In all my years of studying and watching films, I've never come across anything quite like Bong Joon-ho's Parasite.
Parasite is one of those exceedingly rare movies that seems to exist beyond categorization. It's a satire, oftentimes a very funny one. It definitely could be called a thriller, full of incredible twists that feel both surprising and earned. But at its core, Parasite might also be deemed a tragedy or even a dystopian nightmare, at least to the extent that our modern society has become dystopian for its underclass. It's a movie that stays with you and makes you think long after the credits roll.
Spoilers follow, so for anyone who stumbles upon this without having already seen the movie, I'll simply say that Parasite is a near-perfect film, easily one, if not the best, of the past decade, and you'd do best to go in blind and form your own opinions.
Parasite is the story of two families in Korea, the Kim family and the Park family, who are separated by a rigid class divide. The Kim family is representative of "dirt spoons," a recent slang term in Korea for people born into poor families with little hope of social mobility. The family of four––father, Ki-taek; mother, Chung-sook; daughter, Ki-jeong; and son, Ki-woo––live in a cramped basement apartment in the slums where they scrounge for bathroom corners with unprotected Wi-Fi access and fold pizza boxes to barely make ends meet. Both Ki-jeong and Ki-woo are incredibly smart––Ki-jeong is talented at graphic design and Ki-woo is fluent in English––but neither have the means to afford any further education.
The Park family lives in stark contrast, inhabiting a gated mansion atop a hill overlooking the city. Mr. Park works a high-paying tech job. Mrs. Park spends her days lounging and snacking on fancy foods, tended to by her middle-aged housekeeper, Moon-Gwang. The Park children, teenage daughter Da-hye and younger son Da-song, are free to pursue their studies and creative interests.
The families meet through a stroke of fate when Da-hye's English tutor, who also happens to be Ki-woo's childhood friend, recommends Ki-woo as a replacement before he travels abroad. Ki-woo lands the gig (with the help of his sister's graphic design skills to forge college documents), and after finding Mrs. Park gullible and easily swayed he begins the process of worming his family into the Parks' lives. First, Ki-jeong becomes Da-song's art therapist. Then Ki-taek becomes Mr. Park's driver. Finally, the Kims manage to oust Moon-Gwang and insert Chung-sook as the new housekeeper.
Bong Joon-ho is no stranger to directing movies that tackle class divides. His 2013 sci-fi action film, Snowpiercer, placed the rich and the poor in brutal opposition aboard a fast-moving train in a post-apocalyptic world. But in Parasite, Joon-ho takes a far more subtle approach to morality. The Kim family are clearly doing antagonistic deeds, not only lying to the Park family but also sabotaging the other lower class people whose positions they want to usurp. At the same time, even though the Kim family is arguably "bad," and not even necessarily likable, our full understanding of their severe poverty leads us to empathize with their actions and even root for them.
Meanwhile, the Park family remains sympathetic, too. Joon-ho could have easily made the wealthier family into cartoon stereotypes, but they're not. Mrs. Park, especially, is an incredibly good-natured employer. "They're rich but still nice," Ki-taek says to his wife.
"They're nice because they're rich," she replies. This sentiment seems to reside at Parasite's very core: Can we truly condemn the dubious actions of an oppressed underclass when the social hierarchy gives them very few alternatives?
The Kims' plan starts to unravel after Moon-Gwang, the ousted housekeeper, returns with a secret of her own. Like the Kims, she, too, had been taking advantage of her position with the Park family. For years, she had been harboring her homeless husband in a secret bunker beneath the Park home. By taking away her job, the Kims completely destroyed the lives of her and her husband. So upon discovering the Kims are related, Moon-Gwang threatens to expose them to the Parks in order to reinstate her position.
With this twist, Joon-ho illustrates how even though the major class divide is between the rich and the poor, it oftentimes plays out through in-fighting amongst the poor over scarce resources––in this case, jobs. While the Kims obviously took advantage of the Parks, they never actually hurt them (at least up until this point). They did, however, actively destroy Moon-Gwang, another poor person just trying her best to make ends meet.
In the ensuing struggle over Moon-Gwang's cell phone (with evidence of the Kim family's relationship), the Kims accidentally kill her and proceed to trap her husband in the bunker alongside her corpse. Moon-Gwang's husband's hatred and psychosis grow, culminating in his escape during Da-song's lavish birthday party, during which he attempts to kill the entire Kim family. He bashes Ki-woo's head with a rock and stabs Ki-jeong. Chung-sook manages to kill him, but not in time to save her daughter. Da-song faints amidst the chaos, and Mr. Park demands that Ki-taek drive them to get help without any regard for Ki-Jeong. Ki-taek snaps, murdering Mr. Park in a burst of oppressed rage.
Ultimately, Parasite ends in tragedy. Three families are destroyed. The Kims are split apart––Ki-jeong dies, Ki-woo survives with brain damage, and Ki-taek locks himself away in the underground bunker. Moon-Gwang and her husband are dead. The Parks flee their family home, minus the father.
Historically, ruined lives are always the end-game of vast income gaps, and nobody is truly safe as long as such inequality exists. The movie ends on Ki-woo devising a plan to become rich and buy the former Park house, so that his family can be together again. He fantasizes about this plan from the tiny, basement apartment in the slums where he now lives with just his mom. We know his plan will never come to fruition.
In Parasite, Joon-ho's paints a reality that, in a fairer socioeconomic climate, would have been entirely avoidable. Ki-woo and Ki-jeong would have been able to attend college––they were both more than capable––and bring their family up in society. Parents wouldn't need to fold pizza boxes just to make ends meet, and the wealth gap between rich and poor wouldn't be nearly as vast. But alas, in the world as we know it, the Kims' only hope of moving up in the world was to become parasites, and in doing so, they bled everyone else dry. Then again, when a family like the Parks can live so high on the backs of people so poor that they can't even fathom their struggles, maybe the Kims weren't the parasites after all.