Parasite ★★★★★

This review contains heavy spoilers. The first paragraph is spoiler-free, but read the rest at your own discretion.

All you’ll have to do is come up the stairs.

What is a metaphor? My personal definition is that a metaphor is something simple and concrete that conveys something much more complicated and abstract. In film, metaphors are particularly strong, because they can be visually dynamic as well as narratively. Bong Joon-Ho is perhaps the human being with the deepest understanding of a metaphor. He knows how to make one ebb and flow, how to make you comfortable with a metaphor without consciously knowing it is one, how to mix and match different metaphors to create distinct motifs to create brilliant themes, and most of all, how to imbue a film with so much metaphorical substance that it becomes a metaphor itself. The film I’m talking about is, of course, Parasite. And while the film is easily one of the best I’ve ever seen in a wide variety of ways, today I’d like to break down the first ten minutes of Parasite - with a specific focus on Bong Joon-Ho’s metaphorical prowess. Because indeed, nobody has ever mastered the art of cinematic metaphor quite like him.

The film opens with the title “Parasite” superimposed upon the basement of the Kims’ semi-basement window and the opening piece of score playing - the screenplay describes it as “dark, but curiously upbeat.” This bit of score is perhaps the most interesting one in the film, as you can hear it going up and down - but not directly, more so in symphonic formation akin to climbing stairs. As we’ll find out later, climbing up and down stairs is extremely important. The window in the semi-basement is grimey, and doesn’t let in very much light. Light, too, is very important to this film. The day outside is a bright summer day, but it doesn’t feel like it because we only get a little bit filtered into Kims’ home. Half of their home is aboveground, half underground. In less than 15 seconds, the two most important metaphors in the film have been established. The metaphor of stairs, which represent going up and down in social status; and the metaphor of light, which represents the amount of opportunity and affluence that lies ahead. So we can interpret that the Kims have some opportunity to gain wealth, but it is partially obscured by their place in society - both figuratively and literally, since they live half-underground.

The camera pans down to Ki-Woo, the Kims’ son. Their neighbor’s WiFi has had a password put on it, so they no longer have any. Immediately, in the first line of dialogue, we are introduced to our first set of parasites: the Kims - at the moment, just for something as simple as WiFi. We also quickly learn what this could mean: the Kims could lose access to job opportunities. They will descend even further if they don’t get this WiFi. We are introduced to the rest of the family - Ki-Jung (the Kim’s daughter), Chung-Sook (the matriarch), and Ki-Tek (the patriarch). We also learn of a key aspect of Ki-Tek’s personality - he always has a plan. For the moment, it is to advise his son “for WiFi, hold it high.” He follows this advice, and eventually connects to a network in the highest part of the semi-basement: the Kims’ toilet. More metaphors here, all having to do with the theme of ascension and stairs. He has to climb the stairs to get to his toilet, where he finds a signal. In other words, the Kims’ are leeching off those higher than them - once again, both literally and figuratively. And of course, the fact that the highest part of the Kims’ apartment is a toilet which you need stairs to get to is a metaphor, too. This is only confirmed when Ki-Jung can’t get a signal standing below the toilet, she has to climb up to get it.

The film then cuts to the family folding boxes for a pizza chain, working together to earn a meager wage by folding as many boxes as they can, as fast as possible. They watch from a video tutorial, given to them by Ki-Woo. Ki-Woo is consistently the person in the family who leads the rest to prosperity. This is the first sign of it: he is the one who provides the tutorial, allowing them to work faster. Meanwhile, Ki-Tek is the man with the plan. A fumigation truck passes by, and Ki-Jung suggests they close the window. But Ki-Tek says to leave it open, as it will kill all the insects that plague their home. It will kill all the parasites. As the fumes make the rest of the family cough and complain, Ki-Tek continues to fold boxes, looking at the video obscured by the fumes. While this tells us something about Ki-Tek’s character - he loves to plan and will work hard to achieve that plan - it is also a bit of foreshadowing. The fumigation, designed to kill the parasites, harms three of the Kims. The same three Kims that are no longer parasites by the end of the film, because they have either died or failed. But Ki-Tek, who remains a parasite in the Parks’ home to the very end of the film, is not harmed by this fumigation. In the next scene, the pizza worker is scolding them because they haven’t folded the boxes correctly. More specifically, Ki-Tek didn’t, when he was doing it during the fumigation. She talks very disrespectfully to Chung-Sook, even though she’s much younger than her. We see more of Ki-Woo’s personality as he dismantles the situation, laughing it off and proposing that a Kim could take the job of an AWOL part-time worker. Another instance of them being parasites. But they aren’t the only ones - the pizza workers are obviously parasites, too.

