The Festering Struggle Within Parasite

We love observing people infiltrate the rich and powerful, but we love it even more when their plan backfires. Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho, follows the poverty-stricken Kim family as they stealthily invade the wealthy Park family’s home. The Kims have a master plan for upward mobility, but their intentions become challenged by — quite literally — a deep, dark secret.

Though funny, the story reveals a harsher truth behind socioeconomic equality in South Korea with a suspenseful, spine-chilling plot. Winning award after award since its initial release in France, the film seems to be only gaining more momentum. The film has also received international acclaim.

Infiltrating International Headlines

Director Bong Joon-ho, well-known for his films Okja (2017) and Snowpiercer (2013), is flooding international headlines and making history with Parasite. After the movie premiered at the Cannes film festival in 2019, it became the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or. Seven months later, director Bong Joon-ho appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Then, in mid-January, the film was nominated for six awards at the Oscars.

Kim Ki-jung and Kim Ki-woo search for free wifi service.
Credit: Parasite; Barunson E&A, 2019

Parasite became the first Korean film to win the foreign film category at the Oscars. The movie additionally won the best picture, best director, and best original screenplay. The movie was released in the US on October 5th, 2019. Parasite was produced by Kwak Sin-ae, Yang-Kwon Moon, and Jang Yeong-hwan and released by Barunson E&A. The main cast consists of Cho Yeo-Jeong (who plays Park Yeon-Kyo), Park So-dam (Park Ki-Jeong), Choi Woo-Shik (Kim Ki-woo), Song Kang-Ho (Kim Ki-taek), and Park Myung-hoon (Geun-se).

From Rags To Riches In Parasite

Parasite resonates with a global audience because its portrayal of growing economic inequality is relatable. The movie first introduces the destitute Kim family in their cockroach-ridden, “almost-basement” apartment. Their only view of the neighborhood is through a wide upper window that gazes at the dirty streets. The window represents their limited hope to ascend the social ladder. The Kims earn their main — but unstable — source of income from folding pizza boxes; as a result, Ki-woo and Ki-Jung, the son and daughter, are unable to afford college tuition.

The Kim family desperately searched for free wifi from nearby shops and finally located a signal over the toilet. This starkly reveals how the growing demands of a modernized society leave them further disadvantaged. With stink bugs virtually living alongside them, the family purposefully leaves the window open to receive free pest control from a passing exterminator. Despite how polluted the air within the walls of their rundown home becomes, they do this because they cannot afford an exterminator.

Before the Kim family becomes a parasite to the Park family, they fold pizza boxes in their basement apartment.
Credit: Parasite; Barunson E&A, 2019

When Ki-woo becomes an English tutor for the wealthy Park family’s daughter, he seizes the opportunity to lift his family out of poverty by getting them jobs. As the scene transitions to the Parks’ household, the dramatically different standards of living are immediately apparent. The Parks live in a multistory, modern-styled mansion, spanning vast amounts of land with bright, well-kept green lawns. The Parks’ view of their beautiful backyard greenery through their wall-length mirrors juxtaposes the view from the Kims’ window, frequently obscured by a man peeing on the street. Along with the Parks’ wealth comes privilege. The wife, Park Yeon-Kyo, has the luxury to fall asleep mid-day on an outdoor tea table, leaving the household work to her private driver and housekeeper.

The Meaning Of “Parasite

Much like the way a living organism invades its host and feeds on it from within, the Kim family cunningly cheats their way into the Parks’ mansion. They gradually replace the Parks’ English tutor, driver, and housekeeper, and feed off their generous wages. Kim Ki-woo even convinces Park Yeon-Kyo to hire an art teacher for her son. During the family’s drunken celebration in the living room, while the Parks are camping, the Kims are convinced that they will be able to work for so long under the Parks that Ki-woo would need to bring in actors to pretend to be his real family.

Their poverty and familial relationship put the Kims at the whims of their previous housekeeper when she discovered their hoax. Conflict arises, revealing the simple struggle between rich and poor to be a competition between two poor families. The Kims must endure self-reinforced imprisonment within their own socioeconomic group. Another hidden meaning is that “parasite” — as viewers later learn — implies a four-year dark secret lies below the superficial surface of the Parks’ grand home. Whether or not they see it, the Parks live with the traces of an infection that is slowly creeping its way to the surface.

Old Radish

Kim Ki-taek is the father of the Kim family who is hired as the Park family’s driver. Unbeknownst to Park Dong-ik, the father of the Park family, Ki-taek hides under a coffee table when the Parks abruptly returns, bringing the Kims’ drunken party to a halt. Dong-ik labels Mr. Kim’s peculiar scent as an ever-present, musty odor like an “old radish,” a smell which Dong-ik likens to lower class people who take the subway. As a result, Mr. Kim begins to resent his boss on the basis of their socioeconomic disparity. While Ki-taek takes a serious affront, the comment also shows how the wealthy class distances itself from the working class. The class tension not only exists in economic disparity but also in social perceptions.

More Unbearable Than Muck

Parasite juxtaposes the two families’ starkly different households and reveals class tension. During a downpour of rain, the Park couple rest peacefully and watch over their son, who is sleeping outside under a lit tent, safe from leaks. Meanwhile, the Kims rushed home to salvage their valuables from their rundown home as the sewage flood persisted.

In the movie Parasite, Kim Ki-Jung attends the Park family's son's birthday party, at Park Yeon-kyo's request.
Credit: Parasite; Barunson E&A, 2019

In a vivid scene, Kim Ki-Jung, defeated, sits on the toilet located on the ledge of the bathroom wall. She lights a cigarette as the dirty toilet spews black muck. The scene powerfully portrays the learned helplessness of those who feel trapped by inescapable poverty. Dramatic irony is present when the Kims are forced to reside in a gym because of the rainstorm. Amid the chaos of hundreds of people affected by the flood, Park Yeon-Kyo calls Kim Ki-Jung to attend her son’s birthday party. Meanwhile, cheery party music plays in the background as people loudly argue over supplies.

Best Original Screenplay

It’s no wonder that Parasite won the best original screenplay. The interconnectedness of the scenes, powerful symbolism and stark contrasts work together to reveal the uncomfortable reality about social inequality. The camera angles, which help depict the social hierarchy, play with the dynamics between the extravagance and privilege above the ground and the gloomy suffering below it. Parasite combines frightening, basement-level thrillers with amazing cinematography that packs a hard-hitting social critique.

Is Parasite Just “A Funny & Scary Movie?”

While Parasite could just be “a funny and scary movie,” as Director Bong Joon-ho puts it, the Kim family’s fate shows how their hopes to ascend the social ladder ultimately become deferred dreams. This would explain why audiences around the globe have found this story so appealing. Parasite captures the audience’s attention in its most disturbing and funny scenes.

We pity the Kims’ circumstances, laugh at their adept ability to deceive others, and are stirred by their despair. Their story reflects the greater reality of the more inequality that is to come.

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