Parasite: A Movie Review
Writers: Rachel Warner and Jae-In Kim
Directed by Bong Joon-ho, the man behind Snow Piercer and Okja, Parasite focuses on the destitute Kim family and their infiltration into the lives of the affluent Park family. At the film’s world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, it carried home the Palme d’Or, the highest prize awarded as well as the first Korean winner of that award. Though the film had a world premiere this past May, Parasite only recently arrived in the U.S beginning in early October. I had previously heard about the movie and the synopsis vaguely reminded me of Get Out by way of its comedy-thriller genre. Having seen Bong’s other two films centering around class, I knew going in that this theme would be present in the film.
Film Summary with Spoilers
At the onset, we are introduced to the Kim family, composed of Kim Ki-taek, the father, mother Chung-sook, and Ki-woo and Ki-jeong, their son and daughter respectively, as they struggle to survive. The family lives in a basement apartment, and just manages to turn on their wifi by folding pizza boxes. When Ki-woo’s friend Min recommends him to tutor at a wealthy family’s home in his place, he jumps on the opportunity and forges a college degree to get the job. Once in his role as a tutor, the Kim clan operates plans behind the scenes to gain entry into the Park household until the Kim family all have jobs as the Parks’ driver, art therapy tutor, school tutor, and housemaid for the home. The Parks have no idea of their familial ties.
At this point, the Park family decides to take a camping trip to celebrate their young son’s birthday. As the Kim family indulges in living in the Parks’ home while they are away, the previous maid comes to retrieve something she left behind. The family hides while Chung-sook guides the previous maid inside only for her to rush downstairs, revealing a secret bunker where her husband has been hiding out from loan sharks dating back to before the Parks moved in. After attempting to come to an agreement, the Kim family accidentally reveals their family ties. After a struggle that involves tying up the former maid and her husband, the Park family returns home early due to the torrential rain, an event that would end up dislocating the Kim family when their basement apartment floods.
After the Kim family sneaks out, they are forced to spend the night in a crowded gym after seeing their home flooded. The next day all of the Kim family are invited to celebrate the Park son’s birthday. The previous maid’s husband who hid in the bunker escapes and stabs Ki-jeong.
As Mr. Park tries to take his son who fainted to the hospital, leaving Ki-jeong bleeding out with her father beside her, the film reaches a climax as Kim Ki-teak stabs Mr. Park. Months past while Kim Ki-taek hides as a fugitive in the bunker and Chung-sook and Ki-woo are in probation. Ki-jeong dies from her stab wounds at the party. At the end, we see the two back in a basement apartment. Ki-woo imagines his plan to become wealthy, Park family wealthy, and buy the very house his father now hides in.
An American’s Viewpoint
Despite not being a Korean speaker, some comical aspects of the film do translate with ease. When Ki-woo and Mrs. Park observe her son’s art and mistakenly asks if her son’s self portrait is a chimpanzee, he very pensively remarks “amazing.” The camera work and lighting of the film itself all play a role in highlighting aspects of the scene in a visually captivating and reflective way.
The film emphasizes its focus on class in a variety of ways. Stairs appear to hold great meaning in the film. This is shown through the stairs the Kim family must descend to reach their basement apartment in comparison with the stairs leading up to the Park family home. Even when the Kim family is fleeing after the Park family suddenly returns, they are shown descending step after step to make it home. Likewise, the bunker is beneath the basement, requiring one to descend another level, is further tied to class. Similarly, the suffocation and crowding throughout the Kim home contrasts greatly with the open sterility of the Park family home.
The patriarch of the Park family, Mr. Park emphasizes an interesting point throughout the movie of not crossing the line. In respect to Kim Ki-taek’s position as driver, he mentions that while Kim Ki-taek appears as if he is about to cross the metaphorical line, he never does. This conversation is reminiscent of the idea of knowing one’s place, especially in regards to societal categories. As a viewer, I felt uneasy watching him toe the line with Mr. Park until he reaches a breaking point and stabs him.
This notion plays heavily into the distress of Kim Ki-taek. He sees the frivolity of Mrs. Park remarking on how the torrential rain washed away all of the fine dust. These microfine dust particles acts as air pollutants affecting much of East Asia and can cause serious health problems. I have never heard of this term in the United States but have commonly heard it in reference to East Asia. In the film, this term reminded Kim Ki-taek of his family’s homelessness and that of his entire neighborhood, all stemming from the rain.
Despite their position as a privileged family, I find some merit for pitying the Park family after what befell their family. Many moments paint them as a normal family, but I think this is the point. The wealthy Park family can be nice and worthy of some compassion, but the film still shows their blatant disregard for the wellbeing of those below them. When Mr. Park and Mrs. Park talk about firing the driver, who Ki-jeong framed as having committed illicit activity in Mr. Park’s car, there is an amount of disregard for what happens once he loses his job. Similarly for the previous maid, both individuals were never given the chance to talk about why they were let go. In this way, a true underlying point of the movie shines through: the battle rests between those at the bottom for the ability to take a step up, closer to the Park’s world. The Parks do not really care who serves them, as long as they know their place while doing it.
