There is a family from South Korea known as the Kims. It consists of father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, son Ki-woo, and daughter Ki-jeong. They are decidedly not well off, living in a small basement apartment. The dwelling is unkempt with dishes strewn everywhere and they often find themselves needing to hold their smart phones to the ceiling to get any kind of Wi-Fi reception. They are barely staying afloat by working various low-paying odd jobs. One day, Ki-woo’s friend, Min-hyuk, intends to study abroad, and gives the Kim family a scholar’s rock, which is supposed to bring them wealth. Feeling pity for his friend, Min-hyuk suggests that Ki-woo pose as a university student and take over his job as an English tutor for one Park Da-hye. The Park family is very wealthy, so Ki-woo may have stumbled into something that can help his family leave their squalid living conditions.
The premise of Parasite is fairly straightforward. The poor Kim family has just had the opportunity of a lifetime knock at their doors when Ki-woo is to tutor a rich high-school student. Ki-woo soon finds himself being interviewed by Da-hye’s mother, Yeon-kyo. While the interview starts off innocently enough, Ki-woo ends up telling a lie. Yeon-kyo expresses concern over the behavior of her son, Da-song, showing Ki-woo the boy’s art. This prompts Ki-woo into recommending an “art therapist” named Jessica to help Da-song. “Jessica” is actually Ki-jeong, and after impressing Yeon-kyo, she is hired as Da-song’s teacher.
From here, the Kim family comes up with an all-new master plan. They will pose as skilled workers and systematically replace the Park family’s employees, thus obtaining a significant portion of their wealth. The crux of this plan relies on the fact that the Parks have no idea they are all related. The tactics employed by the Kim family makes for quality black comedy as their attempts to replace those working for the Parks become increasingly ruthless and audacious. Fortunately for them, it quickly becomes evident that Parks have far more money than brains, allowing the Kim family to manipulate them with ease.
First, Ki-jeong removes her underwear while being transported by Parks’ chauffeur. This causes the Park family’s patriarch, Dong-ik, to fire said chauffeur, allowing Ki-taek to take the job almost immediately. While this is impressive in of itself, the means by which they get rid of the maid, Moon-gwang, are even more so. They quickly learn she has an allergy to peaches. Upon secretly exposing her to them, they discreetly place hot sauce on a napkin she used in order to mislead the Parks into believing she has contracted tuberculosis. Not willing to chance having an ill person near their children, Moon-gwang is fired and subsequently replaced by Chung-sook.
Featuring a poor family being driven to such dishonest tactics just to stay afloat, Parasite is a clear anti-capitalism allegory. This was a running theme throughout Bong Joon-ho’s previous films, Snowpiercer and Okja, but they are far more overt in Parasite. What separates Parasite from contemporary anti-capitalism pieces is the sheer amount of nuance Mr. Bong injects into his cast. In an especially heavy-handed tale, it would be common for the author to make the rich family one-dimensional, serial puppy kickers and the poor family the do-no-wrong paragons who prove nice guys finish last. Parasite doesn’t do this; it acknowledges that both sides have good and bad traits. This creates a narrative that operates on a uniformly grey morality, which was a very rare sight in the 2010s.
When observing the horrid living conditions of the Kim family, you do get the sense that they are victims of an uncaring capitalist system. On the other hand, it quickly becomes apparent that the family does show a remarkable amount of competence. Ki-jeong is able to forge certifications capable of fooling the Park family, and they prove highly skilled at the jobs they take. Combined with their ability to effortlessly deceive Dong-ik and Yeon-kyo, one wonders how these people weren’t able to climb up the social ladder naturally.
From this, one might reasonably conclude that the members of the Kim family, for whatever reason, have a lot of difficulties planning things out in the long term. Ki-taek even outright states “you can’t go wrong with no plans” later in the film. Granted, their poor background could have discouraged most notions of long-term planning. It’s difficult to plan years down the line when the matter of if you can eat today is thrown into question. However, if they could fake their way into the Park family’s lives, they likely have the capacity to trick a potential employer of a high-paying job into hiring them.
