Today I’m going to be analysing the Oscar award winning film, ‘Parasite’. This film was easily one of, if not my favourite film of 2019. It’s ability to tell a story of such harsh realities in a inquisitive yet humorous way was remarkable. Parasite sparks endless questions and debates about the social order and class system we live in, bringing awareness to the effects capitalism and social immobility can have on our everyday lives. It is no wonder that Parasite became a hit globally because of it’s representation of societal themes that are so prevalent and consistent globally.
In February 2020 Parasite became the first non-English film to win best picture at the Oscars, showing how much this film resonated with people across the world. I’ll be giving a summary of the film, so spoilers are definitely ahead! I’ll then analyse different parts of the film and the questions they raise about our social and economic systems.
This is definitely a longer article today but hopefully a really interesting read! I had a lot of fun writing it so I hope you enjoy!
Parasite is a South Korean dark comedy thriller directed and co-written by Bong Joon-ho. It tells the story of the poor, working class Kim family who live in a deprived slum, desperate for work so that they can continue to survive. They infiltrate the wealthy Park’s home fulfilling the duties of tutor, art therapist, driver, and housekeeper. The Kim’s rely on manipulation and cunning deception to obtain jobs within the Park’s household. They act unrelated, lying about their experience and qualifications, convincing the rather gullible Mrs Park, into hiring them. The film deals with issues surrounding class division, wealth inequality and the effects of capitalism on our daily lives.
As the film progresses the Kim family discover the ex-housekeeper has hidden her husband in the basement of the Park’s house, an area of the house the Park’s are unaware of. It appears the ex-housekeeper and her husband are desperate in similar ways to the Kim’s. Moon-gwang, the ex-housekeeper, discovers the Kim’s secret, that they are a family, and threatens to unveil this to the Parks if they expose her husband living beneath the house. The film reaches a turning point when a huge storm hits and the Park’s are returning to their home after a failed camping trip. The Kim’s rush to tidy the home and deal with Moon-gwang and her husband. From this point class division tensions build to a climactic end at Da-song’s birthday party, the son of the Park family. The ex-housekeepers husband escapes the basement, bludgeons Ki-woo, the son of the Kim family, with his symbolic scholars rock and runs into the party, stabbing Ki-jung, the daughter of the Kim family, which leads to her death. Chung-sook, the mother of the Kim family, stabs the ex-housekeeper’s husband for killing her daughter. In a surge of anger for being disrespected and dismissed by Mr Park for so long because of his level of class, Ki-taek, father of the Kim family, stabs Mr Park and fleas to the basement where he remains, to the viewers, for the foreseeable future.
The ending of Parasite is filled with despair as Ki-woo aspires to allow his father to climb the stairs, metaphorically and physically, out of the basement he is trapped in, once he saves the money to buy the house the Park’s have now moved out of. The director explained that Ki-woo would never be able to achieve this aspiration because of the society we live in holding him back, revealing that it would take Ki-woo 564 years to afford the Park’s house. Demonstrating that our aspirations to sore up the social and economic ladder are saturated in false hope and impossibility.
Parasite is a brutally honest representation of the lives we lead within the capitalistic system. Bong fears that this social and economic order will not change for generations, leaving many stuck in a system working directly against them, no matter their aspiration and ability. I will be exploring some of these harsh realities resembled in Parasite in more detail today, playing close attention to how they resemble cultural hegemony, ignorance of the middle class, class division and the lack of social mobility.
The setting: use of stairs
The film follows two families, both leading very different lives. We see the Park family
living in a wealthy mansion on top of a hill, with large windows and modern
amenities. While the Kim family live in a tiny semi-basement, riddled with
The film heavily relies on setting to depict the different levels of class hierarchy, it
is as if, the less sunlight you have access to and the lower down your home is,
the more impoverish you are. The Park family literally live higher up, on top
of a hill. There are stairs leading up to the entrance of their home and can be found around the property showing different elevations. Meanwhile, the Kim’s live within a semi-basement, with small access to light. The Kim’s make reference a lot throughout the film
about how nice the light and sunshine is at the Park’s house, with their big
floor to ceiling windows.
