Parasite (Gisaengchoong) (2019)

Parasite (Gisaengchoong) first published by

Parasite (Gisaengchoong) opens with a street-level view, partially obstructed by socks hanging from the ceiling, through the upper window of a semi-basement apartment, before the camera tilts down to twenty-something Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) inside, trying to get reception on his mobile phone. From the moment that Ki-woo declares, “We’re screwed – no more free wi-fi,” it immediately becomes clear that the title refers to him and the rest of his family – father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) – who are piggybacking off their neighbours’ broadband service to gain access to the Internet and the connection that it affords to the outside world. Unemployed and always struggling to get by, the Kims are close-knit (of necessity, in their cramped quarters), as downtrodden and dependent on others for survival as the ‘stink bugs’ that infest their home, and used to working together as a team, even if their latest scheme – folding pizza boxes for petty cash – shows that they can be careless too. 

“What’s your plan?”, Chung-sook will ask her husband Ki-taek, a demoralised man whose life has been one long series of failed business ventures and personal indignities. Yet it is the son, Ki-woo, who will come up with a plan, when his more successful friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) visits with two gifts: a scholar’s rock from his grandfather’s collection said to bring material wealth to families, and an offer to take over a job tutoring a superrich family’s teenaged daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so) in English while Min-hyuk – her usual tutor – goes studying abroad. “This is so metaphorical,” says Ki-woo upon seeing the heavy rock, using an expression that he will repeat several times in Parasite – and he is, for all his wide-eyed enthusiasm, not wrong. For in the film, the rock will become a recurring motif – a brain-bashing objective correlative for the solid if invisible boundary between success and failure. Indeed Parasite itself, like writer/director Bong Joon-ho’s earlier feature Snowpiercer (2013), will play itself out as an extended social metaphor, allegorising the haves, the have-nots and the uneven flow of capital between them, in a rigged system under whose trickle-down economics an inconvenient downpour from above can lead to a devastating deluge below. 

With Min-hyuk’s recommendation and a prestige university degree faked by his sister, Ki-woo gets the job tutoring Da-hye, and enters the employ of the Park Family – Da-hye’s stay-at-home mother Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), tech company father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), and younger brother Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). The Parks’ huge modernist home and spacious garden – all designed by a famous architect who had himself previously lived there – represent a dreamworld of luxury and abundance that obviously contrasts with the Kims’ dingy residence. Again resorting to deception, Ki-woo lands Ki-jung a job as ‘art therapist’ for young Da-song, and then the Kims conspire to dislodge the Parks’ chauffeur Yoon (Park Geun-rok) and long-term housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) from their positions so that Ki-taek and Chung-sook can take over their jobs. This infiltration of the Park household is conducted with precise military planning, and even scripted and rehearsed (like a film!). It is an impressively co-ordinated invasion, but also callous and casually cruel, preying upon the Parks’ shallow naïveté while pushing their previous employees out of the way. Still, the Kims are desperate, and it is not as though their very real collective talents had otherwise ever got them anywhere. For it is obvious that, without cheating, without lying, without being willing to trample over others, they had previously been stuck in a rut of hand-to-mouth poverty and dispossession, and were going nowhere – and in this new bid for a modicum of upward mobility, they do not have the luxury of kindness that the privilege of wealth affords people like the Parks. As Chung-sook puts it, partying one evening with her family at the Park house as if it were her own while the Parks themselves are away: “If I had all this money, I’d be nice too!”

Parasite is an examination of the trap of class, riffing off Kim Ki-young’s classic domestic thriller The Housemaid (Hanyeo, 1960), its sort-of sequels Woman of Fire (Hwanyeo, 1971) and Woman of Fire ’82 (Hwanyeo ’82, 1982), and especially Im Sang-soo’s 2010 remake – whose central family was, like the Parks, part of Korea’s superrich élite. All those films shrilly (melo)dramatise what happens when the line between master and servant gets crossed. Parasite also traces that line – a line with which the Park patriarch Dong-ik is obsessed. The traffic crossing that line is of course very much one-way. When Dong-ik discovers a woman’s panties in the back of his Benz, he has his chauffeur Yoon fired. “A young guy’s sex life is his own business, that’s all fine” Dong-ik reasons, “But why in my car? And if so, why not in his seat? Why cross the line like that?” Yet later, when Dong-ik and his wife Yeon-gyo are snuggling on their sofa, Dongik discusses the smell of his new driver, Kim-taek (“that smell crosses the line”), a topic which leads him back to those ‘cheap panties’ which he found in the car. “If you wear those,” Dong-ik tells Yeon-gyo, “I’ll get really fucking hard.” The Parks fantasise about crossing the line no less than the Kims, although the difference is that for the Parks such transgressions are just a thrilling game, without consequences, whereas the Kims risk very high stakes in insinuating themselves into the Parks’ household and play-acting, even just for one night, at having their employers’ lavish lifestyle. It is a point brought home throughout this scene by the concealed presence of the Kims under the coffee table immediately adjacent to the canoodling Park couple. Where the Parks are merely engaged in class-confounding sexual rôle play in their own home, the Kims are committing a crime, and their own crossing of the line, if discovered, could cost them their livelihoods or worse. 

Bong swaps the upstairs/downstairs dynamic of Kim Ki-young’s films for an uphill/downhill one, like in Akira Kuroasawa’s High and Low (Tengoku to Jigoku, 1963). For he contrasts the picture-perfect domestic arrangement of the Parks on Seoul’s suburban slopes with the Kims’ cellar life in a part of the city that is both literally and figuratively much lower down the scale. At one point, during a storm, the Kims and their home are nearly drowned in the sewage that flows down from above (“so metaphorical”, as Ki-woo might put it). Eventually Parasite will return to upstairs/downstairs mode, as a second basement home and a third family will be introduced, with Bong deftly switching genres from social satire to something altogether darker and more grotesque, as the underclass rises from the depths. 

As more and more shit starts to rise up around the Kims, threatening to overwhelm them completely, Ki-taek informs his children, “I’ve got my own plan,” in an echo of his son’s earlier words. Later however Ki-taek will confide in Ki-woo with a hard-learnt wisdom: “If you make a plan, life never works out that way… With no plan, nothing can go wrong.” Parasite ends with a new ‘fundamental plan’, devised by Ki-woo to rebuild his devastated family, and to elevate them above their station – but by then Bong has made it clear that such a plan is mere fantasy in a world where the poor will always be excluded from the good things in life. It is a youthful plan that can only end in the pent-up frustration, resentment and indignation that have built up in Ki-woo’s father. After all, some lines are just not meant to be crossed – and so, under the guise of an engaging, thrilling, rip-roaring piece of entertainment that would win both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards, Bong has delivered a spectacular deconstruction of the late-capitalist society in which we all must live together – if not all on the same level. 

Summary: Bong Joon-ho’s tale of two (or three) families divided by class is impeccably mounted, deftly switching from one genre to another.

Anton Bitel