It’s hard to define which genre best fits Joon-hon Bong’s latest feature, Parasite, a story about the unemployed Ki-taek family that takes interest in the glamorous lifestyle of the Parks. There are elements of drama, comedy, and horror, especially within the final act, and beneath all of the genre-bending scenes, there’s a message paramount to the film about the class divide that is especially resonant. Bong has created a layered film that makes the audience laugh in one scene, before sympathizing with characters who literally live underground. Parasite is a prefect film for this moment.
As the film opens, we’re introduced to the Ki-Taek family, who live in a cramped semi-basement and devour snacks and soda for dinner. The character presented first is the son, Kim Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), who roams from tiny room to tiny room, searching for a free wifi signal, until he finally secures one in the corner of the open bathroom. Desperate for cash, the mom, Kim-Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), instructs her children to check Whatsapp so the family can take work folding pizza boxes. Not long after, trucks roar by, pumping chemicals into the air to kill off stink bugs. The fumes waft into the home, and the living conditions feel especially dire and squalid, as the family coughs in a cloud of chemicals.
The Ki-Taek Family
Kim Ki-woo is soon tapped by his friend Min (Seo-joon Park) to tutor the daughter of the wealthy Park family. He questions why Min would ask him and not one of his university buddies, but essentially Min sees him as a place holder, someone who can keep an eye on her until he returns from studying abroad and can date her when she’s old enough. Kim Ki-woo forges his credentials, and one by one, helps the family ease their way into the Park residence by booting out the rest of the help, including the driver and housekeeper.
It’s during these scenes of chicanery and masks that Bong builds some of the film’s most comedic scenes, especially when daughter Kim Ki-jung (So-dam Park) fools the Park matriarch, Park Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), into thinking that her son has a mental disorder that shows up in his art. At the same time, she humors the mother into thinking he’s some prodigy, especially after the mom compares him to Basquiat, despite the fact he spends most of the film running around, shooting arrows, and pretending to be an Indian. According to the mother, however, he’s destined for greatness, even if he comes across to everyone else as a typical, high-energy kid.
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Around the midway point, the Ki-taek clan fully occupies the Park living room after they depart for a camping trip. They load the coffee table with fancy snacks and suck down shots of alcohol, while the dad muses that it’s their house now and they’re already living in it. Here, they dream about power and wealth, which forever seemed out of their reach, until they schemed and eased their way into the Park residence by forcing out the rest of the help. They also comment on the Parks, calling them naive, free of creases because their wealth is like a iron that keeps them stress and wrinkle-free. This scene portrays best the class conflicts woven throughout the film. Of course, this dream can’t last because the Park family returns prematurely due heavy rain. The thunderclaps mark a darker turning point within the film’s last act, when it really leans into elements of horror.
The turn occurs when the Ki-taek family learns that the former house keeper, Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee), kept her husband in a bunker accessible via a secret passageway in the Park’s basement. She and her hubby are a class level below the Ki-taek family, literally hidden away in a bunker, invisible from the world. At one point, the husband confesses he doesn’t qualify for the national healthcare system, and he can’t ever remember a time when he didn’t live underground.This idea of layers, lines, and people living beneath each other is reinforced throughout the film. Moon-gwang’s husband hides out in a bunker. The Ki-taeks live in a semi-basement, and the Parks live in a spacious home with open rooms and large windows with a wooded view. They can move around freely, unlike the other two families. At one point, Park Yeon-kyo comments that having a ghost in the house is lucky because it brings wealthy. This one line gives the audience much to ponder. Are Moon-gwang and her hubby ghosts, especially because he’s SO invisible? Do the upper class exist by living on top of those beneath them? The film seems to imply as much.
The class tensions escalate after the Ki-taek’s patriarch, Kim (Kang-ho Song), overhears Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee), comment on his smell, comparing it to an old radish and then a boiled rag. Any further summary would spoil the film too much, especially the stunning last 30 minutes or so, but needless to say, Mr. Park comes across as a grade-A prick. Kim is useful to him in that he never “crosses the line,” and probably never can class-wise, but it’s the smell that perturbs him, the constant reminder of people different than him, without the luxuries that he can afford.
All of this is contrasted by the young Kim-ki woo, who, despite his family’s status living in a semi-basement, believes that if he has the right plan, he can get ahead. He thinks that if he goes to college, gets a job, and marries, he can buy the Park home if it’s ever on the market. Yet, at the same time, as he looks upon the Parks and their wealthy friends during a birthday party, he questions if he fits into such a scene. Still, he remains optimistic, trapped by his youthful idealism.
Bong has created an film of divides, layers, and divisions, one in which everyone is wearing a mask. The Ki-taeks pretend to be more credentialed than they are to move into a home they desire. The Parks act friendly on the surface, but the parents especially reserve their true feelings about people like the Ki-taeks for private conversations. At the same time, Parasite is a genre-bending film very much rooted in the idea of ghosts, of those we don’t see even though they exist all around us. They are drivers, tutors, and housekeepers. Yet, below those jobs, there’s a class we hardly acknowledge or discuss, best exemplified by a bunker-bound husband who has no health insurance and is only comforted by the love of his wife. Parasite is a film that truly exemplifies 2019, when the world constantly feels like its on the brink of collapse, driven, in large part, by a yawning class divide, and controlled by families like the Parks who don’t want anyone else “crossing” that invisible line.