Holly Foxton

Class & Smell

What the Golden Age of Amsterdam and Parasite have in common

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite was not only the first South Korean film to be nominated for the Best Picture award, as well as six other Oscar nominations, it has just become the first film not in the English language to win the Film Academy’s prestigious accolade. The film acts to illustrate how the senses are often employed to widen the gap between groups. In particular, Parasite places smell at the heart of the tragedy that strikes two class-divided families, the Parks and the Kims. One of the predominant themes and plot point in the movie is that of a distinct “working class” smell that stalks the Kim family, particularly Mr. Kim Ki-Taek. Despite how the Kim family were able to present themselves as middle-class individuals, their impoverished lifestyle followed them in their wake; in their smell.


Cast of Parasite - from Wikimedia Commons - 기생충 제작보고회 봉준호감독-최우식-조여정-장혜진-박소담-이선균-송강호 2019년 4월 22일 -

In a seemingly slow-paced scene of the film, around the 1:27:00 mark, Bong Joon-ho plants the seed of conflict that determines the fate of the two clashing families, with a simple dialogue between husband and wife. 


Mr. Park Dong-ik: Where is that smell coming from?

Mrs. Choi Yeon-gyo: What smell?

P: Mr. Kim’s smell.

C: Mr. Kim? 

P: Yeah.

C: Not sure what you mean?

P: Really? You must’ve smelled it? That smell, that wafts through the car. How to describe it…

C: An old man’s smell?

P: No, no. It’s not that. What is it… Like an old radish—no. You know when you boil a rag? It smells like that. Anyways, even though he always seems about to cross the line, he never does cross it. That’s good; I’ll give him credit.

C: Yeah.

P: But that smell crosses the line. It powers right through, right into the back seat.

C: How bad can it be?

P: I don’t know. It’s hard to describe but sometimes you smell it on the subway.

C: It’s been ages since I rode a subway.

P: People who ride the subway have a special smell.


Translation from Korean to English by Tony Jaimy


As brilliant of a scene on the part of director Bong Joon-ho, smell and class have been deeply intertwined for millenia; and Amsterdam’s history differs not in the slightest.

Smell making its way into the division of class has likely existed since the first invention of perfumes and fragrances. For example in Ancient Egypt, where some of the earliest examples of perfumes have been found, such olfactory delights would have only been affordable to the rich elites. The poor and slaves would not be able to afford the fragrances to mask their labour-induced sweat. The same stigma and esteem around sweat and perfume, respectively, has maintained itself since the last 100 years or so, when perfume has become accessible to almost all income levels. Nonetheless, there is still an air of prestige to someone who smells of Chanel No. 5 versus a €3 Playboy perfume from Action. 

The Dutch historically pride themselves on their relatively egalitarian society, with typically less disparity in standard of living between different classes than in comparable countries (Dunk). Such claims have come since the Netherlands' so-called “Golden Age”, a period of supposed  wealth and cultural prosperity in the 17th century. However, the legitimacy of this is highly debatable as there will always be a difference in the way of life between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Such claims of an egalitarian society may even act to mask the ever-present inequalities between classes. 

Class divides determined by economic standing, in addition to citizenship status and gender,  was one of main authorities of inequality in the Golden Age (Phillips). For Amsterdam in particular, the tiers of classes were the wealthy elite, the middling group, the lower orders and the poor (Ibid.). Distinct borders for these strata came to be more salient between 16th and 18th century, with the advent of functional zoning in urban planning and expansion. During this period the main ring canals, such as Herengracht and Keizersgracht, with their more open spaces and larger properties, were reserved for the successful merchants and other elites. Meanwhile, odorous, and pollutive, industrial activities where the poor worked were relegated to the outskirts (Lesger & Leeuwen). This approach to urban planning is constructed around the framework of classes and their segregation; and can still be said to continue today. Places like Chinatown and a brand new business district in Zuid--though unintentional--create spaces where the air might carry distinct odours. Here, we must ask ourselves, to what extent is smell still a class-signifier in a progressive city like Amsterdam?


Herengracht in the 17th Century - Painting by Jan van der Heyden - from Wikimedia Commons -

Meanwhile, the relationship between class and smell in Amsterdam also has its own manifestations that are unique to this city. Historically speaking, the streets that crisscross and connect the main canals of the city were for the middle-classed shopkeepers and craftsmen. Most of the cities poor settled on streets absent of canals, such as Kerkstraat, or in areas outside of the canal belt. What resulted was segregation of classes predominantly on a street-by-street basis, rather than entire neighbourhoods (Ibid.). Perhaps living in proximity to those of other means and sharing outdoor spaces is what led to the feeling of egalitarianism in the Netherlands, when the actual standards of living and aromatic presence inside homes would vary significantly. 

But the question remains: if every city’s relationship between smell and class materialises differently, how can we employ a more critical lens to discuss class distinction through odour in Amsterdam, as Bong Joon-ho did in his film Parasite.