by Vaughn Swearingen
This article is a deep dive into the 2019 movie Parasite. It includes major plot points, characters, and the ending. It is not recommended to read this if you have not seen the movie, but I highly recommend that you do see it and then return to this article! Parasite is available to rent or purchase now on all major streaming platforms.
Low down in the slums of South Korea, a family sits in their semi-basement home, scrounging for a nearby wi-fi hotspot to leech off of so they can get a quick gig folding pizza boxes just to eat dinner that night. Through their small, filthy, ground level window, behind prison-like bars, they only see poverty. Rows of houses, power lines, drunks peeing in the street, and toxic fumigation to rid the neighborhood of pests. The family sticks together to fight for survival, but they’re barely scraping by. They have their sights on brighter days and bigger things, and when the opportunity presents itself, the family forms a plan.
This is how Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite innocently begins, but there’s a lot more in store for everyone involved. Throughout his career, Bong has always had a penchant for strong social commentary. His breakout hit Memories of Murder wove social commentary about the morality and obsession of police work into a thrilling crime drama, Snowpiercer tackles classism in the form of a dystopian action sci-fi movie, and Okja questions the ethics of consumerism and the meat industry within an adventure movie about a girl and her massive “super-pig”. The list goes on, but Bong has never been one to shy away from including pointed and incisive commentary into his work. Parasite spends its 132 minute runtime diving deep into class, capitalism, and the state of the world. When asked about the international success of his movie, Bong said “I think that’s because, while on the surface the film features very Korean characters and details, in the end it’s as if we’re all living in this one country of capitalism.” Parasite recently won four Oscars at the 2020 Academy awards, including best original screenplay and best picture, and deservedly so. Let’s examine its breakdown of the “country of capitalism”.
Parasite’s strong point, and what these themes and metaphors rely so heavily on, is its use of contrast - telling a weaving, twisted story of rich and poor, showing the stark differences in their ways of life, both through narrative and visuals. Their homes are crucial to this visual representation of class, as the Kims suffer in their cluttered, semi-basement home while the Parks revel in the sunshine warming the sprawling garden outside of their beautiful mansion. While the Kim family’s window is grimy, small, and prison-like, letting in only toxic fumes and torrential floods, the Park family’s window is clean, massive and pristine, an unobstructed view of the beauty and sun outside. While the Kims are open to a disgusting, poverty stricken world, the Parks are walled off by trees and shrubbery, beautiful and idyllic blue skies are all they see. This is part of Bong’s statement on the rich - not only do the Parks live a cushy life in a beautiful home, but they’ve shut themselves away from being able to see those below them. They ignore the poverty of their city. This closed off life is exactly what makes it so easy for the Kim family to “infiltrate” their idyllic life and cause pandemonium. As family friend Min (Park Seo-jun) says to young Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) early on, Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) is “young and simple.” She quickly trusts Ki-woo, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and subsequently Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), and Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), because, as Bong himself puts it, “she trusts people too easily because she’s never experienced anything bad happen to her.” From her home, obstructed from the realities of life, Mrs. Park is blissfully ignorant. As Chung-sook later comments, “Not ‘rich, but still nice.’ She’s nice because she’s rich. You know? Hell, if I had all this money. I’d be nice too! Money is an iron. Those creases all get smoothed out.” It’s not far from reality. Despite what many of us are told throughout our lives, capitalism creates a society where more often than not, money does buy happiness. It does iron out those creases. When you live a carefree life, what reason is there to be mean? What reason is there to assume anyone’s out to get you? For the less fortunate, the inverse is true - when you’re all fighting for survival, and you know you have those creases, it’s easy to assume everyone else does too.
This is Parasite’s commentary on capitalism’s inherent flaws. It can be summed up by this quote from author E.L. Doctorow, in which he says “I am often asked the question of how the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few. The answer is by being persuaded to identify with them.” Part of the struggle of those in poverty is often that they see themselves as better than where they are, and indeed this ends up being the demise of the Kim family. Their reach exceeds their grasp - they don’t just want to climb out of poverty, they want to become one of “the few”. They view themselves as only temporarily impoverished. Ki-woo dreams of marrying into the family, Ki-jung plots to steal their home. Their overreaching idealistic views of themselves lead to them fighting with their “fellow members of the needy”, rather than working with them. Some of Bong’s other films, notably The Host and Snowpiercer - similarly play off of this theme. In these films, victory comes from the less fortunate working together towards a common goal. In Parasite, however, the poor families don’t want to admit their commonalities. Both the Kims and the basement-dwelling duo of Moon-gwang (Lee Jeung-eun) and Geun-se (Park Myung-hoon) want to believe they are above the other. Each family looks down on the other for leeching off of the Park family, Chung-sook shocked by Geun-se’s basement life and Moon-gwang’s food thievery, and Moon-gwang shocked by the “family of charlatans” who have infiltrated this home. Whether it be a refusal to see themselves for who they truly are or a blindness to seeing the similarities in their situations, they begin to fight amongst themselves, torn apart by capitalistic desire. This fighting, driven by their own misplaced desires, is the downfall of them all.
