Parasite, the latest film from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of two families: the wealthy Park family and the working class Kim family.
One by one, the members of the Kim family start taking various positions working for the Parks (as tutors, the chauffeur, and the housekeeper). The film begins as a devious class satire, watching the Kim family insinuate themselves in with the Parks — devising plots to get the current house staff fired so they can “recommend” a new person for the job, who the Parks don’t know they are immediately related to.
At the film’s halfway point, Parasite picks up steam as it morphs into a horror movie. On a stormy night when the Parks are away, the Kims stay at their house, drinking and enjoying the Parks’ wealth on borrowed time. Then, the original housekeeper the Kims overthrew, Moon-gwang, returns, saying she forgot something.
Despite the peculiarity, the Kims let her in and she goes straight to the basement, uncovering a secret staircase behind a shelf. She invites Mrs. Kim to follow her downstairs, and in one of the most unsettling and audacious moments in the film, the camera soars behind them, tracking their descent into a hidden bunker where Moon-gwang’s husband, Geun-se, is living in secret.
This is where the film becomes a staggering work. As the sequence progresses, the housekeeper learns the Kims have deceived the Parks to install their entire immediate family in the Parks’ employ, and the Kims learn (obviously) that the housekeeper is keeping her husband stashed in the basement.
Both families need the jobs the Parks can provide, so the working families have no choice but to fight to the death, it will turn out.This is the ingenious central idea of the film, the notion that working class people under capitalism are forced to battle each other for jobs and resources.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the true enemy is the Park family — the wealthy capitalists — but Bong has already made the bleak statement that the distraction caused by competition with other working families will get in the way. As Mrs. Kim states, the Parks are not a nice, rich family; they are nice because they’re rich. They have the luxury of politeness.
Bong has already proven himself to be a master at intelligently combining social issues with highly entertaining action/science fiction settings. The Host is a monster flick that condemns the way Americans treat the environment; Snowpiercer puts the entire human race onto a train, with the poor people cramped in the back and the rich people spreading out in the front; and his most recent film, Okja, is an action movie about a young girl trying to rescue the genetically modified super-pig she raised, saved from slaughter.
Parasite takes Bong’s ability to weave these elements together to new heights. The term “Hitchcockian” is so overused, but no film this year other than Parasite has so deftly moved between broad comedy, melodrama, social satire, thriller, and horror — often within the same scene — the way Hitchcock’s films did. Executing that technical mastery in service of Parasite’s brilliant metaphor, turns the brawl into the highest stakes action sequence in years.
In addition to Bong’s mastery of tone and genre highlighting the battle, the Park’s home design is another literal metaphor for capitalism. It is a gorgeous, modern home, open and sprawling. But underneath, literally supporting the wealth upstairs, is a cement, cold, damp bunker. Even if Geun-se were not living in the bunker, the symbolism is clear: the lives of the rich are maintained and sustained by the lower classes’ sacrifices.
Everywhere, the working classes of the world are at a boiling point. Nations on every continent are succumbing to authoritarian rule based on populist rhetoric in a drastic last attempt to even the playing field.
2019 has been the year where these concerns have come to cinema, with much of the best entertainment of the year attempting to grapple with a world wrought by capitalism. Films like Us and High Life, and series like Succession, illustrate savage depictions of class differences, and Parasite is the finest of them all.
The thing that unites all of these titles specifically, is that not one of them shows the way forward. All of these films present problems created by capitalism and end without any sense of hope. Parasite ends with pure fantasy — the son, Ki-woo, imagines becoming rich and buying the Parks’ house to rescue his father who is now trapped in the secret bunker.
But we know that won’t happen. Just as we know Lupita Nyong’o’s character in Us cannot do anything for her tethered. Just as we know Robert Pattinson’s spaceship in High Life will never return to earth. There are no happy endings in 2019; there is only despair.
On that fateful stormy night in Parasite, the Parks return home and the son wishes to sleep outside in his teepee tent. His parents are annoyed, but they let him. They lie on the couch to keep an eye on him and make sure he stays safe.
Meanwhile, across town, the Kim family’s basement apartment floods in the storm, filling with water, sewage, and garbage. They are forced to spend the night in a local gymnasium set up as an emergency center and the location devolves into chaos as the night goes on.
Bong juxtaposes the images of the son emerging from his tent in the morning — the son totally unscathed and totally unaware of the fact that that anyone might have been hurt by the storm — with the Kims in the emergency center as people scream and fight for resources in the background, encapsulating the entire message of the film in these two contrasting images: a child’s plaything was a more effective shelter than the apartment where the Kims lived their lives; a joke, like the joke of the world, sick and inescapable for everyone not born into wealth.