The rich have class solidarity, do you? An analysis of Bong Joon Ho's Parasite (Gisaengchung)
This is going to be a little different. I will not be doing a review in the same way I have been for some of the other releases this year. Instead, I will be doing a deeper analysis and breakdown of the entire film. I feel that this film not only demands it but I do as well because it has not been able to leave my mind since I saw it. I could dance around the revelations and the way the film unfolds. But I feel that that would be tying my hands from getting into what makes this film the best of the year. So instead, I will be talking about the entire journey that this film takes you on, some of the deeper ideas at play, as well as how the film functions as a satire. So in case it wasn't already clear: I am going to spoil the hell out of this film and I think you all should go to see it. Wherever and whenever you can. If you can see it in a theater, I think you should. Not just because I think that this film should be supported but because it is a social experience unlike anything I have seen in possibly my life. It is devilishly funny as it plays the audience like a fiddle in what you are laughing at, when you are laughing at it, and when you ultimately stop laughing.
First, a history. Bong Joon Ho has made a lot of good work recently. The ones that people might be most familiar with are his two most recent prior to Parasite. Snowpiercer and Okja were among my favorites of their respective years. Both had their own edge and political bite to them. Snowpiercer centered around the disenfranchised underclass who are are attempting to rebel against those keeping them in a back of a fictional train. It was often times surreal and wasn't afraid to consistently challenge the audience. Okja was the story of a giant corporation that is attempting to create super pigs to turn a huge profit off of society's desire for meat. A skewering of factory farming and consumption, it also was the story of a young girl trying to rescue one of these super pigs from this corporation. Both these films are concerned and centered around inequality. However, they now feel like they were only the set up for what Parasite was going to be. They walked so that it could run. And my goodness run it did. It feels more ambitious even as it stripped away the more intense dystopian worlds for a story about a family already living in a dystopian world. Except this time, it is our own.
From the jump, every detail and interaction matters immensely
The opening scene of the film excellently sets the groundwork for what the story is going to be about. The opening scene shows us the squalor the family is living in and how they are attempting to rip people's WIFI to hear back about small odd jobs they can do like folding pizza boxes to make ends meet. They must climb above their toilet to get a signal in order to get this job establishing how precarious their situation is. During this sequence while they are folding pizza boxes, they notice out their window that there is someone spraying what is likely toxic gas of some kind. While the rest of the family wants to close the window their father, Kim Ki-taek, says they should leave it open so that they can use it as free fumigation to get rid of the bugs they have in their home. The camera does an extreme close up on his face while the rest of the family begins coughing as the gas begins to enter their small underground home. He barely blinks and just continues folding boxes at a mechanical pace. As the film goes on, more is learned about how he has been out of work and bouncing from job to job. He is much more weathered and beaten down by the world around him. Upon first seeing this shot, I mistook his unflinching response to the gas to be one of strength. Upon further reflection, it is more likely one of despair. He has been put in a situation that involves a terrible choice between the gas or the continued squalor brought on by the bugs. He chooses to risk the gas and is immune to caring anymore about his own health. The fact that the window being left open comes into play later makes this more explicit: there is little hope that he has for himself or for his family.
The family completes their job of folding the boxes but a significant portion of them are folded incorrectly, meaning they will get less money for their work. It is even noted specifically that the number done incorrectly is about 1 in 4. While the family does not blame anyone for their faulty work, it still establishes an important point that becomes a theme throughout the film. That point is one of self-loathing. Rather than questioning why their family is out of work or the systemic situations that have trapped them in a cycle of poverty, the film establishes that they are concerned with bettering themselves as a way out of their situation, even at the expense of others. Even though it is clear that even if the family was folding all the boxes perfectly, they weren't being paid that much to begin with. That is what the mother, Chung-sook, begins to say in protest towards their "boss" who has contracted out the box folding to them. Most interestingly, her two children interject and stop the confrontation from getting out of hand. Even though their mother is right, they aren't being compensated fairly, they don't want to anger their boss. They both realize it is wise that they should not bite the hand that is feeding them and attempt to convince their boss to give them more full time jobs. Of course, they later make more money than this person and treat her as disrespectful towards her as she is to them. But we'll get to that. For now, all you need to know is that they both are smart and realize that they likely got this work because their boss was down a hand to begin with. This establishes the nature of how they can scam and manipulate their situations. I say this to not demean them, quite the opposite. Their ability to scam to survive shows how they have so much more intelligence and ingenuity than those making millions. Which is where the real story begins.
