Editor’s Note: This review discusses major plot details of the film.
There have recently been incredible films about the dark sides of race relations, in comedy, high drama, and even horror; Beautiful and poignant masterpieces that tackle the lives and struggles of the LGBTQ communities throughout different points of history; great works of fiction and documentary regarding the plight of women in a patriarchal society, in the East and West, North and South; And of course, potent images showcasing the injustices and excesses of capitalists and politicians in power. But unfortunately, there have still not been enough movies that fully commit into a phenomenon as insidious and as painfully universal as class dynamics and inequality. Several titles in recent years cover it in some ways, but most of these denouncements get obscured in the subtext, in what is simply implied, or only offer us a superficial view. It’s unfortunate, really, considering that the issues of class division run very deep in our societies, and now they’re more relevant and urgent than ever.
However, we’ve seen two of the most brilliant examples on how to explicitly depict the symptoms of inequality, and especially, class rage, in East Asian cinema. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning studies the deep-seated resentments and the notable psychological differences between rich and poor, and last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters, which paints a raw, profound portrait of poverty and how adversities shape family loyalty. But in the other hand, while those movies explore these themes with an intimate, at times tender lens, with clear aesthetic and textual directions and an austere approach, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is an exquisitely wild, gleefully maximalist, and masterfully eclectic display of cinematic power— a film like no other this year, or ever. Parasite is a film that can only be made by a personality as forward-thinking as its South Korean creator.
The film begins with perhaps one of the most honest recent depictions of a family barely scraping by to survive; they live in a basement in a rough section of Seoul, the electricity gets cut from time to time, they struggle to get a wi-fi signal from a nearby cafe, as they eat leftovers and junk food, or whatever they can with the small income they acquire from folding pizza boxes. The head of the family, Kim Ki-taek, is a former driver that becomes a pariah to society due to his age; his wife, Chung-sook is a former athlete, and their children, the charismatic Ki-woo and his sister Ki-jung, are two talented, astute kids that have been disenfranchised, sidetracked by the competitive, stress-inducing educational systems and the capitalist myth of meritocracy.
The vulnerable circumstances of this household could have been used as foil to attract our sympathy, but Bong keeps unfolding this story to reveal the nuances and contradictions of such embattled environments. Poverty is misery, there is no way around it. It’s a whirlwind of shame, hurt, and hunger. It crushes the soul and distorts your entire worldview. It feels as if everyone is raging a war against you, which is why this family is willing to do whatever they can to make ends meet. They have to be resourceful, cunning, manipulative, even treading the waters of illegality. There is not much space for moral reflection when you can’t guarantee tomorrow’s meal. Ki-woo gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, working for a rich family. He scams his way into becoming the English tutor for the rich high-school girl Da-hye, in turn giving him access to a reality he or his family haven’t experienced before. He needs this to have a better life, which is why he does not hesitate in slowly infiltrating his parents and sister into the Park mansion, without the Park’s knowledge.
Here is when the film becomes an absolute visual feast; Bong starts gradually unfolding the proceedings of the great scam with the methodical sharpness of a heist film, but combining it with the precision and the symmetry of Kubrick’s most exuberant outings, the passionate pace of Fincher at his most musical, and even the sobering ominousness of the masters of Asian sociological horror. Ki-jung becomes the small child’s art teacher, acting as a worldly art therapist who convinces the gullible mother that he’s a schizoid, misunderstood genius. She later performs a subtle trick to get Mr. Park’s young driver fired, quickly recommending his father’s services at the wheel. Ki-taek, with his experience and charisma eventually becomes kind of a confidant for his boss, establishing an interesting relationship as they find some common ground as heads of a family, despite their opposite social standings. Ki-woo realized that the only real obstacle to get his whole family hired is the housekeeper, Moon-gwang. She has served this family ever since they moved in, as a recommendation of the previous owner, which means she’s been here way before the Parks. He discovers she has a severe peach allergy and uses it to his advantage; one quick TB scare tactic later, she’s forced to resign. The Mother comes in and the plan is complete.
