Analysis of the film Parasites - who is really the parasite here?
Parasites is one of the iconic modern films, and certainly the most famous South Korean film. It is a 2019 tragicomedy thriller film directed by Bong Joon-ho. The film premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and was released in South Korean distribution on 30 May that year. And then rolled all over the world, stealing the hearts of film lovers and film buffs in every corner of the earth.
Let's break down the main themes, symbolism, and storytelling of the painting.
The film's plot centres around a very poor Kim family consisting of four people: unemployed driver Ki Taek, his wife Chun Suk and their two children: daughter Ki Jung and son Ki Woo. Both children are in their early twenties and are also unemployed and out of college due to financial difficulties.
One day, Ki Woo's friend arranges for him to tutor the teenage daughter of the very wealthy Pak family. Realising that the Pak family is gullible, the Kims decide to use it to their advantage in order to gain social mobility: Ki Woo recommends his sister, the latter recommends his father, the latter recommends his wife, each of them presenting false documents and pretending not to be a member of the same family.
The plan to infiltrate the Packs' lives works and Kim's entire family achieves the success they never had, but everything is jeopardised.
The composition of the film is based on contrasts. The two families are constantly compared: while the Kims and the Parks are in fact both traditional "mum, dad, son and cute little girl" families, they are completely different in terms of social status, and only those who are familiar with South Korean culture can fully understand this social difference.
One of the main symbols that shows the contrast between these two families is the staircase. Stairs are used repeatedly and correspond to the themes of social climbing and class distinction between those at the top and those at the bottom. The Paki's live up on the mountain, to come to their house you have to climb up.
The Pak House is a modern, spacious oasis with glass walls and a courtyard enclosed on three sides by hedges. This Big Fancy House is a big fancy house built to an original design and is literally also one of the main characters in the narrative.
The Kims live at the bottom of the social and urban stairs, it takes endless descents to reach their flat, and the windows of their rooms are very high up on the ceiling. The Kims live in a basement flat overlooking a slum alley. However, then we also discover a third layer of "vermin", where you have to go down even deeper, it seems.
The contrast between the two families is also expressed in less obvious ways, for example, the Kims' daughter Jessica is a very gifted artist who, because of her initial poverty, has only succeeded in forging documents. And Da Song, the Packs' son, is actually a mediocre painter, like any other child his age, but he may have the best art school and the honouring of his talent by the masses, thanks to his parents' wealth.
In fact, Parasites is one of the first films to punish the rich, a film on the theme of Eat the Rich
Virtually all of the film's main characters have deep personal issues (or hints of them), the causes of which range from Kim's traumatic state of abject poverty to Da Song's psychologically traumatic "incident".
The actors playing the Parks are more wide-eyed than the Kims, so their characters appear more innocent (and thus gullible against the obviously more shrewd Kim family). However, this doesn't mean that the Parks are "good." On the contrary, they are naive and blind to their own shortcomings. And the Kims are smart and cunning, but not evil either.
So who are the real parasites in this film?
Kim's family acts as a parasite to the Parks, "sucking up" to them and cheating them out of money. At the same time, the housekeeper's husband serves as a more literal example, eating the family's food for years, completely unnoticed. The Paks themselves are also parasites, happily (and unnoticed by themselves) living off the labour (and consequent suffering) of people from the lower strata of society. Basically, this leads to the tragedy that ends the film.
Paks are emotional parasites. Daya desperately needs someone to understand her, hence her feelings for her tutor. Her son needs a real mother, Young Kyo needs a therapist, and Dong Iku needs a friend. They are rich, but they trust easily and fall for Kim's tricks precisely because their rich lives seem fake - evidenced by Mrs Park's possible addiction and her constant sleepiness. Although they have money, they are not necessarily 'happy'.
Customers crossing boundaries and behaving as if employees are their friends or confidants is very common and is probably a consequence of the fake friendships displayed in elitist culture.
What else do we see in this film?
Bookends - the film opens and closes with a shot of socks hung out to dry, which moves down and shows Ki Woo.
Many times the Pack kids feel that there is something wrong with their new employees:
- Daya immediately notices that "Kevin" seems much more familiar with "Jessica" than he pretends to be. - Da Song notices that the Kims smell the same. The two older Paks assume Da Song means "poor people's smell" and laugh embarrassedly.
While not as important, Jong Suk (Kim's mum) is a former athlete, so it makes sense that she would have the upper hand during her physical confrontations with several people throughout the film.
Chekhov's guns (which if hung on the wall are sure to go off):
The Kims' open window. Dad tells the family to leave it open while the streets are being fumigated so they can disinfect their house, which looks quite "creepy". However, later, when it rains heavily, the window left open causes a flood.
