*This post contains spoilers for the entire movie. I recommend watching Parasite first because it assumes the reader has knowledge of the film’s plot.
“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
-Bong Joon-ho (2020)
These were the words uttered by the acclaimed Parasite director prior to receiving a Golden Globe award. While it is a rough translation, it spoke to the reception of international films amongst the general public and the movie elites. While there are hundreds of foreign-language films released each year that push new boundaries and tell captivating tales, few garner the worldwide attention they truly deserve.
Parasite is a uniquely South Korean film that infuses a sense of nuance that is reflective of specific aspects of South Korea’s modern culture and history, a significant departure from Bong Joon-ho’s previous work. Yet the underlying subject matter of social and economic disparity held a widespread appeal that captured the attention of audiences at a time where such discussions have intensified within and across borders.
Yet if Parasite was content with sending a scathing message on the downsides of capitalism and class divides, it would get passing acknowledgement from its contemporaries. Rather, the full artistic merits of filmmaking shine across the entire production of Parasite, bolstering the film with rich aesthetic and compelling narrative that is impossible to wholly appreciate on a single viewing. In fact, it would be apt to compare Parasite to a dense triple-chocolate cake, bursting with enough flavor and substance that it will require weeks to consume in its entirety. This deep dive merely takes a slice of it to highlight a fraction of Parasite’s exceptional production.
“It’s So Metaphorical”
The extent of the metaphors present in Parasite is not restricted to the few times that Kim Ki-woo expresses that sentiment whenever circumstances favor the outcome of his family. Nearly every shot of the movie exuberates an aura of deliberation and purpose that can be attributed to Bong Joon-ho’s own nature. In his own words, he aims to “work very meticulously on the storyboards.” (Source).
What imbues meaning into the film’s metaphorical nature is the manner by which it drives the narrative forward efficiently and effectively, as well as highlight Joon-ho’s strengths of genre-bending and thematic infusion. It serves three critical purposes in the grand scheme of the plot: to foreshadow, to symbolize, and to mock.
All of the scenes are connected like a spider’s web, continually reinforcing each other to cement a strong foundation. From a narrative perspective, there are clever warnings sprinkled near the beginning that define the harsh turn of events that will befall the cast.
When Kim Ki-taek is consuming a piece of white bread, he scoffs at a stink bug crawling innocently on the table before flicking it away with his finger. Besides creating a parallel between the underlying perceptions that the affluent holds towards the unfortunate, the stink bug alludes to the odor that Park Dong-ik becomes preoccupied with as a detracting factor of Ki-taek because it “crosses the line”. Dong-ik’s repulsion of that smell, (or disregard for the less fortunate) becomes the final push Ki-taek needed to murder him at the film’s climax.
A more overt use of foretelling manifests as one of Park Da-song’s drawings. Comically, Ki-woo and Choi Yeon-gyo both mistake the picture as a chimpanzee and self-portrait respectively. In reality, the painting depicts the night that Da-song experienced the trauma of witnessing Oh Geun-sae, the basement dweller that the Kims discover in the second act, pop out from the basement. The scenery in the background also resembles the setting of Da-song’s birthday party, where Geun-sae emerges from the basement to seek revenge. It is not made clear whether or not the person in the drawing is Da-song or Geun-sae, but the prominence of the eyes and nose seemingly provide evidence in favor of Geun-sae.
Additionally, the “schizophrenic zone” that Kim Ki-jung describes in the bottom right corner of the painting was Da-song’s representation of something lurking in the shadows of the basement. This might be an extrapolation, but Geun-sae seems to experience many symptoms that are indicative of schizophrenia itself, including delusional thoughts, social isolation, and abnormal cognitive function. At the very least, it would not be a stretch to ascertain that his mental well-being was significantly impacted from his entrapment underground for over four years.
Much of the film is dedicated to pronouncing the disparities that exist between the wealthiest and the poorest of society. The symbolism is interwoven with the progression of the Kim family up (or down) the economic ladder as they increase their household income.
Food plays a major role in documenting the relative status of the Kim family across the first two acts. Their food selection initially amounts to cheap bread or snack bags which the entire family must share amongst each other, alongside a can of undesirable FiLite.
After Ki-woo and Ki-jung secure jobs, the family can afford to eat at a buffet that provides them more quality nutrients, including meat, rice and vegetables.
Soon they manage the funds to order take-out at Pizza Generation, the company they used to fold pizza boxes for.
An indoor grill is purchased to cook meat at home, and the family upgrades their beer from FiLite to Sapporo (with the exception of Chung-sook).
It all culminates in their indulgence of the food and drink available at the Park household when the Parks go out on a camping trip for Da-song’s birthday.