But here is when things get complicated, and when the film itself becomes most impressive. As we all know from the best heist movies, even the most carefully constructed plans end up giving hints or clues, things never go exactly as calculated, and there is much, much more to these dynamics than mere wolves and sheep. Da-hye has previously shown feelings for Ki-woo, and he has reciprocated, turning it into a de facto clandestine affair. Da-song finds that the four share the same smell, hinting at the possibility of all living together, but most importantly, there is a big reveal that upends their complete understanding of where they really are. From this moment on, Bong begins to unfold the true dimensions of the theme expressed in the title; we find that the Kim family’s process of infestation is not unique to them, even in this particular host, and that other people in need can resort to parasitism in times of despair. The Park mansion, an architectural wonder in itself, designed by the previous owner, turns from a mere spectator, a kind of silent character, into a beautiful metaphor of the structures of society, of the nooks and crannies where the dispossessed hide, in the margins, away from the green gardens, the warm beds, and the wide-open playgrounds. The Kims receive the ultimate show of trust from the Parks; while they go out in a camping trip to appease young Da-song, the house is left to Chung-sook’s care. The rest of the family enters, to drink, eat, sleep comfortably and celebrate.
In the middle of the night, Moon-gwang rings the bell, claiming she has left something in the basement. Chung-sook lets her in and follows her downstairs, only to discover that the old woman’s husband, Geun-sae, has been hiding there, living off the food that his wife occasionally provides, sleeping in a hard bed, living off of the Parks as well. But this is where the complexities of the class divide show their ugly face. Two families in need, having nothing but themselves and whatever resources they have to survive, two fellow marginalized units navigating the same exact set of contradictions, do not see each other as fellows, but as common threats. The former housekeeper tells Chung-sook that Geun-sae has been hiding here for 4 years, to avoid loan sharks after a business misfortune, to which she reacts by threatening to call the police. In an act of desperation, Moon-gwang begs Chung-sook to reconsider, because the needy should help each other, but she replies with the petulant “I’m not in need” and doubles down on the threat. The rest of the family, eavesdropping nearby, trip and fall to the floor, which flips the script. Now Moon-gwang uncovers the Kims’ ruse, and she has the upper hand, after recording video footage of them, and she threatens to send it to the Parks.
A long, beautifully shot scramble for control ensues, and the Kims manage to confine their rivals back in the basement, the phone rings, the Parks are heading back home because a storm botched their plans. They start cleaning up, and disappear, salvaging whatever they can and going home, only to find out their basement flat has been completely flooded, completely destroyed by the storm. In a sequence for the ages, we see the Kims unsuccessfully trying to save the house, the dark waters coming from the toilet and sewers taking over the entire space. They seek their most valuable possessions, and leave.
The storm itself offers a poetic but frontal reflection on the disparity of both families’ material conditions. While it merely botches the Parks’ day-off, the same phenomenon ruins the Kims’ entire livelihood. One family gets to return to comfort and rest, a shower, a change of clothes, and back to bed. Tomorrow is just another day, and nothing changes. Privilege at its purest. The other family has lost everything; they have no home, nowhere to go, forced to stay on a gymnasium/shelter and reflect on their misery. Among the few things they managed to rescue, Ki-woo keeps a big “lucky rock”, given to him by a friend to “attract wealth and fortune”. He clings to this rock, almost obsessively, his only piece of hope in a cruel world that has once again pushed them aside. There is always an element of faith in the downtrodden, and this is evident here, the same way poor peoples in all corners seek refuge in religion, and comfort in the company of those we love. Back in the Parks’ basement, Moon-gwang dies from the concussions resulting of their fight with the Kims, leaving Geun-sae alone, and above all, angry.
