WARNING: Lots and lots of spoilers ahead! If you haven’t watched Parasite, go do that first! Or don’t — it’s your life.
Deep into the second act of Bong Joon-ho’s twisty and cutting 2019 thriller, as Kim Ki-woo lies in a sleeping bag on the floor of a dingy public gym, he turns to his father, Kim Ki-taek, and asks, “Dad, what was your plan?” The older man stares up at the ceiling — the dim, blue light barely illuminating his face — and answers, “Ki-woo, you know what kind of plan never fails? No plan at all. No plan.”
This quiet exchange mirrors the erratic, downwards spiral of the Kim family in Parasite, but simultaneously contradicts the never-wavering grasp of director Bong Joon-ho’s vision. He leads the film with frightening precision; every shot is deliberate. Each meticulously placed detail, from the deadly vials of peach fuzz to the blood splatters that stain the bread at Da-song’s birthday party, indicates a clear message: Bong has a plan.
The genius of Bong Joon-ho’s latest masterpiece is not lost on critics, and perhaps we all should have seen it coming, particularly with 2009’s Mother and 2013’s Snowpiercer. Parasite won the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival with a unanimous vote, and also garnered four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film. The international sensation also won a Golden Globe Award for the Best Foreign Language Film, and Bong received the Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Director.
His latest movie continues to expand foreign influence on American cinema — it is the first foreign film to ever win the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Bong is South Korean, but his wild success can be attributed to the universality of his work, as seen in Parasite. The characters may speak Korean, but their motives and actions illustrate the greed that binds us all.
The film opens with the Kim family folding pizza boxes for pennies in a dirty semi-basement, leeching off their neighbors’ wifi. Father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) are egregiously poor. However, despite the anger they feel in their financial situation, they retain hope. When an old friend presents Ki-woo with the chance to tutor the daughter of the wealthy Park family, he jumps on the opportunity for some extra income, with the help of a few forged documents and lots of deceit. This acts as a catalyst for the rest of the movie. One by one, each Kim family member replaces previous workers of the Park family, never revealing to the Parks that they are related.
It is difficult to box Parasite into one genre. The movie begins with a deceptively light tone; it lets the audience sink into the comfort of a comedy-heist, before Bong pulls the rug from underneath our feet, and the plot takes an unexpected turn for the sinister. Though the film seamlessly shifts from a slapstick comedy to a family drama to a horror thriller, the heart of Parasite remains constant. It is an observation of our capitalist society — one that drips with satire and burns with the rage of the working-class.
There is so much to unpack in this film, far too much for just one article. But we can try — here’s a rundown of some of the most striking ideas and motifs in Parasite:
The Affluent and the Abject
During my first watch of this film, what stood out most was the simple parallelism that frames the two families. The Kim and Park family both consist of four members: a father, mother, son, and daughter. Yet, the Park family resides in a beautiful house on a hill, while the Kim family is underneath them, holed up in a stink bug-infested semi-basement below ground level.
When a big storm hits the area, it serves as a minor inconvenience for the Parks, merely putting a dent in their camping plans. On the other end of the spectrum, the flood causes a complete upheaval of the Kims’ life. Their home is flooded with sewer water — they are literally submerged in shit. As Ki-taek wades through the ruin, he sees that a frame containing Chung-sook’s medal from her days of track and field glory has been filled with water. He trudges across and desperately shakes the frame, but to no avail. It is not the physical loss of a home that stings most for the Kims, but rather the loss of dignity and pride.
Staircases are everywhere in this movie: the stairs that lead up from the Kim family’s home, the stairs that lead up to the Park family’s house, and the stairs that lead down to the Parks’ basement. They are passages from one socioeconomic realm to the next, with every higher level representing a correspondingly greater amount of wealth and status. In fact, long, winding staircases can be traced all across Seoul in Bong’s directing, and its perpetuity indicates the inescapability of class separation in our capitalist society. We spend our whole lives scampering from one staircase to the next — even the Parks, in all their overflowing abundance, seek to have more, more, more.
The Parks’ youngest son, Da-song (Jeong Hyun-joon), is regarded by his family as a blossoming art prodigy. During one of his lessons with Ki-Jeong, it is revealed that Da-song once experienced a vision of a ghost. This memory traumatizes the young boy, but it seems like a relatively arbitrary detail until it is revealed in the third act that the ghost he witnessed was not really a ghost after all. It was Geun-sae (Park Myeong-hoon) — the previous housekeeper’s husband who had been residing in the Park family’s basement for years, living off of smuggled food and hiding from loan sharks. Geun-sae can be seen as the film’s embodiment and personification of poverty. He is barely sustained, nearly maniacal, and leeching off the wealth of somebody who is physically and economically above him. To an innocent rich boy drenched in money, a brief glimpse of poverty is terrifying. The poor are only a suppressed nightmare of the rich, a faceless thing that bites away at their subconscious in the dead of night.
The Kim family seems to forget nothing in their painstakingly hatched plan towards the top. They change their clothes, their names, their backgrounds, and yet there is one thing that none of them are able to shake: their smell. Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) describes it as “like an old radish,” or “when you boil a rag.” This smell serves as a constant mark of their poverty — they cannot run from it, as hard as they try. During a car ride home from the grocery store, Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) detects the smell coming from Ki-Taek and she winces with a brief expression of disgust, subtly lifting her hand to cover her nose. No words are spoken; they are not needed. With just this short scene, Bong is able to communicate the quiet contempt that the rich hold for the poor. The Parks may act kindly towards the Kims, and they may even treat them as though they are family, but in the end, it is apparent that they will always consider themselves more worthy. This relentless sense of superiority eventually drives Ki-Taek to do the unthinkable. As his own daughter lies bleeding on the ground, Ki-taek, the parasite, grabs Geun-sae’s knife and stabs Mr. Park, the host.
Parasite ends on a rather forlorn note. Ki-woo lingers in his family’s semi-basement, the exact place in which he began. Everything has changed for the characters, but the world keeps spinning just as it did before. It stops for no one, least of all for people like the Kims.
In the last few moments of the film, Bong injects a momentary glimpse of hope. Ki-woo sees his family reunited in the Park’s extravagant home, now rightfully theirs — but this daydream is quick and fleeting. We are abruptly brought back to cruel reality, and we recognize an uncomfortable truth: Ki-woo will probably never achieve his aspirations of wealth.
Bong holds a mirror to us all and unveils a sobering realization: perhaps we will only ever be the stink bugs in a dreary semi-basement, pawns in this depraved, Sisyphean clamoring for wealth.
Sabrina Mei (17) is a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, MD and the co-founder and executive director of Yelloh Moose. In her spare time, she enjoys rereading Sherlock Holmes and watching an excessive amount of Bojack Horseman. You can find her on Instagram @ s.abrinamei.