Conversely, the staple dish that went viral from Parasite was jjapaguri (translated as ram-don), which features a combination of chapagetti and neoguri (or ramen and udon). When compiling research for this post, it appeared that the addition of the steak was popularized by the film (most of the recipes qualify it “with steak”). The noodles by themselves appear to be quite affordable, but Yeon-gyo insists the addition of meat. Perhaps it is her unconscious attempt to elevate the dish as something more palatable to their expensive taste?
The more abstract depiction of movement between the economic classes come in the form of stairs. Parasite plays around with elevation quite a bit (which will be discussed in the next section), but the stairs are the most tangible form of that idea.
One of the coolest shots in the film shows Ki-woo ascending the staircase to the Park household. As he reaches the top of the stairs, a brand-new world reveals itself to Ki-woo as he gazes at the beautiful architecture and breathtaking view across the greenery. In other words, he has gotten a taste of the upper-class lifestyle.
The staircases are prominent within the Park household as well, whose purpose seems to align more so with the idea of protection. All of the staircases in the house obscure the people going up and down its steps, a perfect conduit for eavesdropping. Or in the case of Geun-sae, the opportunity to spend his days in the hidden bunker. It is significant that Geun-sae does not climb the stairs until the death of Moon-gwang prompts him to emerge, signaling a complacency with his underground lifestyle.
As evident throughout Parasite, Ki-woo makes the effort to note that certain events are “so metaphorical”, from the scholar stone to Da-song’s art. Perhaps it speaks to Ki-woo’s tendency to read too much into his life circumstances, particularly if it bears little importance. His words could be viewed as a meta-commentary on the ways in which critics ascertain the meaning from his work as representative of the film’s quality. Big oof ;(.
In addition, the Park family hosts a plethora of obsessions, particularly amongst Da-song and Yeon-gyo. Da-song is infatuated with Native American stuff, and Yeon-gyo has a strange habit of inserting English vocabulary. She even attributes the West to status and quality, as seen when she notes how the teepee Da-song sleeps in during the rainstorm was imported from the United States. I cannot speak to the material taught about the United States in South Korean education, but most Americans are aware of the bloody history of the Native Americans that arose from colonization. The idolization of Native American culture speaks to an ignorance of the harsh realities that mark America’s history, and reinforces the social bubble the Park family resides in.
While there is quite a bit to unpack here, it should be stressed that the overwhelming significance of these shots are undermined from a personal lack of necessary context and background. If I were to rewatch the film again, I hope to gain a stronger understanding of Korean language and culture that even the subtitles cannot translate. It is not a knock on the localization, but rather the need to maintain its accessibility to wider audiences. As a quick example, Ki-taek jokingly wonders in the first act if Oxford has a major in document forgery, instead of the more applicable Yonsei University. Therefore it is not hard to imagine that other adjustments were made for that same purpose.
Contrast through Cinematography
Cinematography is a broad term that refers to the on-screen elements that comprise a scene, of which I do not fully understand its nuances. However, it is proven that great cinematography does wonders of enhancing the effectiveness and creativity of a movie’s storytelling capacity. Due to its scope, this post will place emphasis on a couple examples that aim to highlight the disparities between the upper and lower classes without much distraction in between.
The Kims reside within a dark and dreary semi-basement apartment inspired by the living areas that exist in Seoul. Much of the Kim family’s belongings are cluttered together within the confines of the home, evident with the socks hanging above like a chandelier and the cluttered bathroom of body soaps and towels. Such are the pizza boxes that are stacked around the main area, which composes their living room and kitchen. This also creates a cramped space that is difficult to navigate and prompts finding the most utility of their household items. Even the toilet is comically high to the point that a normal person would need to bend their back over to even use it.
Even their access to the internet is spotty. Despite the fact that South Korea has an international reputation for its broadband access and attach rate, the Kims must find the hotspots in their home that allow them an opportunity to register a connection. That assumes they can guess the password.
A row of four square windows provides a glimpse of the outdoor street, providing “this weird mixture of hope and this fear that you can fall even lower” (Source). Such hope first inspires the Kims to escape their undesirable situation to implant themselves into the Park family, only for those same windows to utterly devastate their home and possessions. Perhaps the dedication to realism provides an avenue for the viewers to resonate with the sentiments of the Kims.
The startling contrast with Park family house is unparalleled. Nestled securely on a perfectly mowed lawn lies an architectural beauty that harkens to the modern trends featured in architecture today. The seamless transition of the glass paneling to the outdoors amplifies the vast amount of space inside and outside, creating a beautiful snapshot of cohesion. Little to no blemishes distract the viewer from the simple elegance on display. This is almost completely due to the efforts of Moon-gwang to ensure that all clutter is swiftly eliminated, as seen when she lets Ki-woo into the home. From the chic plateware decorating the walls to the gorgeous illumination of the main floor, there is clear intention in the set design that reinforces the freedom and comfort that the Park family experiences, if not extrapolated to the upper class.
