welcomed as a cleanser by Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho). But it becomes a barrier to the Kims’ social climbing, driving tension and posing a silent threat that could expose them. As Mr Park (Lee Sun-kyn) begins to notice these unsettling aromas, the audience also become hypersensitive to their presence. The Parks’ privileged position leaves them feeling entitled to dictate which smells “cross a line”. The audience is left stuck in the middle.