Then again, part of the reason the Kim family is able to make the Parks dance to their tune so easily is because the latter do half the work for them. Dong-ik and Yeon-kyo’s sheltered, upper-crust life has left them utterly devoid of any kind of common sense. It is heavily implied – if not, outright stated – that Dong-ik married Yeon-kyo for her looks rather than her brains. This is demonstrated by the fact that she takes the Kim family at their word for absolutely everything – no matter how ridiculous it sounds.
Meanwhile, Dong-ik is a textbook elitist. He doesn’t do anything actively malicious at any point in the film, yet makes many disparaging remarks about lower classes, often commenting on Ki-taek’s bad smell, which leads to a lot a silent resentment from his new chauffer. Moreover, he approaches his business with a very hierarchal mindset, seeing a line between himself and his workers that they are forbidden from crossing. He doesn’t even love his wife, possibly exploiting her need for drugs in exchange for sex.
Parasite manages to maintain a consistent tone, playing the Kim family’s exploits for black comedy. This comes to an end when the Parks leave to go on a camping trip to celebrate Da-song’s birthday. Having free reign of the house, the Kims throw a particularly messy party of their own. Moon-gwang begs them to be let inside, claiming she left something in the basement. Chung-sook follows her to a secret bunker hidden in the basement. The original owners of the house built it in case of a North Korean invasion. Inside this bunker lives Moon-gwang’s husband, Geun-sae. He has been living underground for years in order to hide from the loan sharks doggedly pursuing him.
The Kim family eavesdrops on the couple, but an ill-timed pratfall results in Ki-woo referring to Ki-taek as his father. The Kims had inadvertently filmed this revelation, causing the former maid to grab the phone and hold the family hostage by threatening to send the video to the Parks. For good measure, she chooses to gloat with a gusto similar to that of a North Korean propagandist extoling the nonexistent qualities of Kim Jong-un. However, Moon-gwang ends up paying for her less-than-practical, if hilarious decision making when Ki-taek attacks her, allowing the Kims to recover the phone and delete the video. Unfortunately for them, the Parks call, informing them that the heavy rainstorm has ruined the camping trip, and they are returning home. The sequence that follows is right out of a coming-of-age comedy wherein the Kims scramble to clean the entire house. This culminates in Chung-sook sending Moon-gwang down a flight of stairs with a causal backhanded punch – right in front of Yeon-kyo, who doesn’t notice.
It is with Geun-sae’s introduction that the film takes a turn for the serious. Comedic moments permeate the rest of the film’s runtime, but they are henceforth in the background. He has been living in the bunker in solitude for so long, he is reduced to a bumbling wreck with a fanatical gratitude for Dong-ik’s hospitality. Chung-sook pushing Moon-gwang down the bunker’s staircase resulted in the former maid getting a concussion, which eventually proves fatal. Having lost his loved one ensures that by the end, whatever lingering threads of sanity Geun-sae may have had will be reduced to ashes.
Indeed, the final act is of this film is truly something to behold. The Kims have just survived having their apartment flooded and end up helping the Parks throw a birthday party for Da-song. Ki-woo searches the bunker only to be accosted by a vengeful Geun-se. Now having nothing left to lose, Geun-sae crashes the party and stabs Ki-jeong in the heart. Chung-sook attacks Geun-sae, eventually killing him with a meat skewer.
During the pandemonium, Dong-ik continues to demonstrate his severe lack of empathy by commenting on Geun-sae’s terrible smell – as the man is bleeding to death. By this point, Ki-taek has appreciated that he and Geun-sae aren’t so different, having tried and failed to stay financially afloat only to resort to unscrupulous tactics, which ended up backfiring on them in the worst ways possible. It is therefore highly fitting that this is the moment in which he could bear Dong-ik’s unpleasant demeanor not a second longer. The Kim family’s patriarch snaps and fatally stabs his benefactor. In the end, Dong-ik’s wealth and social status afforded him nothing, as it could not save him from death. In fact, what he chose to do with his privileges ended up hastening his passage to the great beyond.
Against all odds, Ki-woo survives his bludgeoning at the hands of Geun-se. He and his mother are sentenced to probation for the fraud they committed. While it sounds as though they got off scot-free for their actions, the reality is far grimmer. They’ve lost Ki-jeong, and Ki-taek disappeared in the commotion. As far as the police are concerned, he vanished without a trace, and the detectives’ attempts at deriving any information out of the surviving Kim family members prove comically inept.