The film uses stairs to resemble different class divisions, as if you must climb the
stairs much as you would climb an economic ladder. We see this at the Park’s
household with its assent up to the top of their home. This visually shows that
they are of a higher social class to the Kim’s who live almost below ground.
Perhaps one of the saddest scenes in the film is where we see Ki-taek and his children descending down the many stairs in the storm from the Park’s house to their home, which
they discover to be flooded. This huge descent down visualises the different
class divides, with the rich living at the top protected from the harsh realities
of the outside world, whilst the poor live almost below ground.
Capitalistic consumers and the ignorance of the middle class
A significant theme demonstrated in Parasite is the influence capitalism has had on the way we behave. Mr and Mrs Park represent capitalistic consumers of the middle class. As capitalistic consumers, like many of us, they do not need to care about those below them, nor do they want too, because not caring and remaining ignorant gives them peace and protection. Throughout the film Mr Park talks about drawing a professional line between him and his workers. However, this line stretches further than professionalism. Mr Park literally wants to live within his own bubble, out of sight and out of mind from the poverty that does actually surround him and his family. The Park’s are physically distanced up on a hill away from the slums and impoverished lives, but it is still very much there.
Mr and Mrs Park display ignorance by reacting to the smell of Ki-taek, this reaction becomes more and more exaggerated as the film goes on. Mr and Mrs Park refer to the smell as one you would find on a subway, a place they have not been in years, therefore leading us to question how they would know what a subway smells like. They connect the idea of public transport with poorer people, creating a social construct of what a poor person should smell like. Not only is this heavily disrespectful to Ki-taek, it is also ignorant of them. They are fortunate enough to live a luxurious lifestyle yet turn a blind eye to the poverty that lives around them, instead being ignorant and disrespectful.
The Park’s present themselves as kind-hearted people but they are the same as any capitalistic consumer, unaware of the struggles spent below them to afford their lifestyle, a struggle spent by the poor within the capitalistic system. It is easier to look away when you distance yourself from the social and economic issues of the world. The smell of Ki-taek and the rest of the Kim family is a constant reminder to the Park’s that poverty is not far away from them, causing them to draw a line between themselves and the poorer of society, purely for peace of mind in their own lives.
As capitalistic consumers, the Park’s have expectations of how things should be there for them immediately, an example of this is when Mrs Park rings Chung-sook demanding there be Ram-don ready for her when she gets home in 8 minutes. The Park’s expect service from the Kim’s immediately, much like any capitalistic consumer, desiring things as quickly as possible, giving no thought to how that effects a labourer below trying to make that happen. The night after the storm, after the Kim’s house is flooded with sewage water and they have to evacuate to a gym, Mrs Park, ignorant to the fact that the storm did more harm than ruin her son’s camping trip, demands Ki-taek assist her with shopping for her garden party, she also assumes Ki-jung will be available short notice, and both Mr and Mrs Park order Chung-sook to throw together food and lay out furniture for the party rapidly.
These assumptions from the Park’s, that even after a mass flood the Kim’s will be readily available to work, shows their ignorance that climate and world crisis’ have differing effects on different classes. Climate crisis has unequal repercussions on the rich and the poor. This is something Bong Joon Ho wanted to resemble in this film. For the Park’s, their camping trip is cancelled, but for the Kim’s their whole home is flooded and destroyed with sewage water, leaving their possessions ruined. The next day, when Ki-taek is driving Mrs Park she not only again makes reference to the smell of Ki-taek, she also on the phone talks about what a blessing the storm was because it has cleared out the air pollution and now the skies are blue for her garden party, meanwhile Ki-taek had to spend the night in a gym on the floor because his home was destroyed. Mrs Park disregards the amount of people who lost their homes in the mass floods, instead seeing the storm as a blessing in disguise. The Kim’s are hit with real tragedy whilst the Park’s are merely inconvenienced and quickly move on.
