A Tale of Two Families in Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite

Artwork: Abigail Border

It’s not often that you emerge from a movie theatre knowing that you’ve just seen a truly exceptional film. Parasite gives you this privilege. It’s a rollicking story that tracks a South Korean family’s desperate efforts to climb the social ladder and escape from poverty. On one level the film is an immensely entertaining tale, at times hilarious, at times devastating, at times remarkably tender. Delving beneath the surface, however, you’ll find an emotional and moral complexity that truly sets Parasite apart, as director Bong Joon- ho grapples with issues of class in modern society.

The Kim family live in a basement apartment, steal Wifi from their neighbours, and fold pizza boxes for a living. The story kicks into gear when protagonist Kim Ki-woo cons his way into a position as English tutor to the teenage daughter of the wealthy Park family. The mischief continues as Ki-woo manages to systematically replace each of the Parks’ household staff with the remaining members of his own family – his sister as the art teacher, his father as the chauffeur, and his mother as the maid.

What appealed to me most about this section of the film was Bong’s ability to fuse comedy and suspense. There are laugh-out-loud moments, but we are un- comfortably aware of the precarious situation of the Kim family and wait with bated breath for everything to go pear-shaped. Sure enough, the hilarity quietens down and gives way to a shocking discovery – the husband of the ex-maid has been stowed away in a bunker beneath the house for several years.

The metaphor is simple yet powerful. Indeed, I felt the power of its clarity: the wealthy live above the poor, who are forced to struggle helplessly in servitude. Bong repeats this image throughout the film, so there’s no escaping its symbolic importance. Stair- cases too are a recurring image, and the Kim family ascends and descends these as they move between the disparate worlds of the upper and lower classes, desperately trying to secure a foothold in the former.

At around this point, the pace and tone of the film changes dramatically. The vague unease we felt earlier suddenly erupts, and violence bubbles up out of the widening crevasses between rich and poor. However, the way that this happens will likely surprise you, as it did me. Very little about this film is predictable. Bong’s masterful use of the surprise twist is part of what I found so gripping. I think it’s rare that a film with such weighty subject matter can be so much fun to watch. This feels particularly important in an age when people seem prepared to accept trivial online content as adequate entertainment. Parasite is proof that art can be both enjoyable and intellectually stimulating.

On the subject of intellectual depth, I think that the complicated morality of the characters’ actions is worth briefly discussing. The Kim family is forced to contend with a system that smothers people in poverty, to the benefit of those like the Parks. In such a situation, is it justifiable for the poor to act deceptively in order to survive, like Kim Ki-woo and his family do? Who is the parasite in the situation? Is the Kim family leeching off the wealth and benightedness of the Park family? Or does the Park family signify a broader kind of parasitism? Is the parasite of the upper classes sucking the blood of those beneath them?

I certainly can’t provide any clear-cut answers to these questions, but what I feel is very important is that the film doesn’t either. Social inequality is one of the most pressing problems in the contemporary world, and Bong manages to explore this with sensitivity and an appropriate degree of moral ambiguity. It’s for this reason that Parasite feels so relevant.

The ending of the film manages to pull a strand of hope from a seemingly hopeless situation, yet per- haps strays a little too far into the implausible. The social issues Bong deals with are horrifying and complex, with no neat solution in sight. For this reason, the strand of hope is tenuous and offers little comfort. However, I feel that film has the capacity, and thus the obligation, to be uplifting and bring about change. Although many people are of the opinion that Parasite’s ending is utterly hopeless, I am not entirely convinced. Kim Ki-woo’s dream for a better future is fragile, but not non-existent. One might be labelled delusional for thinking that such a future is possible, but I am grateful that Bong at least gives us the chance to dream a little.

If nothing else, the movie’s emotional power spurs the audience on to consider the positions and perspectives of those less fortunate, and perhaps to cast a more critical eye at the divisions that ravage our society.

The acting is outstanding, yet the true star of the show is director Bong, who deservedly won best director at the Academy Awards in February. It is a thrilling experience to have a director of Bong’s calibre at the rudder, as we are borne along the waves of humour, horror, and empathy with skill and precision. On another note, it is wonderful that an international film has been celebrated at the Oscars, with Parasite being the first non-English language film to win Best Picture. Perhaps this means the Academy Awards are on the path to redeeming themselves and moving beyond Western superciliousness (only 11 non-English language films have been nominated for Best Picture in 92 years). I wonder if this even signals the end of the ‘Best International Feature Film’ category and a shift to a more globally-minded awards ceremony. Separating “foreign” films from Western ones is an out-dated way of thinking.

What is certain is that Parasite will continue to entertain and dazzle long past the first viewing. Much like the characters find a hidden world beneath the Park house, the audience can unearth layers of complexity. Parasite is made truly extraordinary by its ability to tread the line between blockbuster grandeur and intellectual and emotional depth, and for that, it is a film you should make every effort to see.