Like many of you in the movie critique community, I was astounded at the unprecedented complexity and beauty of Bong Joon Ho’s vision in his latest film, Parasite.
To my great shame, when I first heard of this film and its plot in some dark corners of the internet, I thought to myself, “Great another highfalutin pretentious film about the evils of capitalism, and the appalling oppression of the proletariat by those at the upper echelons of society…. How original…..”. Don’t get me wrong; I recognize the arguments and criticisms of our modern economic perils. But like many of you know, when it comes to films and my dissection of them, these types of messages do not pique my interest at all, I am more concerned with the personal dynamics of the characters interacting within the story. It’s a shame to have dismissed such a powerful piece of art for so long… It’s like I had built a wall around myself, bricked by ignorance and a phony confidence in my sophisticated taste for films. However, this wall slowly crumbled every time I read a glowing review by a critiquer I admired. Until I decided to put my ego aside and see for myself what the fuss was all about.
And, oh boy, was I wrong… Sure, at the surface, Bong Joon Ho’s intent with this film was to depict the complexities of our modern economic structure where the disparity between the haves and the have-nots only amplifies with time. Yet, I found that there is so much depth and meaning carefully layered within this tale; I scoured through dozens of video essays about this film, yet noticed that nearly all of them focused mainly on this very issue, and to my great surprise, very few videos that I have seen here on youtube goes beyond the surface level, so… here is my miserable attempt to bring you perhaps a different interpretation from all other folks on this site. So, without further ado; let’s dive deeper into this tragic tale.
When I first sat down to write my thoughts on this film, I asked myself, “is Mr. Park fundamentally better than Mr. Kim?”. In other words, has Mr. Park earned the luxurious life he lives? Does Mr. Kim deserve to rot in a life of sweat and famine?… There is no simple way to answer this, but I believe it’s safe to say that in both the screen and the script, there is a gargantuan contrast between these two patriarchs. When we first meet Mr. Kim, we see him napping carelessly during the middle of the day, his wife and his children are scrounging around, desperately looking for work; in hopes for a day without having to go to bed with their stomachs completely empty. Mr. Kim has surrendered to the dismal circumstances he has found himself in, he is, in all essence, renouncing the reigns that lead his family astray.
Mr. Park, on the other hand, there is absolutely no doubt who is in charge of this household. When we first are introduced to this character, he arrives late in the evening from work, and though it may not be clear during the scene, in the script he is described as “tired”. Yet, despite his exhaustion, a few seconds after meeting Jessica, he assumes the role of a protector and instructs his driver to safely drive her home. And while it may seem like an insignificant action; It lets the viewer know that taking charge and giving commands to those around him, is cemented in his personality. Though this was the scene when we were introduced to Mr. Park, this wasn’t the first time we had seen him. Technically, the first time we see him he is proudly plastered in the center of the living-room wall, boasting his numerous achievements.
In contrast, Mr. Kim’s wall effortlessly holds his family’s dignity… with a sole memento to Mrs. Kim’s youthful strength. A fleeting strength that is barely keeping this family afloat, because it is she who bears the responsibility for keeping her family from starvation. At this point, Mr. Kim is a defeated man… he has no hopes, no dreams, no drive… without contributing to the family’s resources, he is nothing… he has no purpose… and like many other men without purpose, he smothers his deep shame through a perpetual slumber. And While he sleeps, his wife is the one in constant motion, creating value with her own hands… when push comes to shove… she is the one fighting for the family’s resources while he cowardly hides in the corner. It is surprising, at least to me, and this may be perhaps lost in translation… but in the script, it is clear that Mr. Kim is, undoubtedly, incompetent. Take this scene for example, right after the entire family finished folding pizza boxes, on the screen, when the young manager lets them know that a quarter of the boxes are folded improperly, it is difficult to know whose fault it is…. Yet in the script… it is explicitly stated that it was Mr. Kim’s fault. And this is one of many times, where Mr. Kim’s ineptitude has put his family in difficult situations. From inconsequential yet hilarious moments, like throwing a bucket of water to a drunkard, missing and splashing his son instead…. To more serious and deadly blunders, like half-way in the story where they discover the family living in the bunker under Mr. Park’s home. While his wife undertakes a very tense negotiation with these people, he is the one who clumsily loses his balance and reveals the family’s secret, putting them all at risk.
