by Jon Jenkins
“Parasite” is the new film from South Korean writer/ director Bong Joon-ho, telling the story of one impoverished family’s struggle to survive and thrive among one well off family. “Parasite” came out much earlier in the year than most Oscar nominated films this season, but it’s managed to keep its popularity high and stick with its viewers for months, enough so that the academy took notice during their nominations. “Parasite” is unlike any other film this year, in many ways, and it’s quite frankly a movie unlike anything really before it. Joon-ho and company have done a fantastic job with the story, creating something both so specific and recognizably “Korean,” while simultaneously building a scenario and reality that for many viewers will feel all too real at times.
“Parasite” was, to me, a film where every five minutes I thought to myself, “Ah ok I see where this is going.” Then after five more minutes I was completely blindsided, and then said, “Ooh ok now I get it, now I know where we are going.” Yet again, I found myself completely fooled and was deceived over and over again, in all the best ways. The story is a richly woven tapestry, a delicate song and dance of one lower-class family, leeching off of and exploiting the finances of a higher-class family. The story involves the poor family (who will be referred to as Son, Daughter, Mother and Father) each taking on a specific job within the rich family’s household (as tutor, teacher, housekeeper and driver respectfully) and keeping their relationship secret from the family, so they can reap the highest financial reward from them. This story has so much to unpack, but first let’s talk about how Joon-ho created such a dynamic and real family.
The poor family, the Kim’s, live both metaphorically and quite literally beneath everyone. Living in essentially an open basement beneath a tenet, where strangers urinate in their windows at night, they have to do anything to survive, including stealing WiFi from their neighbors and leaving their windows open during a neighborhood insect gassing for “free pest control.” Early in the film we see two Important pieces of information; the Kim’s are about as impoverished as one can be, sharing nearly everything, and that they are smart. You might think, “why is being smart so special?” and to that I say look at Hollywood's interpretation of the poor and disenfranchised. Hollywood tends to present the poor as “uneducated” or “lazy” and sometimes even downright “cruel.” Joon-ho on the other hand, shows the lower class, as far as the Kim’s at least, as smart, crafty, resilient, and frankly highly intelligent in their own means of survival.
When son is hired to be a tutor to the rich Parks family daughter, son soon opens the door to hiring his sister and parents in their respective roles; it’s in this early half of the movie where “Parasite” is actually very funny, being almost taken as a dark comedy. We see the Kim family enjoying a taste of the “sweet life” and losing themselves in the spoils of fortune and power, that is until one fateful night. When the Park family leaves for a camping trip, leaving the house alone for the Kim’s to enjoy as their own, the former housekeeper (who was fired to bring in Mrs. Kim) returns to “retrieve something she forgot.” Despite her better judgement and the concerns of her family, she lets the former housekeeper in, revealing an underground bunker in the Park house where she and her husband have been living in secrecy. This is where “Parasite” explodes from “dark-comedy” to “thriller” nearly instantaneously.
The shock of seeing not only a secret bunker in the Park home, but the fact that the entire time a man has been trapped inside with no food or water, this is one of the previously mentioned heel turns I did not expect! Suddenly the movie becomes a desperate survival movie, as the Kim’s fight to contain the other “parasites” of the Park family, and they must do everything to keep their place. This is a wonderful surprise from the film, showing just how far anyone can go for survival and security, and that the Kim’s are far from the only family trying to make it in this hard world. This leads us into, in my opinion, the best scene in the movie, which shows the Kim family hiding inside the house from the Park family (who returned home early due to a storm) and the Kim’s having to essentially spend the night hiding quite literally beneath them, listening to them talk negatively about Mr. Kim and his smell and how the Parks are “higher caliber.” This scene, while not only being masterfully tense and dramatic, is the key to the entire film; that no matter how much people get to know each other, class disparity will always separate us.
The films climax comes in the form of a birthday party of Mr. Parks son. With the old housekeeper having died from wounds she sustained from the Kim’s on accident, the husband of the old housekeeper breaks loose, knocking out the Son of the Kim’s and killing their daughter. In the panic, the Parks young boy has a seizure, and the Parks run to his side while the Kim’s run to their daughter. When Mr. Park demands Mr. Kim “do his job” and drive him and his son to the hospital, leaving Mr. Kim’s daughter to die from her wounds, Mr. Kim lunges at Mr. Park with a knife, killing him and causing everyone to flee, including Mr. Kim alone. Throughout the movie, Joon-ho has been building a sort of anger in Mr. Kim, while the rest of his family is simply happy to have gainful employment, Mr. Kim feels the condemnation and disdain from the Parks. He knows how they feel about him and his family, that they see him as lower, they are oppressors to the end, and Mr. Kim will no longer tolerate it.
As the movie ends, we learn of the daughter's death, Mr. Parks death, the Parks family leaving the house, and the reveal that Mr. Kim was never found, that is until the son learns Mr. Kim escaped the day of the party into the bunker, sneaking up at night to steal food from the new homeowners. Years later, the son and Mrs. Kim buy the house and greet Mr. Kim upstairs, now living in the home and status they once served. Bong Joon-ho as created a powerfully bleak and unique story, showing the divides among us in regards to class and status, as well as the lengths some people will go to achieve a level of satisfaction in an unforgiving and uncaring world. The Kim’s represent the struggle to achieve and excel in all of us, while the Parks, a sobering reminder that oppression exists all around us; and the ways in which society is built will always breed a front between those who have, and those who have not. “Parasite” is one of the best films of 2019, and is a reminder to us all, that the international film industry is a wealth of creativity and story.