Politics on Screen: Parasite

**Warning: Contains Spoilers**

Ever since it debuted at Cannes Film Festival in May 2019 and won its prestigious Palme d’Or, Parasite has been making waves. With two Baftas, four Oscars (including best picture – the first time a foreign film has ever won) and countless other accolades under its belt, it has dominated the awards circuit and catapulted writer-director Bong Joon-Ho to international fame. A much-celebrated director in his native South Korea, Bong’s work often touches upon social issues. Okja, for example, deals with environmental issues, capitalism, animal rights and corporate greed, whilst The Host explores dictatorships, governments and power, amongst other things.

Parasite is no exception to this, with themes of social division, class conflict and capitalism running through it. It follows the Kims, a Korean family struggling to make ends meet who are – physically at least – the lowest of the low. Their home is half-underground, with the highest windows peeking out onto the street outside. After son Ki-woo takes over a friend’s job by pretending to be a college student, the Kim family plot to infiltrate the home of the exorbitantly wealthy Park family. Daughter Ki-jung dazzles them by pretending to be an experienced art therapist, mother Chung-sook ousts the current housekeeper and father Ki-taek becomes their driver. The film is infinitely hard to categorise, switching from a black comedy to a thriller, to a drama and even a horror… but there’s one question that stays with you long after you’ve watched it. Who are the real parasites of the movie?

At first, the answer might seem clear. It’s the Kims, surely. They’ve seemingly latched onto the Park family and are reaping the benefits – well paid jobs, all the food they can eat and a chance to transform their lives. But we have to remember that the Parks are using them as well. They pay for the Kims’ services so that they don’t have to lift a finger; their every whim is catered for. The relationship between the families is mutualistic, not parasitic – they need each other. Accustomed to this new lifestyle, the Kims start to believe that maybe, just maybe, it could be theirs one day, joking about Ki-woo marrying the Parks daughter as they lounge about in the rich family’s living room. However, this fantasy soon comes crashing down when the Parks ring up and announce they’ve abandoned their camping trip due to heavy rain. They’ll be back imminently and expect to have noodles and sirloin steak waiting for them. The Kims scramble to clear up, with Chung-sook whipping up the meal just in time. Meanwhile, her husband and children hide under the coffee table – they have no excuse for being in the house out of hours. Once again, they’re below the Parks and later they have no choice but to listen in horror as their employers discuss Ki-taek’s “smell”. Little do they know, beneath their feet, a humiliated Ki-taek surreptitiously sniffs his shirt. No matter how hard they try to shake it off, the Kim’s position in society clings to them.

It’s a spectacular sequence filled with suspense and palpable dread, made even more poignant when the Kims return home and realise that their own house has been flooded. We watch them as they desperately try to save their possessions, the contents of their home floating down the street. For the Parks, the rain was an inconvenience but for the Kims, it’s everything. The visual difference between the two family’s homes slaps you in the face yet again, the now-underwater semi-basement juxtaposing the expansive, glass-walled palace set on a hill. However, the film still has one more level to reveal yet: there is a bunker underneath the Park house, in which the husband of the ousted housekeeper has been living for years. There are no windows, no light and no escape. After working out the Kim’s deceit, the former housekeeper threatens to expose them and brands them thieves, mere minutes after she pleaded with them and called Chung-sook “sister”. It’s every man for himself and class solidarity is nowhere to be seen as conflict erupts. The housekeeper and her husband see themselves as superior to the Kim family – they’d never deceive anyone like that – and place themselves closer to the Parks in terms of social standing. But this idea of moving up is only a fantasy, something that the end of the film seems to confirm. With his father trapped in the basement of the Park house, Ki-woo swears he’ll rescue him one day. He’ll make enough money to buy the house! They’ll be reunited! Despite this, the sad truth remains. Instead of reaching great heights, the Kims have only sunk lower.

– Miranda Parkinson

Featured Image Source. Credit: CJ Entertainment


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