This is the reason, throughout the film, that Mr. Kim’s wife, Chung Sook, shows nothing but contempt for him. She knows he has crumbled from all the pressures encumbered upon him as the role of the provider and perhaps regrets marrying such a failure of a man. Mr. Kim, of course, feels the coldness and hatred from his wife to his very core, which is why he has grown immune to the berate of insults she constantly throws his way. Yet, despite his seemingly mellow facade, there is a great deal of anger for his wife waiting to be unleashed. Perhaps this is why, when he and Mr. Park are having a jovial chat in the car about how Mrs. Park doesn’t seem to be very useful at home, he abruptly cuts the flow of the conversation by asking Mr. Park if he loved his wife. You see, Mr. Kim feels trapped, he knows, (or at least, he thinks), that he is hopelessly useless. He knows that without his family he would starve within days, and he knows for damn sure that his wife has no love for him. Yet, Mr. Park’s wealth has bought him his freedom, he has the choice to do whatever he desires. Hence, this question shocked Mr. Park, in his world… people marry not out of necessity, but rather a desire… Mr. and Mrs. Kim certainly do not have this luxury, and this is perhaps why there is such bitterness strewing within Mrs. Kim. Unlike Mrs. Park, she has no picturesque beauty to offer, all she has is her brawn and her fortitude… attributes that we all can agree are far more valuable than plastic glamour. Yet, despite these great qualities, her homely appearance has relegated her to a life of poverty with no hopes to crawl out of the despair she was born into.
This is why her daughter, Jessica, often was reminded how easily she blends within this luxurious residence. You see, Jessica had the fortune of inheriting the skills and the will to thrive from her mother, but, unlike Mrs. KIm, she was blessed with stunning good-looks; giving her a real shot at making something of herself. Unlike her father she does not have to portray a facade of herself, she truly is confident, capable, and cunning. She is grounded, whilst her brother and father are untethered in their dreams.
This is, in my opinion, one of the fundamental flaws that brought Mr. Kim to descend into what he had become by the end of the film. Reality for Mr. Kim is outright painful. Like I’ve said before, his life is in shambles, his family is destitute and he has lost faith in himself to endure this ordeal. And though it may not be obvious, the position he has found himself in with his life is taking a tremendous amount of toll to his psyche, yet he has learned to cope with his situation by smiling carelessly through the pain and by having to manifest what I would call a symbolic display of pride. I think I could better explain myself if we take a closer look at a couple of scenes where this element of his personality is on full display. The first is during the fumigation scene… When he decides to open his window and let the insecticide spread throughout his house, his family immediately reacts to the poison invading their home; he, however, battles through the venom in his lung, almost like a soldier amidst a bulletstorm, the intensity of his determination is almost palpable. I think this scene in particular lets the viewer know that there is a spark of resolve lurking within Mr. Kim. But more importantly, this scene also illustrates Mr. Kim’s desire to prove to himself that he can still muster the strength to fight forth if his family is unable to do so. Though it is indeed a powerful moment for the character, and the scene’s construction is simply… astonishing, from the mechanical sound that slowly engulfs our ears and the sudden manifestation of the smoke, to the camera slowly capturing Mr. Kim’s stern demeanor. At the end of the day, this heroic display by Mr. Kim is futile; because as we know, by doing this, he was unable to fold the pizza boxes properly; leading to a humiliating situation instead of having the appraisal of his family and the heroic recognition he desperately craved..His own volition brought him to a grim reality that once again has made him feel inadequate.
This tendency by Mr. Kim is depicted once again, a little further in the story . After his son and his daughter secure a job with the Park family, they celebrate by going to feast at what seems to be a local buffet. They have a small interaction that at first seemed trivial, but the more I thought about it, I realized how crucial this little piece of dialogue revealed about Mr. Kim’s mindset. Right after taking a seat, Mr. Kim jovially tells his children and I quote “eat as much as you want kids”, and his wife almost immediately points out that he did not pay for any of it, it was his children who paid for everyone’s meal. Mr. Kim ignores his wife, at least that’s what I thought at first, but as soon as she says that, he immediately takes food from his own plate and gives it to his son. Which is quite pointless because A, this a buffet, he can get up at any time and fill his plate again and B… well it is a buffet and his son could do the same at any time. Once again, he tried to portray himself as the provider for his family and the fact that it is important for him to do so matters. He has built a faux sense of pride that helps him contend with the fact that he feels inadequate within the family structure. And it is his wife who brings him back down to reality and puts him in his place. And this is something that I found quite interesting, his wife is constantly doing this, bringing him back to reality. Yet, this seems to not bother him at all… that is, until later in the story.