One day, Ki-woo observes the light outside the Parks’ residence flickering in a specific pattern. Realizing it is Morse code, he deciphers the message. It turns out to be from his father. Realizing that a death sentence awaited him, Ki-taek took refuge inside the bunker. Thankfully for him, a family from Germany has moved into the mansion, allowing him to steal food from their refrigerator. Ki-woo then makes it his life’s mission to amass enough money to purchase the house himself, thus allowing his father to see the light of day once more. It is a reality that will likely not come to pass. Between his isolation and limited means by which to survive, Ki-taek will likely end up exactly as Geun-se before him. Whether his sanity or his luck runs out first is anyone’s guess – but it’s clearly question of when it will happen rather than if.
One last thing I admire about Parasite would be its very name. The very act of naming a work is much harder than it sounds. Your goal is to come up with phrase consisting of one, two, three, or if you’re feeling particularly cheeky, twenty words, that sums up the entire premise of your work. Parasite is an especially brilliant title because it has several readings. Most obviously, it refers to the Kim family’s leeching off of the Parks, but it also refers to Geun-se’s plight. After his sanity eroded over the years, he began to deify Dong-ik. The title also, in a subtler fashion, alludes to Dong-ik gleefully benefitting from an unbalanced, unchecked capitalist system. He turned a blind eye to those suffering beneath him, causing him to miss the resentment brewing within his employee. Ki-taek killing Dong-ik could consequently be seen as symbolic as to what happens such a system goes unchecked for too long. It results in a society of mutual resentment between the upper and working classes that has all of the stability of a house of cards in the middle of monsoon season. Under these conditions, nobody benefits in the long term – not even the wealthy when the poor decide enough is enough.
When Ari Aster’s Hereditary was released in 2018, it proved to be a hit, making a sizable profit against a modest budget. Curiously, despite its fairly unanimous critical acclaim and commercial success, it did not resonate with the average theatergoer. While something like this is by no means newsworthy, many prominent critics at the time penned misbegotten think pieces attempting to reconcile the disconnect. Variety’s chief film critic, Owen Gleiberman, callously concluded that it committed the crime of being artistic rather than sensational while a prominent journalist for the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips, arrogantly called detractors slaves to the Rotten Tomatoes algorithm, claiming their expectations were somehow incorrect. An acclaimed director named Paul Schrader cut the passive-aggressive pretenses entirely by claiming the 1970s had superior audiences and that contemporary theatergoers were letting filmmakers down. Whatever their theses may have been, a single commonality ran throughout them; the audience had bad taste and it was entirely their fault the medium found itself stuck in a quagmire of creative stagnation.
Whether those highly opinionated people knew it or not, the release of Mr. Bong’s Parasite rendered every single one of their think pieces and interviews completely useless. They would have you believe the average American theatergoer is a slob who can’t even read subtitles much less appreciate true art, yet when Parasite saw its Western release, it became one of the most financially successful films of 2019. Made on a budget of ₩13.5 billion won ($11 million USD), Parasite proceeded to gross $163.33 million USD in the box office.
Unlike Hereditary, the fan reception of this film was highly positive. One could argue that the success of Hereditary and other similar films conditioned audiences over time to accept these kinds of projects, but I don’t believe such an assertion to be true. Uncut Gems, another film that strove for a nebulous artistic standard, saw its wide release around the same time, yet its own critical acclaim did not translate to audience approval. Meanwhile Parasite had no problems resonating with audiences despite supposedly having far more factors against it. This is why it never pays to underestimate the audience – you will end up with egg on your face every time.
Ultimately, what allows Parasite to stand out from its contemporaries is its approach to morality. This is not a story that thinks in shades of black and white. The characters in this film are well-meaning for the most part, yet commit questionable acts for the sake of climbing the social ladder. Considering the common contemporary approach was to paint humanity in the darkest colors using the broadest brush available, Mr. Bong’s film boasting this level of nuance makes it uncharacteristic of a late-2010s critical darling. One would have to go back to the medium’s golden age to find directors capable of exercising such a degree of finesse. For not talking down to its audience and providing a scenario boasting tons of applicability, Parasite is without a doubt one of the single greatest films of 2019.
Final Score: 8/10