Geun-se’s violence towards the Kims is driven by his identification as a member of the Park family - a misplaced respect for a man who doesn’t know he exists. Geun-se’s life has forced him to accept a system that has failed him, a common thread between both him and Kim Ki-taek. A life of struggle against a system that had no respect for him led to him making a poor decision (borrowing from loan sharks to open a shop that ultimately failed, leaving him in debt to dangerous people) that drove him underground. His only escape from that danger is to resign himself to poverty, accepting a life at the bottom. “I feel comfortable here,” Geun-se remarks. He respects Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) for unwillingly feeding and housing him, a respect that is not reciprocated. He fights and kills Ki-jung to defend a man whose only response to his existence is to be horrified by his stench. Why should the impoverished have so much respect for those at the top who blind themselves to the existence of these people, only allowing them to survive on the scraps that fall from their plate?
The Kim family, particularly Mr. Kim, are constantly disrespected and looked down upon for being less fortunate than the Park family. Even the pizza company employees look down on the semi-basement family, as Chung-sook retorts “you can’t even afford a box folder!” Mr. Park’s inherent lack of trust in Mr. Kim leads to him condescendingly testing his driving abilities, despite telling him it wasn’t a test. Both Mr. and Mrs. Park are constantly offended by the smell of the Kim family, a smell Ki-jung attributes to their semi-basement, a symbol of their poverty. It bothers the Parks that the Kim family smells poor. “That smell crosses the line,” Mr. Park comments. When the Kim family is trapped underneath the living room table, they are forced to listen to Mr. and Mrs. Park have sex, demeaning on its own, but then they begin to play out a fantasy where the couple begins to fetishize being poor, Mr. Park asking his wife to wear Ki-jung’s cheap panties, and Mrs. Park asking her husband to buy her drugs. To them, the life that the Kim family lives every day is simply a sexual fantasy they can play out in the confines of their wealth. This constant disrespect towards the impoverished from the rich is a marker of the world that capitalism creates - one where money is the only dividing line between people.
Bong’s film goes out of its way to note that if you remove money from the situation, there is little difference between the Parks and the Kims. Chung-sook is a high ranking shot put competitor, Ki-jung is a talented artist, Ki-woo is skilled with English, and Ki-taek, despite their struggles, has always found a way to provide for the family. The Kims are not impoverished due to a lack of skill, or lack of effort, they were simply born into a class that is nearly impossible to escape from, try as they might. Being a skilled athlete doesn’t always make you millions, and artistic or higher education endeavors can be difficult to pursue without the cash to back them. The older generation is starting to come to terms with the fact that their station is inescapable, a fact an already dejected Ki-taek comes to face with time and time again throughout the course of the film. However, the younger members of the family still have stars in their eyes, hopeful and confident they can achieve the dream life that capitalism promises to every hard working human in its grasp. Particularly Ki-woo, our young, optimistic hero who helps set the film into motion.
Early in the film, Min arrives at their semi-basement home, presenting the family with an unusual gift. Known in Korea as suseok, “scholar’s rocks” became popular in east Asia thousands of years ago, and have remained a part of Korean culture to today, but younger generations are finding an ever decreasing amount of interest in them. Bong’s choice to include one in his movie was “deliberately strange”, he said. Upon receiving the stone from Min, Ki-woo exclaims “this is so metaphorical!” and the stone remains integral to the rest of the film’s story. Min tells the family the stone is “meant to bring material wealth to families,” a hopeful and promising idea, but is it true? Capitalism gives us similar promises, dreams that tell those growing up in first world countries that anyone can achieve wealth and prosperity through intelligence and hard work, that anyone can achieve anything. And yet the years go by, with hundreds of millions of intelligent adults working hard, while the richest 1% owns half of the world’s wealth. These promises are not unlike the promises a simple rock provides - ultimately empty and meaningless, yet powerful to those who don’t understand the truth, which is that the system will never allow you to achieve those goals.
Ki-woo’s scholar’s rock is a representation of capitalistic society, an ideal that clings to you, promising something better, yet constantly weighing you down. It’s heavy and dangerous, something that follows you but beats you down just when you think you may have it all figured out. After torrential rains flood the Kim family home, Ki-taek finally accepts his fate in life. “You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan at all. You know why? If you make a plan, life never works out that way. Look around us… That’s why people shouldn’t make plans. With no plan, nothing can go wrong.” Ki-taek’s life has been filled with plans - jobs, businesses, he used to be as idealistic as his son before he realized that all of his plans had failed after 50-some years of trying. But Ki-woo, ever hopeful, still clings to the rock, assuring his father he will take care of everything. “It keeps clinging to me. I’m serious. It keeps following me,” he remarks. The rock, like capitalism, clings to him, feeding off of his hopes, his dreams, his ideals. Like a parasite.
Ultimately, the rock is Ki-woo’s downfall, and nearly kills him. The rock is returned to a stream, water flowing around its immobile form like money flowing around the impoverished. The film ends on Ki-woo’s hopeful dreams, writing a letter to his father of his new plan. A plan to work hard, become wealthy, as wealthy as the Park family was, and buy their home, where his father now resides hidden in the basement. A plan to change his station in life, become a new man, and save his father from his prison. But if you make a plan, life never works out that way. The film ends on a sobering reminder of this truth.
Low down in the slums of South Korea, a young man and his mother sit in their semi-basement home. Through their small, filthy, ground level window, behind prison-like bars, they only see poverty.