This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Houston Coley’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I'm not the biggest fan of reading long essays on Letterboxd, and this is definitely one of those - so if you'd like to read it on Medium with some photos and headers, check it out here: link.medium.com/QdG86fMem1
“This is so metaphorical!”
This. This right here. Wow. I don’t wanna speak too soon, but Parasite might be among the best films of the decade. It’s the rare mix of accessible mainstream storytelling that anyone can enjoy, accompanied by plenty of subtle and layered filmmaking for fans to dissect in years to come. It might be The Movie We Need Right Now™, but it’s also the movie we’ve always needed and the movie we can all engage with.
Parasite exemplifies how sometimes the best way to get Westerners to wake up to the problems in their own culture is to paint the big picture through the lens of a foreign one. If this film had been made by Americans, with the rich family as Beverly Hills divas and the poor family as illegal immigrants or another tired cliché, we’d probably be calling the whole thing on-the-nose and heavy-handed; and unproductively, the high-class people indicted by it would be as up-in-arms as a boomer watching the end of Blackkklansman.
But that’s what seeing a story through the eyes of another culture does: it illuminates the universal human problem at the core while eradicating the touchy political specifics, stereotypes and labels of our own. It allows the viewer to listen without knee-jerking to their preconceived beliefs. Parasite is as much a film about class struggles in Seoul, South Korea as it is about the universal class struggles around the world.
Throughout the film, Bong Joon-Ho masterfully shapes an ever-changing tone, depicting a societal breaking point through a cloudy and disenchanted lens…but he never feels motivated solely by anger or cynicism alone. The real motivator in Parasite, despite the film’s bleak outcome, is one of empathy.
“Oh, so you have a plan?” family patriarch Kim Ki-Taek asks his son Ki-Woo optimistically near the beginning of the film. This question is repeated many times throughout the rest of the tale. “Hey. Our phones are dead. The WiFi is shutoff. What’s your plan?” Kim’s wife Chung-Sook asks him expectantly. “Don’t you have a plan?!” a shocked Ki-Taek asks the wiry Geun-sae, who has accepted his place below the ground and stopped trying to climb the social staircase. “Don’t worry, I have a plan,” Ki-Taek assures his son after things go awry and their entire semi-basement home is flooded. Ki-Woo makes a similar assurance at the very end, planning and promising to work his way up in the world and make enough money to free his father from abject poverty.
If you’re poor, the world always expects you to have a “plan” to get un-poor. That’s the American dream, isn’t it? That’s why capitalism is the solution to all our problems. Because even if you’re slumming it in the lowest of the low, if you pour enough hard work and vigor into pulling yourself up, you’ll eventually find success and reach the top. You’ll be home, where you belong, watching rain falling on the lawn and drinking yourself silly.
Pretty weird, though, how in order to eventually become part of the high-class, you’ll have to spend most of your days serving the high-class without any hint of eventual payoff. They might start to treat you kindly. They might share some of their food with you. They might even invite you to a few birthday parties. But in the end, you’ll always be a commodity, working for salvation at the expense of your own life. In the end, they’ll still complain about your smell behind your back, or make up an excuse to fire you because the truth is too embarrassing. And in the end, like Ki-Jung, you’ll realize you were eating dog treats like a house pet all along.
Remember: you can work hard and be personable, but Mr. Park just can’t tolerate it if you “cross the line.” Mr. Park is a video-game designer. He understands the woes of the working man.
Parasite is about a vicious cycle. The characters don’t succeed. Though we might like it to be, this is not a successful guide to eating the rich and ruling the world in their place. That’s not the moral of the story.
For one thing, the rich we’re “eating” are actually pretty decent people. The Park family is far from overtly evil or sinister, which speaks to Bong Joon-Ho’s aversion to caricatures and extremes. Indeed, the Parks are perfectly nice, and their cardinal sin is one of obliviousness and blissful naivety. But then, as Chung-Sook remarks, maybe they are only “nice because they are rich.” Their cushion of privilege emboldens them with the luxury of niceness.
For the Parks, everything that occurs will always occur in their favor. It’s not that they automatically gain whenever the poor lose. It’s just that whenever something truly negative happens, their wealth turns lemons into lemonade and transforms it into a minor inconvenience — or even a straight-up blessing. The rainstorm that flooded the Kims’ entire neighborhood with neck-deep sewage water? Sure, it meant the Parks had to pack up their tent and outdoor projector and come home. But, as Mrs. Park notes, it also cleared up the pollution for an impromptu Sunday-afternoon garden party!
Young son Da-Song sleeps soundly through the storm in a child’s play tent ordered from the US. Meanwhile, the Kims’ home is irreparably destroyed and they’re left sleeping on the floor of a gym. This is why the members of the high-class, in all their safety and privilege, find it so hard to care about the effects of climate change. Whatever happens to the rest of the world will affect their lives very little. And as we all know, the poor people who live on the coastlines will all just sell their homes and move to a nicer place. That will totally happen.
In another stroke of luxury, the Parks can also afford to embrace and pursue their personal giftings, and receive help for their shortcomings to remove all possibility of failure. Older daughter Da-Hye might not be good at English, but she can get a tutor to help her. Da-Song, a fanboy at heart, has parents who will endorse and encourage all of his interests, from art projects to Native-American dress-up. Indeed, he’s immune to the outside world enough to appropriate the culture of an oppressed people for his own fun and games.
Da-Song’s mundanely juvenile artistic skills are over-rewarded and overanalyzed, while someone like Ki-Jung could never hope to get into an art school even with her knowledge of Photoshop. The expressive, unrepressed and emotionally impulsive nature every person buries deep down is allowed to run wild in Da-Song because of his young age and his family’s affluence.