In the film’s climax, the ultimate conflagration takes place, as these three sides of the puzzle clash, in a perfectly synchronized ballet of aggression and crude emotions. The day after the storm, Mrs. Park throws a birthday party for Da-sung, and invites the Kims. Ki-woo decides to sneak in his large rock and finish the job on their enemies. However, Geun-sae ambushes him, cracking his head open with his own amulet. Appearing from the depths of the mansion, like a classic horror monster emerging from the mist, Geun-sae proceeds to execute his final act of hatred and madness. From Geun-sae’s presence alone, Da-sung faints. Geun-sae brutally stabs Ki-jung and then challenges Chung-sook, while Ki-taek rushes to stop his daughter’s bleeding. She unsuccessfully tries to take his knife, and Mr. Park intervenes, stabbing Geun-sae. In the confrontation, Mr. Park yells at Ki-taek for the keys, which he throws near the attacker’s agonizing body, and as he looks for them, he recoils from his “poor man’s smell”. Only in this instant, we see a moment of true class consciousness. Only here is when Bong Joon-ho deliver his final punch, and by far his most devastating. Ki-taek realizes he’s living in the middle of a big charade; his family is poor, underserved, and marginalized, and they will never be like the Parks. He realizes that Geun-sae’s smell is like his own, that he has more in common with this troubled, abandoned man who has nothing left but his rage.
He sees Mr. Park’s disgust at this individual as a reminder that this is what high society thinks of low-lifers like him. This is exactly what he represents. After all, Mr. Park is also living in a fantasy provided by his wealth and comfort. Ki-taek knows that this party is a charade as well, that the Park husband only feigns his love for his wife, and that she doesn’t really know her children. All of those thoughts he had about the rich being nice and noble simply because they’re rich suddenly shatter. The rich don’t care about them. They will never do. They are complicit in the war that is waged against them every single day. And in this instant of lucidity, he sinks the knife into Mr. Park’s chest, and amidst the shock and the confusion, he vanishes.
The film ends with a narration by Ki-woo, who reveals that he spent a long time in hospital, that the family was tried in court and sentenced with probation, and that Ki-jung died from her wounds. They return to the basement flat, and they’re still trying to make a living. He develops a condition in which he can’t control his nervous laughter, resulting from the trauma, but he still has hope to lead a better life, and that he still looks at the Park mansion from afar. In the film’s final stroke of genius, he sees a flickering light going off spasmodically in the yard, like a message from a ghost. He deducts that its morse code, and proceeds to decipher. It’s his father, who lets him know that he’s still living as a parasite, hiding in the basement, as Geun-sae did, living off the food he steals from the new owners, confined to the shadows. There is no place for him out there, and he is in peace with that reality. The son, in an ambiguous sequence, in which it’s never really clear if this is truth or daydream, replies. He promises that one day he will earn enough money to buy this very house, thus freeing his father. In spite of this maelstrom of adversity, of brutal violence, even after losing half of his family in the process, Ki-woo never loses hope. He never stops daydreaming. It invokes the universal truth that all a poor man really possesses are his faith and his fury.
Parasite is, first and foremost, an impeccable, heavy, well-balanced, stunningly shot and edited picture. We have witnessed Bong Joon-ho’s magical virtuosity and the range of visual techniques, genre tropes and narrative turns, but here he has far exceeded all expectations. The way both text and image take you by the throat and destroy your heart is mystifying, but it’s in the nuances and shades where this work truly transcends. Bong confronts one of the most pressing issues of our time head on, fearlessly, and in the most compelling of ways. He uses the interwoven stories of these individual families and their relation to highlight that the real source of their problems is structural. There is no connection between rich and poor. In hyper-capitalist, fiercely competitive, Confucian-values-based South Korea—a nation who ceaselessly sells itself to the world as a beacon of success and prosperity—the social pariahs, the losers, and parasites get swept under the rug. And the poor are conditioned to direct the resentments and the hate at ourselves, fighting each other over the leftovers of the wealthy. We’re ideologically forced into class betrayal, and this alienation has distracted us from true solidarity, and it has distracted us from seeing the real enemy; not an individual Park family, but the metaphorical house itself, and the way it’s built on the backs of our suffering.
Parasite is the most powerful, most important, most essential film of 2019, a perfect distillation of style and substance, an ideal conclusion for such an amazing decade for Asian cinema.