The story transgresses typical narratives about poverty by giving the family agency and control
The family is approached by an old friend who has an offer for them: the son Ki-woo take over at his tutoring job for the wealthy Park family while he is studying abroad. He says that this is a win-win because while he has been tutoring he has developed a crush on the daughter of the family. He wants Ki-woo to take the job as opposed to one of his friends who he wouldn't trust to not flirt with her. He also brings them a large rock that is meant to bestow wealth on the family. After being initially nervous, Ki-woo takes the job and helps forge the necessary credentials with his sister. It is one of many ironies that her skills end up not even mattering as he gets the job easily. He does this through his own intelligence and wits while also exploiting the naive mother who seems willing to throw any amount of money that she has to help her family. During this interview that he passes easily, he hears that more help is needed and that her son needs an art tutor. Thus begins the way that the entire family slowly begins to take jobs around the house. His sister first takes over as an art tutor who also manages to up her price by claiming to provide art therapy which she makes up from what she read online. Then upon being driven home by the personal driver of the Park family, she plants her underwear in his car in order to make him seem as if he has been having partners in the car for work. Therefore his job opens up which her father applies and easily gets. They never acknowledge that they know each other and instead pretend to be just vaguely connected workers. These connections get more and more elaborate as they find clever ways of suggesting that they get hired by the family. It is uproarious time with how they trick the Park family and you are completely on their side for this. They are the ones playing the game and are setting all the rules. It gives an illusion of control that will only be fleeting.
What makes things complicated and interesting is how things shift from being humorous to deadly serious. When the driver is fired, there is minimal impact emotionally. He is positioned as being a bit creepy and the audience never sees him being fired. However, as I was watching it I still couldn't help but think that in getting him fired they may have negatively impacted his life. It is a fleeting thought at first but the film begins to reflect on this more at the story goes on. You still are rooting for the scam to succeed and laugh along with the wonderful scenes of them rehearsing how they are going to further infiltrate the Park family. You are still laughing when they next target the housekeeper Moon-gwang. They learn she has an allergy to peaches and frame it as tuberculosis. The laughs are still there when they create a fake narrative of her lying about her condition and a fake bloodied napkin. It is meant to be funny and everything about this is so well executed. They are completely in control and in their element in these moments. You can't help but laugh at how they pull it all off. I even found myself admiring their audacity at what is perceived as trickery towards an upper class snobby family. It is a wonderful feeling of justice. Or at least that is what I thought as this is only a masquerade of justice. This becomes clear when the rug is absolutely yanked out from under the audience. Not only is Moon-gwang fired, but she is left out into the world with nothing. The scene where she is fired and left to walk into the cold is a stunning reversal. It becomes clear that in this pursuit of upward mobility for themselves, they have had to hurt others. The driver's firing was kept at a distance, but Moon-gwang being fired is painful. It implicates the audience in this as well. We were laughing before but now it hits home what they have done. And it only gets worse from there.
Their attempt to liberate themselves comes at the expense of others just like them
The Park family leaves shortly after this to go on a camping trip for their son's birthday. And of course, why not take this opportunity to indulge in the rich life that their employers have? It is something that is too tempting for them not to do. They drink and eat while lounging around the luxurious house that is possibly ten times the size of their underground apartment. As they drink, the truth begins to come out. They don't feel completely fine about this either. They wonder if the driver they got fired is okay and they assure themselves he must be to avoid guilt. Interestingly, they never reflect on why there must be this situation where they had to take someone's spot to ensure their own comfort. They never begin to contemplate whether the Park family and their hoarding of wealth is to blame. They seem merely content to take what they can by scamming them. They even praise the Park family as being kind. While this is happening, there is a visitor. It is the housekeeper Moon-gwang who says she left something downstairs. She looks worse for wear as she has had more of an allergic reaction and seems desperate to get back in the house. So while the rest of them hide, their mother lets her in. She immediately goes downstairs and opens a secret underground bunker which turns out holds her husband who has been hiding down there for years since they began working for the previous owner to hide from debt collectors. Their mother almost calls the police on them both, but their cover is blown as her family all stumble into view. Now suddenly Moon-gwang is in charge and has them all held hostage as she threatens to send a video implicating them to the Park family. They both are totally willing to throw each under the bus if it will help themselves and neither party seems to realize how much more in common they have than they realize. It gets to the point that they even are willing to humiliate and harm each other. Which happens most shockingly when Moon-gwang is killed when she is kicked down the stairs when the Park family comes home early.