Another example of capitalistic consumer expectations is when Mr Park walks up the stairs in his home, he assumes the lights are on a sensor but actually Moon-gwang’s husband living in the basement below, hit’s a button for the light every time Mr Park walks up and down the stairs. This is meant to resemble that the luxuries Mr Park enjoys are often there due to someone’s hard labour beneath him. Mr Park chooses to be ignorant or unaware of this labour, relishing in the luxury. This choice to ignore is something many do as capitalistic consumers, feeding into fast fashion and next day delivery services, blissfully unaware of the impact that has on the labourer, potentially working in poor conditions.
The Park’s are ignorant to the poverty and socio-economic issues around them because they can afford to be. A further example of this ignorance is Da-song’s enjoyment of Native American culture, to the Park’s it is just a decoration and a fun activity, when in reality Native Americans have an oppressed and complicated history. This is not important to the Park’s however, as they allow their child to dress in Native American clothing and refer to Native Americans in incorrect and sloppy language. The main point of this is that the Park’s can afford to not care because they are not directly affected by any of these issues. They take what they want and stay on the other side of the line, turning away from any sort of complicated world issues.
These examples show that everyone on the other side of the line means nothing to the Park’s, they are merely a means to an end. The Park’s take dignity and time from their labourers, giving a tiny fraction of what they have back. Capitalism at it’s finest.
Cultural hegemony and social immobility
Late capitalism and divisions between the rich and poor exist so widely in our world because of cultural hegemony. This favours the ruling class or the rich because they are seen as the norm that we should all aspire to be. Anyone who falls outside the ruling/rich class is told to work towards that level of luxury. This is shown in the film when the Kim’s change their clothes and their dispositions in an attempt to fit in with the Park’s. They aspire to become them economically and socially, to liberate their lives through wealth. The poor aspire to be the rich, much like how the Kim’s wish to have the lives of the Park’s.
Within cultural hegemony the rich can create an illusion of social mobility within society. Whilst it is largely impossible for the Kim’s to reach a similar level of economic status as the Park’s, they are told by society that with a little bit of hard work they too could have economic freedom. This means that the rich stay rich feeding off the working classes labour, whilst the poor live under the illusion that they can achieve that wealth one day if they just keep working hard. This is the environment that capitalism thrives in because it means labourer’s keep working as hard as they can, for the rich, whilst the rich give back a tiny fraction of what they actually own for this service, trapping those in lower classes.
In Parasite this hope to reach economic freedom is shown the most in Ki-woo, the symbol of his hope comes from the scholar’s rock he is gifted by his friend, the rock is told to bring wealth to a family. As the film goes on, we see Ki-woo literally clinging to the rock hoping to feel its benefits. At the end of the film when Ki-woo and his mother are right back where they started, he has still not lost hope. As the film ends Ki-woo writes the letter to his father promising he will save the money to buy the Park’s house, saying that his father will be able to simply walk up the stairs and be free.
Whilst this is an admirable promise to his father, it is quite the bleak ending that Ki-woo will likely not fulfil this promise. As stated earlier, the director, Bong Joon Ho, explains that it would likely take around 564 years for Ki-woo to save that money, he will remain trapped in his social class working hard laboured time for low wages, stuck in his social and economic position, unable to grow from it.
Social mobility is stalled in this society, the capitalistic order is unforgiving and inescapable for the majority. This way of life is too normalised because of people like the Park’s who can live blissfully unaware feeding off the backs of the poor, keeping them below the line, stunting any form of social or economic progression for those of a lower class. The lower classes work as hard as they can, but it never seems enough to reach the level of the rich because social mobility becomes an illusion.
Disunity of the working class
When the Kim’s infiltrate the Park’s household, in order to replace the current housekeeper with Chung-sook, they come up with an elaborate plan involving a peach, a selfie, some hot sauce and a few lies here and there to influence Mrs Park into firing Moon-gwang. This plan succeeds but, Moon-gwang comes back to the Park’s house which then leads to the Kim’s discovering that Moon-gwang has been hiding her husband in the secret basement. Both of these families are poor, yet they fail to unite and help eachother. Instead they end up fighting in order to keep their secrets from the Park’s.