Once they all have conned their way into a job with the Parks, and they have the house all to themselves after Mr. and Mrs. Park decide to celebrate their youngest son’s birthday by going on a camping trip, they decide to indulge themselves with some snacks and drinks and overall have a good old time family hang. They are all enjoying themselves, talking about how good they have it now and dreaming about what could be if Kevin and the Park’s eldest daughter were to marry. Mr. Kim mindlessly points out that at that moment, it is like they owned the home, and how cozy it is to be in such a luxurious home. Mrs. Kim out of nowhere cuts through this fantasy and tells Mr. Kim that if Mr. Park were to show up; he would scrounge like a cockroach and hide. This time, however, his reaction is completely different, he contemplates for a moment and suddenly he erupts in anger and grabs his wife’s shirt, almost as if preparing to strike her. Yet after a few seconds of cold silence, they both break in laughter and act as if nothing happened, and he claims that it was all a big joke. But to me, this does not seem to be the case… at all. This reaction was different because it was honest. The other times his wife had done this to him, there was a small part of him that knew it was true, and he paid no attention to it because he knew that as a man being out of work, he was failing his duty as a husband and though he felt degraded by his wife’s insults… he tolerated, or ignored them, because he did not want to stir the pot, and be left out on the streets. This time however, those words truly hurt him, because now once again he was employed, and he had talent in his new job… as much talent as it takes to be a simple driver, but nevertheless, this was Mr. Kim at his peak. He was truly invigorated, he had a reason to get up in the morning, he felt like a man again, and he was proud of the honest work he was doing. Being called a cockroach, when he is contributing to the family’s resources reminded him that no matter the circumstances, whether he was sleeping during the middle of the day or achieving his peak with the skills he has, his wife still viewed him as a cockroach. And I don’t think it’s an accident that right after this outburst by Mr. Kim, the story takes a dark twist when they discover the other family living in the bunker.
There are direct parallels between the Kims and the couple living underground. Besides the fact that the ladder do not seem to have children of their own, Mr. and Mrs. Kim are a spitting image of the Parks’ former maid, Moon Gwang, and her husband, Geun Se. Even the dynamics between these two couples are identical. Mrs. Gwang, just like Mrs. Kim, is the one begging and pleading for her husband’s survival while Geun Se, much like Mr. Kim is shyly simmering in the background trying not to call attention to himself. This is why I believe Mr. Kim seems to portray such a perplexing demeanor towards Geun Se. On one side, he feels sympathy and pity for this man, in the script when Geun Se mentions that his former business went bust, there is a strong reaction by Mr, Kim. He knows the shame of failing at a business…. But at the same time, there is a small part of him that is revolted at this man… Mr. Kim sees Geun Se’s current condition and is horrified and in disbelief that someone could live in utter squalor for so long without having to have any plans to do something about it. And even though it may not be obvious in the script or on the screen, I think that deep inside Mr. Kim knows that he and Geun-Se are one of the same. They both are around the same age, they both know the shame of failure and they both have relinquished their ambitions, but unlike Geun-Se who had accepted this reality, Mr. Kim was not yet ready to let go of of the delusion that somewhere deep within himself he had the aptitude to lift himself from the hole he dug himself into. However, this delusion was completely shattered a few moments later, when he and his children were hiding under the living room table after they cunningly covered up the mess they had done just a few moments earlier. Mr. and Mrs. Park decide to sleep in the living room to watch over their youngest son who spontaneously decides to spend the night in his tent right outside the living room window. The Kim’s are trapped and are forced to listen to the private conversations of the Parks. This is where Mr. Kim’s self-deluded perception of himself is utterly crushed. When Mr. Park tells his wife that Mr. Kim has a particular smell, like a dirty rag or an old radish, the camera cuts to Mr. Kim’s face as he closes his eyes, unable to hide his shame in front of his children. And it’s no coincidence that after this very scene Mr. Kim’s demeanor changes throughout the rest of the film. He is no longer the lovable buffoon nonchalantly smiling through the day. This time his face is cold… expressionless. Only his eyes give the smallest hint of the hatred brewing inside of him. Though I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Park’s insult pales in comparison to Mrs. Kim’s degrading gibes, I think the reason that Mr. Park’s rude but insipid comment truly ate at his core is because Mr. Park’s success, highlights Mr. Kim’s shortcomings.