Stone. Ki Woo decides to use it as a weapon against a drunken man, and then carries it around with him everywhere. Later, Moon Gwan's husband, using the same stone, hits Ki Woo hard on the head twice, but he survives.
Camera Cords. When Moon Gwan shows up at the house, she mentions that she cut the cord on the CCTV camera on the opposite side of the street so that no one would see her enter the house. This suggests that she has a secret reason for wanting to be there, but the camera lingers on this moment later on to explain why no one saw Ki Taek (Kim's dad) sneak back into the house and hide in the basement.
Mrs Park talks about how the rain is a blessing because it means good weather for her son's birthday celebrations. The rain caused severe flooding in a poor part of town and we have just seen the devastating scenes of what it did to Kim's family and many others. This is a prime example of how Parks is either ignorant or indifferent to the basic realities of poor people's lives.
We first see Mrs Pack asleep at a table in the courtyard, which hints at her drinking problem.
There are a couple of jokes about North Korea at the very beginning of the film. They foreshadow the appearance of a bunker underneath the Parks' house, built in case of a North Korean invasion, which takes centre stage in the second half of the film.
Whenever Mr Park enters the house, watch the lights.
A picture of Alfred Hitchcock can be seen on the spine of a book on a shelf in the Pak house. Bong Joon-ho said that Hitchcock was one of the main inspirations for the film, and you can spot some allusions to his works.
The surname "Kim" is one of the most common Korean surnames, like "Smith" in English.
Da Song was already traumatised enough by his previous birthday, and now he had to witness the death of the woman who helped him recover from it. Not to mention he lost his father, who was shown to be very dear to him. Unless Mrs Park can invest in a good therapist (and possibly a psychiatrist), Da Song is going to have some serious mental health issues. If he survived at all.
During the birthday party massacre, Ki Taek is wearing the same grey shirt as Ki Woo in the very first scene, symbolising that they are back where they started.
Min is not as nice a guy as he seems. He gives Ki Woo a prosperity stone, which is a metaphor for the promise of wealth, but it's more a symbol of hope. But to poor people, such a gift will only bring disappointment. Min doesn't intentionally give Ki Woo the stone to upset him, he is blind and doesn't see the problems of the lower class like all the upper class characters.
Also, Min deliberately goes for Ki Woo because he looks down on him, believing that while his rich university friends might steal his girlfriend, Ki Woo is too poor and Dayu would never go for him because Ki Woo wouldn't fit in with her family. Ki Woo seems to realise this and rebels against the very idea, so he starts to pursue Daya even though it never seemed like he liked her, not so much because of her, but because of the idea that she is a trophy.
There is a stone floating in the flood scene. It is a fake stone, an empty promise of social mobility in a capitalist society.
Both of the most intense scenes in the film begin with songs in Italian, "In Ginocchio Da Te" and "Mio Caro Bene", which hint at how they will end: "In Ginocchio Da Te" is a pop love song that hints that the Kims will escape, and "In Ginocchio" ("On My Knees") is also an Italian expression that means "I'm completely broken and defeated," alluding to the flood that destroys their home and leaves them homeless. Also, "Mio Caro Bene" is an aria from a drama, hinting that things are not going to end well, and the opera from which it is taken ends with a stabbing.
Tropical imported fruits are very expensive in Japan/Korea, but Paki eats them all the time.
When Ki Woo gets a job as a tutor at the Packs' house, the first thing the family does is drink Flight beer, the cheapest beer in Korea. When Ki Jung also gets a job with the Parks, everyone in the family except Jung Suk switches to Sapporo beer, a Japanese brand, one of the highest quality beers found in regular Korean supermarkets (about twice as expensive as Paulet). Jeong Suk continues to drink "Flight", which perhaps symbolises a mother's love and constant willingness to sacrifice for her children. Unlike Geun-se and Ki-taek, who commit murder out of hatred for members of a different class, Jeong-suk commits murder to avenge her daughter's death (which is why she does not go to prison but continues to live freely with her son in their old house). This is how one might characterise many Korean mothers (or "ahjummas") who disregard etiquette and fashion trends and prefer practicality over everything else.
Jong Suk knocking Moon Gwan down the stairs isn't just a gag or plot point, it's a metaphor for what her family has done. In trying to climb the ladder to a better life, they knock down other people who want the same thing. In doing so, they ignore the damage that results because it is not visible: the fatal head wound of Moon Gwan and the uncertain fate of Driver Yoon.
Like most of Bong Joon-ho's films, the film explores the negative sides of capitalism, specifically that regardless of class, age or position, capitalism makes parasites of us.
What techniques and symbols did you notice in this film? Write in the comments!