On the surface, Parasite is quite simplistic in its general plot. Simply, we follow the story of two families; a dysfunctional low-income family (the Kim family) and a put-together high-income family (the Park family). We follow the Kim family devising a con to “infiltrate” the home of the prestigious Park family’s residence by posing as experts in certain “fields of expertise”; from a tutor, nanny, driver, and even child psychologist — their goal? Money, for the most part. However, beneath the structure of this film’s relatively simple heist-esk plot is a story that’s far from simplistic; brimming with textured themes and extensive social commentary.
First, there’s the Park family, head of the house is the suave and gallant husband Mr Park; a man who has everything he needs. Mr Park embodies the idealized South Korean man – the 1% – representing all that South Korea values and idolizes. To add salt to the wound, his desirable traits extend beyond even wealth; achieving status as both a family man and a devoted husband – he’s truly the whole package. Alongside him is his naive but well-meaning wife Yeon-kyo. She is a lovable, submissive yet caring woman — traits that make her prime real estate for manipulation. She is also someone that is easy to sympathize with, as her love for her children is genuine, if often a little misguided. These characters are hard to hate, even when they’re hateable, they’re also hard to like even when they’re likable – the mark of great character writing. Then there’s the bottom trawlers, the Kim family. Head of operations is Ki-taek and his son Ki-woo, both of whom represent the lower class. This father-son duo are the core of the Kim family and what they represent.
The characters truly are the core to Parasite, who stand on top and who lie below. The Kim family’s ruse to worm themselves into the Park family is one that is rewarded. But Ki-taek and his son Ki-woo are hungry for more than just money; they hunger for a taste of the good life – free from the shackles of judgement, the smell that permeates from their poverty, the inescapable knowledge that perhaps they may never be accepted into upper echelon of class simply because of the circumstances of their birth. Throughout this entire narrative we are probed with questions regarding class; is it something you earn or is it intrinsic to your very nature? Parasite poses these questions at a rapid-fire rate.
So, what does it all mean? Well, it all depends on exactly who you ask. The very name Parasite in and of itself spurs people into speculating what writer-director Bong Joon-Ho specifically regards as the parasite in Parasite. Some may say that the “parasite” is the Park family; as the super-rich are responsible for the suffering of the poor. Others may say the “parasite” is the Kim family; as they are lie, cheat, and steal to attain wealth, no matter the repercussions. There are even those who say the “parasite” is money itself, that it poisons everyone. Another common view you’ll hear is that the “parasite” is capitalism. It must surely be testament to the genius of this screenwriting if such a film has so much discrepancy about its meanings.
It’s tempting to sit down and interpret the story’s primary theme as a criticism of capitalism, money, or greed; after all, this is a film about a impoverished family conning a wealthy one. But to my view, denigrating this film down to simply being a cautionary tale about greed or capitalism does not fit with what we’re actually being shown or told on-screen. To view this film through the lens of “money and greed is the cause” is to me a very restrictive perspective; sure, capitalism assists in causing these issues, as does wealth inequality, and greed, but to my eyes Parasite isn’t attempting to blame one thing in particular. It stands as more of a story about prejudice than it does a deconstruction of capitalism and greed. Closer to Bong‘s Snowpiercer (2013) in that it is dissecting the inner mechanisms of class divide more than it is pointing its finger at the precise cause of it all and yelling “it’s all your fault!”. Parasite is about how class and status create a divide in perceptions and how these perception affect a person’s view of what another person is worth.
Moving onto the visual feats, Bong Joon-ho’s technical craftsmanship is on full display here and it hits with precision. Bong’s use of the camera is particularly effective as it roams through the Park home mapping out the blueprints of the mansion they reside in. While the lighting could’ve been more effective, the use of the camera is very controlled in what it wants to show – the visual line that separates the social classes. Bong is excellent in building the atmosphere of the film whether that be a claustrophobic tracking shot, a humorous slow-motion gag, or a creative transition to move the film along.
The set-design is a masterwork by Ha-jun Lee perfectly portraying the differentiation in wealth as one major location subsides inside the back end of an alley while the other is a spacious high-end house paved with panels of glass and unwrinkled rock. The set-design draws such a distinguished line between the different social classes allowing the audience to feel the thematic tension in the film. The sound design is somewhat off-beat as sounds are a bit amplified and are intrusive to the immersion of the film, however, the score uses its violins pitch-perfectly to construct its tone – even if it misses the mark in its emotional beats.
Parasite is a story that draws a chalk outline around the burdening social and economic class structures that reside over South Korean society. What Bong Joon-ho excels at above many other directors is his mastery at making his stories simultaneously complex and entertaining – whether they’re high-concept sci-fi’s or grounded mystery/thrillers. Bong has nearly mastered tonal consistency. Parasite has a lot to say and it has been a pleasure to sit down and absorb all of it.