The Kims schemed their way into the positions by getting rid of their competition, but were also just trying to make a living. Their skills and talents are showcased, but they are not in a position to act on them. At one point, Kim Ki-taek expresses a sense of guilt aloud by wondering if the old driver, whose position he took, has found work elsewhere. His daughter rebuts by commenting on his need to think about them and their family. Kim Ki-taek then absolves himself, at least for a bit, of any lingering guilt. ‘
For me, the movie does not isolate foreign viewers at all, rather it draws them in closer to Korean culture through a theme omnipresent in its conception. The strain between the poor and the wealthy crosses most if not all cultural barriers. The luxury of options and ignorance afforded to those with money, such as the Park family, reflects American ideology as well. They appear almost helpless without their staff; Mr. Park comments that without a maid the whole house would be a mess by the end of the week. Mrs. Park superficially indulges her son’s obsession with Native American culture by buying him bow and arrows and a teepee to play in. They seem to live in their own bubble, one for the rich. In a different vein, I feel the little aspects that I do understand to reflect Korean culture, such as mention of fine dust, intrigue me with their usage in the film. Viewers can familiarize themselves with aspects to Korean culture and society. Even without focusing on these aspects, one can still enjoy the film for its familiarity.
A Korean’s Perspective
When I went back to Korea in August for a month, the first thing I did was watch “Parasite” at a movie theater. In this article, I want to explain the overall significance as well as explain the movie from a Korean perspective.
“Parasite” actively criticized capital and the resulting class society by dividing Kim Ki-taek’s family in the basement and Park’s family at a higher place. The two families, who seemed to have nothing in common or to meet with each other, start to connect through Ki-woo’s private tutoring. And as Kim’s family acts as parasites infecting the Park household, the film shows the upper and lower classes in Korean society are also mixed up, creating problems.
However, no matter how much Kim’s family tries to live like the Park family, there is a line they cannot cross: money. Throughout the movie, the two families are in complete contrast to each other, which has completely different results in similar situations. For example, the Park family, who came home from camping when it rained, put Korean beef in Ramen. On the other hand, Kim’s family had to evacuate to shelters after the heavy rain flooded their underground home. On the next day, Da-hye, the daughter of Park, picks a fancy dress for the brother’s birthday party while Kim’s family must wear donated old clothes. The parallel between the two families shows how differently we are living in one country.
I believe the most influential power of Parasite is its uniqueness and universality at the same time. After the Cannes Film Festival, one of the juries, Alejandro González Iñárritu, said, “It was a unique experience while watching Parasite. The film takes audiences into several different genres in unpredictable ways and simultaneously delivers messages worldwide with Korean material.” I also think Parasite’s power is in its core: it looks like Korean society, but it’s happening everywhere.
Despite its universal themes, there are several scenes only Koreans can understand. The film portrays the social and political backgrounds of Korea in places to divide the two families dramatically. For example, the ‘Semi-Basement’ is a unique type of housing that exists in Korea. According to Cine 21, “The South-North confrontation and lack of housing, created a type of semi-underground residential space, with laws allowing residential space underground and a culture of seeking profits by building houses underground.” Since semi-basement houses are way cheaper and more uncomfortable, they are considered places where low-income families live. There is poverty everywhere in the world, but the semi-basement housing in the film has undoubtedly shown poverty, and most notably ‘poverty in Korea.’ At the same time, foreign audiences were encouraged to sympathize with this poverty visually.
Also, in the first part of the film, when an insect disinfection car appears, Kim suggests not to close the window. Instead, he says, ‘It’s good to have free disinfection, isn’t it?’ In Korea, there are disinfection cars that move around the neighborhood regularly. They carry a smoke detector and sprinkle white smoke to prevent insect infestation. Koreans generally close the window while these disinfection cars pass because they don’t want the pesticides in their home. The fact that Kim welcomes a car for the free infection of the house makes us feel pity for him.
When Park’s family was coming back home from camping due to the heavy rain, she asks Choong-sook to make a ram-don. The original name of ram-don in Korean is ‘Chapa-guri,’ which is a combination of two Korean ramen, ‘Chapagetti’ and ‘Neoguri.’ Many Koreans have been looking for the best combination of ramen noodles, and Chapa-guri became popular several years ago. Originally, Chapagetti is black bean noodles, and Neoguri is an ordinary spicy ramen. So many people mix the two because they taste slightly more like seasoned black bean noodles. Also, it is cheap, and is available for anyone to eat.
However, Yeon-kyo asks Choong-sook to put sirloin in it. Beef and ramen is a strange combination because beef is much more expensive than one dollar ramen. But at the same time, it is also a joke about wealthy families who eat expensive meat even when they eat cheap ramen. Rather than interpreting it as an actual product name, the translator Darcy Paquet used the word ram-don: the combination of ramen and udon.
Nevertheless, the overall storyline and characters of Parasite are relatable to anywhere in the world because there are so many Kims and Parks in the world. Even though it is a classic Korean film, many foreigners can relate to the social issues and think about their own countries. It is an excellent experience for the audience to be able to connect with their cultures’ capitalism after watching Parasite. Starting with this movie, I hope the Korean movie industry will make many movies that can capture the social issues of the world.