The Kims sit down to dinner, Ki-Tek jokingly saying that they must celebrate the bounteous WiFi (which they parasitically got from a place “higher” than them). Ki-Woo’s wealthy friend Min rides down the street, yelling at a man peeing in the street, and walks down into the Kims’ home. He arrives uninvited and walks in without knocking. Later in the film, the Kims will have to walk up a series of stairs and open a series of doors just to get into the Parks’ home. Bong is showing us how rich people impose themselves upon poorer people, while poor people have to go through a series of steps just to meet them. Also, notice how Min’s journey to the Kims is entirely downward. He gifts them with the scholar’s rock, which is promised to bring material wealth to families. Ki-Woo notes that the rock is “very metaphorical.” Indeed, it is. He and Min go have a drink on the corner. Min’s scooter is again parked on a hill sloping up, as if it came from a place far “higher” than this. Min comments that the Kims look healthy, and Ki-Woo replies that they are healthy, but broke. It is then that Min pulls out his phone, and proposes that Ki-Woo tutor a rich college girl that he has been tutoring, and wants to date. He says he doesn’t want any of his college friends “slobbering all over her.” This proposition taking place right after Ki-Woo states they are broke is not an accident. Min could have done so because he felt bad for Ki-Woo, but that’s only part of it. It is heavily implied that he looks down on his friend, and only trusts him with Min because he doesn’t think somebody so poor could be any competition. However, this trust is misguided, especially since it is Min’s idea for Ki-Woo to pose as a college student. At first, Ki-Woo is hesitant, but then a bus passes, and you can see the change in his face. This is when his character begins to have a clear goal: climb the social ladder and integrate himself into the Parks’ home. The scholar’s rock is the embodiment of this desire. Throughout the film, Ki-Woo is trying to imitate Min. And while Min disappears after this scene, the rock is the remnant of his character. Just like Min, Ki-Woo is destined for something greater - or so he believes.

And with that, we are a mere ten minutes into the film. But in spite of this, we know everything there is to know, thanks to some of the most efficient exposition I’ve ever seen in a film. Using metaphors, dialogue, and visual cues, Bong Joon-Ho has expertly shown us the Kim family. He has shown us their lack of wealth, how each of them have a key personality trait, how they reach upward and see light, but ultimately still live in a semi-basement and experience the sun through a dirty slit of a window. He has shown how they live parasitically, feeding off of people like the AWOL pizza worker and the coffee shop from whom they use WiFi. He has shown us Min, and how Ki-Woo strives to be like him, and how this desire is reflected via the scholar’s rock. Key metaphors have been introduced - besides the rock, we have the motif of light and the motif of stairs. The stinkbug that Ki-Tek flicks is even a bit of foreshadowing for the symbolic smell that will govern the climax. In ten minutes, we know exactly what film we are going to get - one with outstanding metaphors, complex characters, and fantastic direction and writing. And the rest of Parasite is all this and more. There’s some phenomenal montages, a groundbreaking twist in the vein of Psycho, and the cinematography and production design and editing consistently team up to make your jaw drop. Seriously, how many people actually noticed that the Kims and the Parks always have a line in the background to separate them, and they almost never cross it, a visual example of how the Park father even says that he loves how Ki-Tek never crosses the line? And when Ki-Woo is having a final moment of self-reflection, he looks out the window and there is a line between his reflection that is obscured by light (another motif) and his actual face. It’s because of moments like these that Parasite is probably the best film I’ve ever seen - though 12 Angry Men remains my favorite. Well, not entirely because of this. What really wins me over is that Parasite has fundamentally changed how I think about class structure.

There is more than one parasite in Parasite. The Kims are parasites, obviously. The bugs they squash in their home are parasites. The pizza worker is a parasite, docking the pay they desperately need even though she also utilizes the work they’ve done for her. The Parks are parasites. They utilize the labor that is provided to them, often without even recognizing that it is being provided. A clear example of this is Oh Geun-sae and how he turns on the lights for Mr. Park, but Mr. Park assumes they are automated. And they are incredibly ignorant, too. Mrs. Park tells her friend how the storm was a blessing, since it cleared out the sky for their son’s birthday party. The night before, tens of thousands of people lost their homes because of the very same storm. But they got to enjoy it on their lawn, protected from the elements by their twenty-million-dollar home. But really, none of these people are truly parasites. They are simply forced to be. The aforementioned storm is a great way to visualize what I mean. The Parks aren’t impacted by the rain because they exist at the top, and the water flows downward. We see the Kims running back to protect their home, and they run almost entirely downhill. The water gets deeper and deeper as they approach their home, and it is 100% flooded when they reach it. They escape with only a few of their belongings, while the Parks’ son camps out on the lawn in his American-made tent, enjoying the rain. Everyone has to be a parasite, because that is how the city is built. At the end of the film, Ki-Woo tells his father, who is trapped in the Park’s basement, that he will earn enough money to buy the house. Then, he says, all he’ll have to do is come up the stairs. But as we cut back to Ki-Woo in his semi-basement home, we realize he’ll never save enough money to buy the house. It is simply too far away. He has to ascend too far to reach this goal, it is impossible. It would take 564 years for him to do so, according to Bong Joon-Ho. Ki-Tek will never be able to climb up the stairs. He is trapped in the basement. He is trapped by the system. So he will live out the rest of his days as a parasite, in order to survive. And so will everyone else. If there’s one thing Parasite taught me, it’s this.

The system is the real parasite.

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