This year, the Oscars got it right. Parasite is fully deserving of the abundant praise it has received. The film demands your attention from the opening shot and keeps you thinking long after you’ve left the theatre. If you haven’t seen it, you are missing out.
Much has been made of what the film has to say about class inequality, and with good reason. Parasite largely centers around two families, the down and out Kims and the wealthy Parks.
The film begins with the Kims eating together. Now it’s not like there’s many other spaces for them to inhabit in their tiny basement dwelling, but still this is one more family meal than we ever see the Parks eating together. At the spacious Park house, bedroom doors are frequently closed. The father, Dong-ik, is usually at work, and daughter Da-hye is in her own teenage world, most commonly wearing headphones. She has to be coerced to go on the family camping trip that fizzles out. Interestingly, despite the squalor they live in, the Kim family displays incredible unity. This is evident early on when the family works together to transform massive quantities of flat cardboard into folded pizza boxes. And rather than unravelling when the pizza joint employee is intent on penalizing them for poor quality control, the family works together to try and persuade the worker to give the son, Ki-woo, a job inside the store. And once Ki-woo lucks into a job tutoring the Park’s daughter, the Kims work as one unit to extract the most benefit from this new association with this wealthy family. Needless to say, it is the upper echelon Parks and not the hand to mouth Kims who require tutors, therapists, drivers and housekeepers. And while the young Park son, Da-song, has a good reason to be traumatized by his past, the way his parents indulge him is both sad, and, ultimately, tragic. It is only when the Kims taste a bit of the high life that their family comes apart. Sure, the film seems to say, the Park’s house and grounds are beautiful, but there is a cost that comes with this lifestyle and it is not merely measured in won.
In fact, the rich and poor are depicted here almost like different species. It nearly approaches the level of HG Wells’ Eloi and Moorlocks. The rich Parks, tucked away behind formidable walls and sealed doors are contrasted with the long suffering Kims who must put up with the sight of neighbourhood drunks regularly urinating outside their window. While the Parks are entirely oblivious of the existence of an underground dwelling and an underground dweller beneath their house, it is the poor Kims that uncover the subterranean truth and must try to grapple with it. The life below is literally “sub-human”, but this, the film tells us, is what extreme debt can drive a person to. This is intimately connected to the title parasite. While the Kim family or the housekeeper’s husband might at first blush be considered the parasite, there is a case to be made for the Parks and their wealthy compatriots to be recognized as the true parasites of society. What do they actually contribute to society compared to what they extract? Some of the most poetic aspects of the film speak to this chasm between the high and the low. Early in the film, Ki-taek, father of the Kim household, is seen battling the stick bugs that have infiltrated the Kim’s basement apartment. He is so bothered by them, that he insists his family leave the windows open when the street outside is being fumigated in hopes that it will kill the bugs. Later in the film, in one of the rare displays of Kim disunity, Ki-taek reacts violently when his wife compares him to a cockroach. Still later, we see that to the Parks, Mr. Kim is the stick bug. The Parks are nauseated by the smell of Mr. Kim.
In the climactic birthday party scene, with carnage all around, it is the smell of Mr. Kim that most sickens Mr. Park, and Mr. Kim’s recognition of this is what precipitates murder. Another grimly poetic scene contrasting the poor with the wealthy involves the deluge of rain which floods the Kim’s neighbourhood.
As the Kims scramble to retrieve valued possessions, it becomes clear that the sewer system has flooded and that the basement apartment is literally awash in shit. Perhaps this is what happens to your perspective of poverty once you have had a taste of the high life. Also poetic is the use of the scholar’s rock, which is given as a gift to the Kim family by Ki-woo’s friend Min.
It is supposed to bring material wealth, and in a way it does, but it brings much more with it too. As a poetic talisman, it takes its place alongside the swords, rings, chalices and cloaks that have made such a mark in stories throughout the ages.
Like many current films, Parasite is immersed in pretence. To get the tutor job, Ki-woo must pass himself off as a university graduate, and thanks to his sister’s wonderful forgery work, he succeeds at convincing Da-hye’s mom, Yeon-kyo, that he is a certified scholar. One deception begets another, and soon Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jung, is posing as an arrogant art therapist to deal with the Park’s troubled young son. In rapid succession, the Kim parents take on the roles of driver and housekeeper at the Park residence. All of this proceeds almost too easily before an unexpected twist throws the Kims a challenge that stymies them. There is other role playing going on too. The young Park boy is continually donning an Indian headdress and shooting arrows all over the house. In fact, at his birthday party, he insists that others take on subsidiary roles in this drama.
And the Park parents engage in some make believe too when Dong-ik fantasizes about his wife wearing the underpants found in his car. It’s little wonder then that after pretense heaped on pretense, Ki-woo looks out at the yard full of wealthy, beautiful people and anxiously asks Da-hye if he fits in. Pretending, the film seems to suggest, alienates one from the authentic self and no good can come of it.
The actual ending might be even darker than the savagery of the birthday party. For at the end, Ki-woo wishes for nothing more than to be rich and have the ability to buy the Park house. He wishes to rightfully own it, which would in turn free his father. Sadly, he seems to have learned nothing about the plight of the wealthy. He should be in a privileged position to understand that with wealth comes fragmentation and a variety of curses. Yet, despite all that he has experienced, he thinks that being rich can bring him peace. And, in that, he would be as misled as most of the rest of us. More’s the pity.