Kim family patriarch Ki-Taek has had some of the same animalistic aggression bubbling up inside him for years due to his own destitution, but to set it free or act on it would only harm his prospects even further. Better to put on a happy face and just do what the rich man asks, right? He’s paying generously, after all.
The film’s penultimate scene features Ki-Taek wearing a Native American headdress for Da-Song’s party. Mr. Park is wearing one too. But while Park looks almost stylish, comfortable, content in his privilege to be appropriating the imagery of an oppressed culture millions of miles away, Kim looks a little pathetic. In a certain sense, he is the Native American. Minutes later, Ki-Taek will be the one to turn and kill Mr. Park with a kitchen knife. The smell never bothered him, anyway.
Parasite feels like it accepts violence as an inevitability - a result of the boiling water overflowing and attempting to upend the status quo - but it also reinforces the idea that violence is ultimately futile, and may further cement the divide.
Violently taking down the rich may lead to short-term catharsis, but it’s a vicious cycle that will place you right back where you started. For all his attempts to work his way up, everything Ki-Taek does ultimately lands him back in the bunker, worshipping his high-class overlord for lack of anything else to do, just like the now-deceased Geun-Se. One wonders how many of Geun-Se’s other, more violent actions Ki-Taek might be doomed to repeat given enough time.
We side with the Kims for most of the movie…until we don’t. As they achieve early success and start to get a glimpse at the prosperity waiting for them on the other side, the family becomes more and more hardened and downright cruel. At first it’s all part of the comedic tone, but then it’s not. Ki-Woo is emboldened to chase a loiterer away from the family’s front window — and his first choice of weapon is a massive rock. Ki-Jung drunkenly complains that the family should only be worrying about themselves. Chung-Sook pretends to care for the Parks’ dogs and then angrily shoves them away when they’re not around. Ki-Taek seems the most reserved, until something finally breaks inside him and he becomes the most extreme of all.
Ascending the social staircase (which feels like the best thing to call it, given the imagery) isn’t a peaceful experience among the poor. The attempts the Kims make to achieve prosperity ultimately drive them toward the notion that they must leave everyone of the "low-class" behind to save themselves. It's a notion that was heavily dissected in Jordan Peele's Us earlier this year. Later in the film, the Kims even violently clash with another low-class family to elevate their own status. Fired housekeeper Moon-Gwang begs Chung-Sook for her help as a “fellow member of the needy” - to which Chung-Sook replies “I’m not needy.” Later, she haphazardly kills Moon-Gwang as she attempts to maintain appearances with the Parks. There is no peaceful transition to the upper level. You must be as oppressive as your oppressor. Care about no one else.
And yet, even at their worst, it rarely feels like the Kims’ actions are the result of petty selfishness or coldhearted greed. Whether we can endorse them or not, they are always the result of a system that (seemingly) left no alternative path to follow. Ya know, it’s kinda like the scene in that dancing clown movie where he kills the late-night host, except with a whole lot more depth and moral ambiguity and conflict.
I only noticed it on the second viewing, but the film opens and closes on the same shot. Socks are drying on a rack hanging in the semi-basement by the window. The camera pans down to a hopeful Ki-Woo sitting on his bed. In the opening shot, Ki-Woo is searching his phone for a nearby WiFi signal he can mooch from - the first of many attempts to scrounge the table scraps of the wealthy and carry on with his “plan.” In the closing shot, as the camera pans past the snow falling outside, Ki-Woo is back in the same spot, this time writing a wistful letter to his father and promising that this time, the plan will work. How will he even manage to deliver the letter? Will his promises ever be fulfilled? We don’t know. But despite the dramatic and violent attempts to climb the social staircase we’ve witnessed in the past 2 hours, the boy is back at square-one…with only his mistaken ambition (and two less family members) left to comfort him.
This is around the time when I’d usually write a closing paragraph about the “message” of the movie; I’d love to talk about the practical takeaway of the story and what we can do to fix the problems it presents. But if the film shows anything, it might be that the ways we usually approach “solving” poverty and “fixing” the class struggle often just reinforce how things have been since the beginning.
Bong Joon-Ho has mentioned in several interviews that the Parks’ obliviousness to the problems of the have-nots comes mainly from their cushion of economic protection; they’re so sheltered that they are rarely even made aware of the world below their line. Not only have they rarely experienced true pain, but they've rarely had reason to even observe it elsewhere, either. As such, the Parks would rather stay out of that world altogether than face the experience of riding a dirty subway. I think many of us, including those who belong to the middle-class, probably have a level of self-inflicted ignorance toward the margins, too. When you start to feel empathy for the have-nots, it often demands action, and that's scary. But if Parasite does anything in the lives of the middle and high-class people who see it, I hope it shines a light on those margins, creating empathy and demanding action. Maybe, after watching a film that brings to light the least of these, we can start to meditate on our own privilege and how we can be more compassionate. Maybe we can pop our own bubbles and be more aware of how our blessings can be the curses of others. And maybe someday, if or when the whole system comes crashing down, we can rebuild it with new understanding.
All this, and we never even talked about the filmmaking! Gratefully, everything here feels elegant and masterful without ever being showy. There are some long oners here, but they never call attention to themselves. There are some great visual motifs here, but they rarely spoonfeed their meaning. There is some great acting here, but it never feels like “”acting”” meant for a showreel at the Oscars. The musical choices are potent, often ironic, and unique. The imagery is strong and crystal clear in its intentions, but the characters always feel real and never on-the-nose. The production design (and overall geography of the key setpiece) is constructed beautifully to allow for the maximum amount of Hitchcockian thrills. And with all those elements stirred together like a nice warm dish of Ram-Don - "what the hell is ram-don?" - Bong Joon-Ho has created his masterpiece.