Yet a strange degree of mystique permeates the household despite its occupation. As it becomes evident with the revelation of the secret bunker, there are numerous parts of the home that are conducive to hiding, such as the wide table in the front of the wide glass window. According to Bong Joon-ho, “some design choices were made with simple logistics in mind—if one character is creeping down the stairs, can the character sitting at the dining room table see them?” (Source).
While more space tends to assume more freedom, it might also accentuate the secrets that its residents are hiding, whether it be intentional or not. Each member of the Park family is hiding something from the others: Dong-ik seems to be unfaithful to his wife, Yeon-gyo could be using drugs, Da-hae has a relationship with Ki-woo, and Da-song harbors a trauma from the first grade. Rarely is the entire family seen together in the same area, with Da-hae particularly eager to do her own thing.
When considering the broad differences of elevation, space, and architecture that distinguish the homes of the Kims and the Parks, it untucks another blanket that exposes the privileges befitting the wealthiest of society. Parasite teeters the line of weighing the consequences of this lifestyle and outright condemning it; the ugliest operations of capitalism are put out on full display in a visually striking package.
Some Great Scenes
There are two sequences in Parasite that stuck to memory upon each viewing. The first is when Moon-gwang goes to wake Yeon-gyo up outside so that she can meet Ki-woo.
From the window view, there is a fine line that cleverly divides the lower class from the upper class. It is no accident that Ki-woo and Moon-gwang are positioned to the left, and it might require a second viewing to realize it also foreshadowed Moon-gwang’s true colors. There is also a brief moment where Moon-gwang crosses that line to clap her hands together to wake up Yeon-gyo before returning to her first position. This mirrors how she manages to “steal” food conspicuously without catching the attention of the Park family. After all, Dong-ik mistakenly assumes that Moon-gwang is eating enough for two people.
The other is best viewed watching in its entirety again, but the escapade of Ki-taek, Ki-jung, and Ki-woo from the Park household is a horrifying, heart-wrenching descent from the peak of the riches back to their humble beginnings.
The sheer impact of the rainstorm on the Kim household is devastating, all because one of the windows was left open for the fumigation to clear out the bugs. While not included within the clip, the buildup to this chaotic sequence is also superb, characterized by the family slowly running home on a constant decline. It is what establishes the overwhelming physical and social distance that separates the two families from each other.
At best, the Parks are inconvenienced by the monsoon and prompted to return to the comfort of their home and a delicious meal of ram-don, which only the mother enjoys despite her request to make it for Chung-sook. And ironically, the teepee that Da-song owns is enough to withstand the velocity of the rain. Meanwhile the entire livelihood of the Kim family is put into jeopardy, not to mention the slow death of Moon-gwang in front of Geun-sae. It’s all happening “underneath” the Parks, detached from the realities that their lower-class contemporaries are experiencing the brute of.
Without the conscious effort and focus to consistently demonstrate the contradictions between the safe, affluent lifestyle of the Parks and the unsafe, desperate one of the Kims, Parasite could not adequately immerse its viewers in the heart of the class struggle. Fortunately, the impressive cinematography ensures that no stone is left unturned in its depiction.
Who are the Parasites?
Given the dynamic of the story, there is a specific connotation that primes viewers to attribute a specific connotation of “parasite” to the Kim family. This is not surprising given the Kims are the ones that undergo the process of implanting themselves into the Park household, even if it comes at the expense of the employment of Moon-gwnag and the personal valet. However, a single viewing will unmask the parasitic nature of the entire cast from the bottom up.
As noted before, the Kims deceive and forge identities in order to gain employment. This degree of manipulation is illegal, which Ki-taek and Chung-sook face the consequences for in the final minutes.
While the Parks would be considered the victim of these circumstances, it would be rash to acquit Dong-ik and Yeon-gyo of any parasitic behavior. It could be extrapolated that the Parks utilize labor to maintain the integrity of their household, unhesitant to replace workers at the sight of controversy. After Moon-gwang is let go, Yeon-gyo struggles to stay on top of the household duties; even something as simple as unloading the dishes proves overwhelming.
This all occurs while they look down upon the lower class for trivial reasons, such as the “smell” one would find on the subway.
Notwithstanding their attitudes, it cannot be ignored that Geun-sae and Moon-gwang managed to feed off the Park family for years. While Moon-gwang claims that she used her own income to provide food to Geun-sae in the bunker, Dong-ik’s earlier comment about her eating enough for two suggests that she was lying to save face.