Mr. Park is a beaming symbol of the things Mr. Kim thinks he could be but has failed to achieve due to misfortune. Mr. Kim deluded himself into thinking that he and Mr. Park were on equal footing, and perhaps confused Mr. Park’s politeness with respect. When in reality there’s a titanic distinction in both, attitude and character between these two. Mr. Park is a natural leader, he is charismatic, good-looking, he is decisive, and is at the helm of his family’s destiny. Mr. Kim on the other hand is just floating along, waiting for his wife to take the brunt of the workload, he cannot even muster the courage to confront a drunkard pissing outside his home. This is why the first time I watched this film, in the climax of the story at the Da-Son’s birthday party, I was baffled when Mr. Kim took the knife and stabbed Mr. Park instead of… you know… stabbing the man who had mortally wounded his daughter right in front of him a few seconds earlier. This gruesome finale perfectly exemplifies every point I have made throughout this analysis. When real danger comes knocking on the door, we see Mr. Park immediately take charge and without a hint of hesitation in his eyes jumps over, grabs his child, and is frantically trying to get him to a hospital.
Chung-Sook, as usual, instantly jumps at Geun-Se and is fighting tooth and nail to save her child’s life. Mr. Kim meanwhile is completely frozen, he is dazed, almost as if he is in the middle of some horrific nightmare. The sounds are muffled for a few seconds, we see him contemplate the scene, he sees his son bloodied and unconscious been carried away, he sees his daughter groaning in agonizing pain as she is but a few breaths away from death, he sees his wife nearly butchered by this crazed lunatic. But above all, I think he finally sees how he is incapable of protecting his family. I think this was the moment he realized that the man he thought he was was nothing but a figment of his fragile ego. He fancied himself a man of action, that would naturally fight forth when push came to shove, but when circumstances called for courage and bravery he was incapable of answering the call. All he could do was sit and watch while his family was being annihilated. Though he was unable to lift a finger during his family’s massacre, he without delay or a second of hesitation lunged at Mr. Park when he wretched at the smell of Geun-Se. He stabbed right him on the heart with the same knife that had claimed the life of his daughter. His resentment and hatred for the expectations he could not fulfill were far more potent than the love he had for his family. Mr. Park was like a blinding light that exposed all of Mr. Kim’s flaws, and when those flaws became apparent to Mr. Kim; he decided to demolish the very thing that had exposed him to this reality. He was unable to harm Geun-Se because, in the end, they were one and the same, they were weak and wretched men who had failed their families and at the end lost it all because they were destined to be critters living in the underworld. And Mr. Kim, frightened and horrified for the murderous act he had committed, scatters away and descends to live in solitude, surrounded with nothing but hunger and darkness… fulfilling his destiny and becoming the cockroach he was always meant to be.
Though I’ve just spent a considerable amount of time exploring the descent of Mr. Kim, it is my belief that the protagonist of this film is none other than Mr. Kim’s son, Ki-woo. The film is not about the Parks vs the Kims or the wealthy vs the poor. At the core, the story centers around this young man, and the tremendously heavy burden he is forced to carry after his father has collapsed under its weight. There is something about the complex relationship between Mr. Kim and Ki-Woo that truly drew me further into this tale. I found it odd how since the very beginning of the film, when everyone in the family subtly displayed hostility towards Mr. Kim, Ki-Woo despite everything showed nothing but the utmost respect for his destitute father. And though you could say that this is simply due to the culture in South Korea, I think that there is a little more to it than that. You see, he is in his early 20s, just about to enter adulthood but not quite there yet, and though he may know that his father is only a shell of his former self, he still believes that he can learn from him, and from his mistakes. And now that his father is withering away, he is encumbered with the responsibility to lift his family from poverty. This is why, when his more successful friend shows up to his home with the viewing stone as a gift, he ascribes such powerful meaning to it. The timing of the gift, even the rock itself is the perfect metaphor for the Burden he is to carry now that he is nearly a full-grown man. It’s almost like a signal from the universe that the stars are aligning in his favor. And sure enough, in a matter of a few weeks, he was able to swindle the Park family, securing relatively high-paying jobs for his entire family. Seemingly, he felt he had succeeded with this nearly impossible endeavor; and now he had the privilege to fantasize about his future.
