Parasite, the hit movie co-written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, has been described as a satire, a thriller, a horror movie or a delicious revenge tale. Although it contains these elements, it is far greater than the sum of its parts.
In reality, Parasite is a rollicking in-your-face parable of modern life under late capitalism.
Living below. The film opens with an intimate look at the Kim family and their lives underground in their tiny, dank, cramped basement apartment.
Such spaces are common low-income housing in South Korea. They were originally built as fallout shelters in case of attack from North Korea. But in the face of South Korea’s rapid growth and lack of affordable housing, they were repurposed. Poet Shin Hyun-rim lived in such a basement for years and told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s the last place you descend to when you’re out of money. It felt like a grave.”
Mr. Kim, his wife and their two adult children are all unemployed and desperate for cash. As they sit in their basement and watch the drunk urinating in the street above them, a piece of luck lands in the lap of the son, Ki-woo. His friend is going abroad and needs someone to tutor the adolescent daughter of the Park family.
A study in contrasts. The Park home is a palace of light and space compared to the Kim place. Gradually, Ki-woo hatches a nefarious plot to get his whole family, pretending to be unrelated, hired by the Parks.
Within days, Ki-woo has introduced his sister Ki-jung to Mrs. Park, who hires her to be an art therapist for the family’s son. Ki-jung has supposedly mastered the subject, but actually made a quick Google search.
The Kims then engineer replacing Mr. Park’s driver with Mr. Kim. Finally, they supplant the housekeeper with Ki-woo’s mother.
The Kims can’t believe their good fortune. They settle into their new roles and for a while, everyone is happy. But soon the plan begins to unravel. The Parks go camping for the weekend and the Kims relax and enjoy the Park mansion.
First, the original housekeeper shows up and a vicious struggle between two desperate families develops. The Kims have no sooner won out, when Mrs. Park calls the house to say they have been rained out and will be arriving home in eight minutes.
There follows a mad dash to clean up or hide the evidence of their party. In the end, they run out of time and must squeeze under the furniture while the Parks make out above them.
The symbolism in Parasite is ever-present but never preachy. There’s the obvious imagery of below vs. above. This is borne out with constant comparisons between the Kim and Park homes.
But it extends further. There is a scene where the Kim family is folding pizza boxes to raise a little money. The company supervisor arrives to announce the pizza boxes are not folded correctly. She lectures the family on their sloppy work until you, the audience member, want to throttle her. Who hasn’t been dressed down by an arrogant boss? Again, the Kims are on the bottom rung of society, not worthy of even a little respect.
Maintaining the status quo. A major message of the film is that everything is okay — for the rich — as long as everyone stays in their place and does not “cross the line,” as Mr. Park likes to say.
Twice Mr. Park mentions the peculiar odor of Mr. Kim and says he comes close to the line but does not cross it. Presumably, Mr. Kim treads just this side of propriety.
In fact, once you get to the last quarter of the film, you have heard the lesson loud and clear. As soon as people step out of line and challenge the status quo, all hell breaks loose.
In the end, it is impossible to know who is the true parasite — the Kims with their schemes or the Parks with their self-important and unquestioned privilege.
The ending is so shocking that reviewing it would spoil it. Suffice it to say that it features a head-on collision between the two families, not to mention the emergence of the original housekeeper’s deeply-indebted husband, who has been living in a hidden fallout shelter below the Park basement.
There is a reason Parasite has received such acclaim. It speaks to the universal problem in today’s world of a nearly unbridgeable gap between rich and poor. It applies in every aspect of life, from housing, or lack of it, to education, food, employment and even access to relaxation and beauty. With humor and fearlessness, Bong Joon-ho helps us look on the dark side.
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