This lack of solidarity among the working class ends up supporting people like the Park’s even more. The wealthy live within their luxury, way beyond their means. Whilst the poor fight amongst themselves with what little they have. When Chung-sook speaks to Moon-gwang she explains that her family is not needy, the Kim’s in their semi-basement have that slightly higher level of hope in comparison to Moon-gwang and her husband. However, this also fills the Kim’s with fear that there is potential to fall lower than they currently are so they do everything than can to defend themselves.
Class division and tensions reach breaking point
The disrespect that the Kim’s end up feeling from the Park’s ends up intensifying as the film goes on. A growing resentment is created after the storm as the Kim’s now seem discontented fulfilling task they had originally enjoyed. These strained tensions explode at the garden party.
Ki-taek’s anger seems to come from his acknowledgment of inescapable poverty; he has lost hope. The smell becomes a symbol of that feeling. In a previous scene Ki-jung mentions that the smell will not leave them until they leave the basement. This smell reminds Ki-taek of his place within the system and he can no longer deal with these reminders from Mr Park of where his place is within society. As Ki-jung is stabbed and lies on the floor bleeding out, Mr Park demands that Ki-taek leaves Ki-jung to die and drives Da-song to the hospital after he faints due to the hysteria of the events unfolding. Whilst Da-song is Mr Park’s son, this scene shows how much Ki-jung really is merely a commodity to the Park’s. She is literally dying on the floor, but Mr Park would rather everyone focus their assistance on his son who has fainted. This event further enforces Ki-taek’s feelings of disrespect from Mr Park and he stabs him.
The Kim’s are intuitive, smart and resourceful. They infiltrate the Park’s house strategically. Ki-Jung appears to be one of the smartest in the family and shown to be the most accepted by the Park’s with Mrs Park wanting her to be at Da-Song’s birthday party to give him his cake. The Kim’s also mention that Ki-Jung fits in the most in the wealthy environment. Ki-jung was the member of the Kim family with the potential to scale the economic and social ladder. This is why her death is so significant because it symbolises that no matter how much you work, no matter the intuition and vigour you have, society says that you don’t get to move. Social mobility has trapped her, even though she had the potential to go far.
Who is the parasite?
The villain of this film is not properly defined because really, there is no villain. Both the poor and the rich are displayed in ways where we see them as real people, they have their highs and lows but ultimately, they act as humans, and they are not vilified for that.
We see the Kim’s who have dishonestly and deceitfully entered the Park’s home by lying about their qualifications and experiences, pretending that they all are loosely acquainted when in reality they are a family. However, they did this because they needed work. This family are not depicted as a lazy poor family. They are willing to work hard in whatever way to get by. We end up feeling sorry for the family because they very system they live in just will not give them a break. After forging the fake university certificate, Ki-woo says that it is only temporary and that he wishes to go to university one day to obtain a real one. The Kim’s are not bad people, they are doing what they can to survive in a system that constantly pushes them down.
As for the Park’s they are clearly a wealthy family heavily benefiting from the capitalistic system. They can feed off the labour of the working class to afford their luxurious lifestyle. They appear as kind-hearted but they are largely ignorant. However, particularly in Mrs Park, we can feel sorry for her being so manipulated by the Kim’s and how gullible she appears to be, she is after all just trying to do the best thing for her family.
Bong Joon-Ho explained in a video that the name for the film, ‘Parasite’, was decided because the Kim family slowly infiltrate the wealthy Park’s house, much like a parasite. However, this film is riddled with symbolism and many have argued that the term parasite can be flexibly applied to all the characters within this film. Including Moon-gwang and her husband in the basement. It is largely up to interpretation.
Parasite is a very interesting film riddled with deep meanings connected to our social and economic systems. It gives us a lot to think about, including what needs to change in society. Perhaps the darkest part of this film is that it is a depiction of our very lives. The comparisons of class we see between the Kim’s and the Park’s shows how deep class divides are becoming and how social mobility is becoming impossible within a capitalistic system. It is also insightful to see that as capitalistic consumers, we often behave and live in ignorance whilst the rest of the world suffers, and that needs to change. Parasite raises many questions and it’s a thoroughly symbolic film of the very world we all live in.
This film is a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains, all leading to a violent tangle and a headlong plunge down the stairs.Bong Joon-Ho