Yet, this all came crashing down once again when the secret of the former maid was unearthed. After all the chaos, they barely make it out of the Park’s home undetected and rush down to their home in the middle of the storm. Once they get there they see that their home is nearly flooded, and they try to scrape whatever valuables they can salvage. This is where one of the most beautifully executed shots of the film comes into play, while Mr. Kim is trying to gather some essentials, and Jessica has sought refuge in the bathroom with a smoke in her hand. The viewing stone emerges from the depths of the water, covered with slime and muck; almost like it’s daring to be lifted and bestow its filth upon a new victim. Needless to say, Ki-Woo’s shakingly picks the miniature boulder, and once again, like a metaphor, destiny has chosen him to bear responsibility for this whole fiasco. This time however, he knew it wasn’t a simple matter of deceiving a naive housewife for a chance to earn some cash with honest work. This time it was different. Ki-Woo knew deep down that this time… keeping his family afloat would come at a brutal cost. This is why, to me, the interaction between Mr. Kim and his son in the gym was the most powerful scene in the entire film. Once they all have time to breathe and reflect on what had just transpired. In the serenity of night, when everyone is fast asleep; Ki-Woo reaches out to his father one more time. Timidly asking him what he had planned to deal with the people in the basement. Mr. Park does not answer directly, he simply says that but not having any plans, no one can fail. This moment is where Ki-Woo realized he is all by himself, he has no guidance from his father… He thinks this is his writ of passage. That in order to become a man… he must do what had to be done to secure his family’s future. And just like that, he grips the stone to his chest… burdening himself with the heaviest task of all… murder. This is why in the next scene, we see him staring blankly at the guest outside the Parks’ home. He contemplates whether a couple of lives are worth pretending to be someone he will never be. Nevertheless, he ambivalently descends to the bottom of the stairs, with the rock upon his feeble hands, shivering with every step he takes further into the abyss. And it’s darkly poetic how by opening that basement’s door, he unleashes the very monster that would eventually decimate his entire family. And the rock that he had ascribed such powerful significance, ended up bathing in a pool of his own blood. When he wakes up on that hospital bed and learns that his sister was butchered, and his father had himself become a murderer he could not help himself but laugh at this whole situation.
He, like his father, had been crushed by the heavy burden vested upon him. And to add to the absurdity of it all, The last words with his father have come to fruition, making plans lead to utter failure… and I think Ki-Woo, at this point, amuses himself with the fact that if he had listened to banal advice his father gave him…. none of this would have happened. And this is, in all essence, the tragedy of it all. Ki-Woo carried a tremendous amount of weight on his shoulders, he inherited his father’s failures, he was but a few steps to becoming a man.
But now, with his sister 6 feet under, his father buried even deeper than that, and himself with massive brain damage; there is no light in his future… his fate is sealed; he is doomed to repeat the cycle that had imprisoned his father. Which is why after Ki-Woo decodes the letter his father had sent from the bunker, he writes him back… knowing that this letter would never reach his father. This is why to me, this last message to his father reads more like a eulogy than an actual letter. Ki-Woo knows his father will wither away, confined in that wretched place. He accepts this dreadful truth, he surrenders the viewing stones back into the river; by doing so, he renounces the burden he inherited. And now he is able to mourn the symbolic death of his father. Yet, the last message to him was not one of brutal honesty, where he condemned his father for all his faults and decried the massive responsibility he had thrust upon his shoulders. No. His last gift to his father was a sliver of hope, a beautiful lie that one day he would be reunited with the remnants of his family and be embraced by the warmth of the sun once again…