The most unfortunate aspect of the narrative, however, is how the parties of the lower class resolve to tear each other apart instead of living symbiotically. It is not hard to imagine how things could have turned out if Chung-sook had conceded to Moon-gwang’s request to feed Geun-sae once a week rather than threaten to call the police. All while the Parks continue to live their normal lives unscathed until the fatal birthday party. It prompts serious questions about the lengths that members of the lower class must go to in order to ensure their basic survival. The desperation from these characters in the film is fueled by their past attempts to achieve this, with both Ki-taek and Geun-sae having failed to open Taiwanese cake shops in the past. If none of their efforts bear any fruit, is it that surprising that their last resort would amount to becoming “parasites” off a rich family?
Before the climatic birthday party, Ki-taek echoes this hopelessness, indicating that having “no plan at all” is the best way to get through life.
This sentiment is best reflected when Ki-taek kills Dong-ik. After Dong-ik is visibly repulsed by the smell of Geun-sae when going to retrieve the keys, Ki-taek allows his instinctual rage to guide his actions. Because at that chaotic point in time, he has nothing else to lose in his life. Whether Dong-ik realizes it or not, he has signaled his obedience to a system that continually oppresses the less fortunate and propagates the wealthy. It even makes the presence of Native American commodities all the more relevant.
Whether Ki-taek’s justification for killing Dong-ik carries any weight with the audience, it serves to blur the definition of “parasite”. Multiple webs of parasitic relationships unfold across the runtime of Parasite, but Dong-ik’s death represents the first instance in which the Parks are substantially impacted as the “victim” of one of those relationships. Up until that point, the behavior of the working class characters failed to compromise the livelihoods of the Park family. In fact, the Parks might have gotten out of the entire situation damage-free had Ki-taek not dealt a fatal blow to Dong-ik.
Considering all of this, Parasite provides a buffet of food for thought that can leave viewers debating the merits and morals of its entire cast. It is tempting to align our sympathies with the Kims, the Parks, or Moon-gwang and Geun-sae, prompted by the unique interpretations that will arise. Yet each character is realized with enough painstaking nuance and humanity to deserve consideration of thier actions.
How Bong Joon-ho and his team managed to create an accessible film that juggles multiple ideas, genres, themes, and characters into a tightly constructed two-hour flick is astounding. While Parasite started out as an absurdly harmless comedy about the Kims working their way into the Park home, it concluded on a somber, depressing note enough to leave any viewer feeling hopeless about the future.
When Ki-woo resolves to earn enough money to purchase the Park household that currently houses Ki-taek in the bunker, we witness that future vision come to fruition. He manages to purchase the home, and he waits quietly in the large yard for his father to emerge from the bunker and reunite their family, basked in a glistening morning sunrise.
Except that it is just a figment of Ki-woo’s imagination. After all, plans never turn out the way one hopes they will…
It is a powerful ending to an equally powerful movie. An achievement of filmmaking and narrative, Parasite is of such overwhelming scale that my efforts to spotlight a fraction of its greatest qualities could never do it justice. Even though I watched Parasite four times, a laundry list of questions fills my head that are itching to be resolved with subsequent viewings (some of which I’ll leave below). And even if some of them are answered, I have no doubt that another basket of questions will replace them in their steed.
That is ultimately a testament to the masterclass that is Parasite. It did so much more than garner critical accolades internationally: it raised the bar for all filmmakers to produce films that are more original, more inventive. There’s so much to be praised here, from its breathtaking production design to its enrapturing sense of unpredictability, yet words cannot properly express its achievement. It’s one thing to acknowledge Parasite as a modern masterpiece, but it’s another to deem it the golden standard of cinema for years, perhaps decades to come.
Some Lingering Questions
- Is it a coincidence that the last names of the two families are Kim and Park? Kim is the last name of the North Korean dictator, and Park was a former South Korean president that got impeached (but they’re also common surnames).
- Was it possible that Dong-ik had some relationship with Ki-jung off-screen? There was an instance where Ki-woo noted how Ki-jung had become extremely accustomed to life in the Park household.
- Is the scholar stone a fake? It was levitating in the water, but it clearly has enough force to hurt someone.
- Yong-gyo mentions that Min was a great tutor irreflective of Da-hye’s grades. Had Min and Da-hye already been in some kind of romantic relationship, and Min was merely waiting on the formality of asking her out?
- Illinois State University or University of Illinois? The latter is more globally recognized, but the film references the former.
- Is it possible that Da-song has special needs or ADHD? His mom is always talking about how Da-song is difficult to control, but often doesn’t take the time to understand his actual needs. It doesn’t seem as though they seeked much therapy after his traumatic experience either.
- Both Ki-taek and Geun-sae attempted to run a Taiwanese cake shop. Is this representative of a “fad” in South Korea that became oversaturated?
- How in the world did Moon-gwnag keep in touch with Da-song? It is implied that they have a good relationship, but it would require them to communicate over the phone.
- Did Da-song make it out of the movie alive?