You can't help but wonder why they don't have a greater understanding for each other. They are all working class and are trying to survive a world of extreme inequality yet are at each other's throats rather than united. There is no solidarity they have with each other and instead are vicious in defending what little they have. As they attack each other, they still hold no ill will to the Park family and even have love for them. Moon-gwang's husband even has a shrine devoted to the Park patriarch which he worships at even as he never met him. Not only that, but Mr. Park likely despises him more than anything. There are repeated sequences when he expresses how he has a line between himself and the work staff around him. This clear dehumanizing line is enough to make one want to throw up. He even expresses distaste about how they all smell, a clear insult at their poverty even though any reason they smell is because of the extreme inequality they face such as in the most heart wrenching scene. With the Park family coming home early, they all flee save for their mother and leave Moon-gwang dying on the floor under the house with her husband tied up. Upon arriving back at their home, they find that their small underground apartment has been flooded. There is sewage and waste everywhere. It becomes clear that the window being left open was what did them in. While they were playing rich, their own home was nearly destroyed and they are left with almost nothing. The most devastating moment of this is when they go to a shelter. The conversation between father and son hammers home how bad things are for them. They were able to pretend for a while, but reality has come back. That is where Ki-woo learns that his father doesn't have a plan to get them out of this situation and never did. This perfectly sets up the final horrifying act.
Not having a plan and the world one is left with when all else fails
The climax of the film plays out at rapid speed. The Park family decides to have a party for their son since their camping trip was rained out. They invite all of the working staff and things fall apart very quickly. Ki-woo brings the good luck rock downstairs intending to kill Geun-sae with it who he thought was still tied up. He is caught off guard and is instead brutally attacked with the rock. Geun-sae then precedes to go out and stab his sister to death only to be attacked by his mother who kills him. The Park family attempts to flee with their son who has a seizure as Geun-sae was a ghost he had thought he had seen earlier in his childhood. Mr. Park asks for the keys from Ki-taek but recoils from his poor man's smell. Ki-taek seems to enter into a trance and kills Mr. Park. He almost immediately seems to snap out of this reverie, then flees. It is revealed later that Ki-taek didn't run into the city but instead snuck back into the underground bunker through the garage. Ki-woo survives and is put on trial with his mother. They are given probation and mourn the loss of their sister/daughter while having no idea where Ki-taek is. Or at least that is what one is led to initially believe until it is discovered that Ki-woo has pieced together where his father is. Through a serious of flashbacks, he is shown to be writing a letter about the many months (or even years) he has spent under the home in the bunker. Ki-woo deciphers the letter from the morse code that comes from a flashing light in the house and pledges to make enough money to buy the house to rescue his father. This is shown through a fantasy sequence as father, mother, and son all embrace upon him doing so. The film opens as it began with a shot panning down from socks hanging from a ceiling and Si-woo alone in the underground apartment.
The stark reality is that Si-woo is never going to see his father again. The satire is of false individual success that is a pipe dream. Even in the end, he still believes that he can work his way up the ladder to make enough money to buy a house that will likely cost more money than he will make in his life. He has a plan and doesn't seem to have become as bitter (or realistic) as his father to realize having a plan that is doomed to fail is worse than no plan at all. Si-woo is now a criminal meaning he will have even less of a chance at achieving any of these successes than he had before. He also seems to have a serious medical condition form the head trauma that was inflicted on him and can't help laughing at things randomly even when they aren't funny. All of this came because they were all attempting to advance their class at the expense of others which ironically doomed them all. They never disrupted the existing system that built in these inequalities and instead got at each other's throats while the rich continued to get richer without paying them hardly any mind. When Ki-taek did attack Mr. Park, it seemed almost on impulse and in an act of passion rather than a moment of realization. This decision, even if it took the power for a moment, also doomed him to a life almost not worth living in which he now worships at the shrine of Mr. Park in the bunker. The concluding feeling I ended up having was one of melancholy. There was so much hope and promise that Si-woo felt with his family. It ended up being false hope. A hope that still sees him clinging to the idea that he one day could leave behind his lower class status. But if there is any lesson to be learned, it is that he can't and won't when he doesn't think about how he fits into the world at large. Fighting those just like him will leave him right back where he started and probably even worse off. The film is a wake up call to this narrow minded perspective by shining a spotlight on how if we turn on those just trying to get by like the rest of us, we will only be turning on ourselves.