Written by Leah Park
Bong Joon-Ho’s newest film, Parasite, was released to spook viewers in theaters around the globe this October, becoming the first ever Korean film to obtain the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and another notable addition to the increasingly popular Korean New Wave film genre. In Parasite, a film allegorizing the “parasitic,” borderline symbiotic relationship between the upper class (represented by the Park family) and the lower class (represented by the Kim family), Bong argues that these two classes depend on one another in an unhealthy relationship. This relationship ends up consuming both the Kim and Park families, despite being initiated and maintained by the very class society that they live in. Bong presents his audience with an important question through his juxtaposition-heavy filmmaking style: which class needs the other more?
Parasite begins in the hot monsoon summer season of South Korea, introducing to the audience the family that represents the lower class: the Kims. They live in a small “semi-basement,” a form of household often attributed to the lower class in South Korea, and are constantly looking for ways to make money—legally or not. The Kims are gifted a rock by a family friend’s son, Min-hyuk, who promises them that it will grant them material wealth. Ki-woo, the son of the Kim family, finds work through Min-hyuk as a tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Park family, Da-hye. From there, the Kims begin creating the circumstances that lead to the dismissal of each member of the Park’s household, until the entire Kim family have replaced the entire Park household staff: Ki-woo serves as a tutor for the Park’s youngest daughter, Mrs. Kim serves as the new housekeeper, Mr. Kim serves as Mr. Park’s driver, and Ki-jeong serves as the art tutor for Park family’s youngest son.
The film eventually progresses into showing more of the unhealthy, dependent nature of the relationship between the Kims and Parks. It is through this relationship that the director displays the allegorical relationship between lower and upper class society. While the Kims struggle to understand the nature of upper class society, the Parks are unable to tolerate the idea that the lower class deserve humanity. Along with other scenes, Bong demonstrates the cruelty of the upper class through Mr. and Mrs. Park’s —here, the Parks dehumanize the lower class by remarking on their “quaint” behavior and unpleasant smell. Eventually, the relative peace between the two families is broken by the weight of these class differences. The relationship deteriorates further and further until the two families come to blows in a violent, fatal confrontation, where (spoiler!) Mr. Park recoils from the “poor” smell of Mr. Kim during a fight, leading Mr. Kim to snap and fatally stab Mr. Park. The film thus ends with members of the Kim and Park family murdered or seriously injured due to the inability of the two classes to understand one another. The Parks disappear from the house they once called home, while the Kims are left in the bleak cold of winter, with Ki-woo looking soberly and knowingly into the camera before the film abruptly cuts to credits.
I would often hear the audience laugh at a particularly absurd moment, only for the laughter to abruptly end as something horrific was then shown on screen.
When I left the theater after watching this film, I —and I think a lot of the audience— was left with an immense sense of inner-conflict, since what we had seen allegorized the problems with today’s class society, specifically with regard to the relationship between the upper and lower classes. And I think that is what Bong intended to do with his direction for the film, as he stated to GoldDerby that it’s “a very natural duty for creators to reflect the times they live in.” Not unlike the lower and upper classes of today’s society, the Kims couldn’t survive without the Park family’s funding, while the Parks could not survive without a lower class staff performing the tasks they are incapable of doing as a result of their gross wealth.
Though Bong is interested in showing the interdependence between upper and lower class, he is also sure to highlight the staunch differences between the two, as represented by the completely opposite reactions of the Kims and Parks to the same situation. This duality is most strongly shown in the emotional climax of the film, in which a heavy torrent of monsoon rain (common in South Korea during the summer season) fills the theater screen. While the Park family cannot go on their birthday camping trip as they originally planned and must return home early because of the rain, the rain instead allows for them to enjoy a gathering of other socialites at their home without trouble. The Kims, on the other hand, return to find their “semi-basement” home flooded, displacing them and forcing them to stay in a crowded gymnasium with the other lower class members of society.
Bong emphasizes the difference between the classes not just through his characters, but also with the setting. There is a beautiful moment in this scene of the film where, as the Kim family (sans Chung-sook) flees from the Park family, we see the physical and metaphorical difference between the upper and lower class as the three members of the Kim run barefoot, wet, and cold through the heavy rain (that barely disturbs the sleeping Park family) into the poorer parts of the city. The family’s staggering descent downward via tunnels and stairs symbolizes the increasingly dehumanizing conditions of the poorer class, where the lower they go, the worse the conditions. This contrast is made even more apparent when, the morning after the monsoon storm, Mrs. Park calls Ki-jeong from inside her large walk-in dresser as she puts on makeup, inviting her to her son’s birthday party. Ki-jeong wearily answers her call from her position on the gymnasium floor, where she is searching through a pile of clothes with the other lower class families who are without a home.
What I find most important about this film is the feeling of conflict it creates within the audience using contrast, often using symbols or differences in tone. I would often hear the audience laugh at a particularly absurd moment, only for the laughter to abruptly end as something horrific was then shown on screen. Bong and many other directors of Korean thriller often use this very technique in the aforementioned Korean New Wave film genre, a genre that includes titles such as Oldboy by Park Chan-wook and Train to Busan by Yeon Sang-ho. By contrasting humor with horror, the audience is left mistrusting their perception of the happenings on screen. As a result, we are drawn further into the world depicted in the film because often this world is not outrightly horrifying, nor is it outrightly humorous. However, the mixing of both of these genres often leads to a sense of paradoxical emotions and absurdity. This duality highlights the horror of the class conflict between the Kims and the Parks, underscoring exactly what Bong wants us to see this situation as: absurd. The fact that the Kims are able to manipulate their entire family into the employment of the Parks is absurd. The fact that the Parks are unable to function properly without the help of the lower class Kim family is absurd. The fact that society has made this very situation possible in a realistic sense is absurd.
Bong, by leaving us with a final still of Ki-woo look straight at us seems to ask us, the audience, what we are going to do about the horrors of the film. And I find myself asking, yeah, what am I going to do about it? What are we, together, going to do about it?
Bong wants us to embrace this question, even if it makes us feel conflicted.