Here’s the thing: everyone has been telling you to go see Parasite, and they’re right. Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winning film is indescribable—not because there’s a shortage of adjectives, but because it’s literally impossible to describe. Many people have probably told you to see the film without knowing anything about it. No trailers, no reviews, no hot takes. They’re right about that, too.
Parasite seeks to change you. Bong’s film, showcasing absolutely exceptional talent and craft, is everything all at once: it mutates from comedy to thriller to horror, all the while providing unnerving commentary on class and symbiotic relationships.
Our first act begins as a comedic con mission being put on by the Kim family, who, when we first meet them, are folding pizza boxes in their small, shabby basement apartment. Unemployed driver Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) are sustained by odd jobs—humble, meager ones—and don’t have much initiative to change the direction of their lives. When they see that a pest control company is doing fumigation outside, they leave their windows open, saying that they’ll get a treatment without having to pay for it themselves. Immediately, noxious fog engulfs the family, leaving them coughing and choking. We laugh. It’s funny, mostly; we haven’t yet seen the dangers of what might be hidden.
When the eldest child, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), inherits a job tutoring the daughter of a rich family from a friend who’s studying abroad, he can’t believe his luck. The Park family is inordinately and disgustingly wealthy—the kind of people with a house full of spotless windows and modern, clinical floor plans, which is quite a contrast from the underground apartment shared by the Kims.
With the help of his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and her impressive design skills, all it takes is one forged university letter and an interview with the Park matriarch (Cho Yeo-jeong), and Ki-woo has a new job teaching their daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), English.
However, after realizing that the Parks’ son, Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon), is suffering from clear post-traumatic stress regarding an unspeakable incident at one of his birthday parties, Ki-woo slyly suggests a teacher he knows who specializes in art therapy who might be able to help: his sister, Ki-jung.
And thus begins the systemic take-over of the Park household. Ki-jung, now Jessica (only child, from Illinois, Chicago), and Ki-woo infiltrate the Parks’ trust—and through the combined use of cheap underwear left in the backseat of Mr. Park’s car and the capitalization of the housekeeper’s (Lee Jung-eun) life-threatening allergy (the second most iconic use of a peach in the past three years of cinema), the entire Kim family soon begin to receive paychecks from the Parks. Ki-taek becomes the driver and Chung-sook begins her work as the new housekeeper.
As audience members, we feel a little twinge of sympathy for the fired driver and the ever-loyal housekeeper, Moon-gwang—but mostly, it’s amusing to watch the Kims invade this sterile and perfect home. At this point, we find ourselves nodding with intellectual authority, saying, “ah, yes. I understand the title. The Kims are the parasites! How metaphorical, indeed.” They live a life of luxury during the night they all spend drinking and gorging themselves on the Parks’ food when the wealthy family is away camping for Da-sung’s birthday.
“They’re rich, but still nice,” Ki-taek says at one point, echoing what many of us might be thinking. It does feel a little unfair for them to be taking advantage of a family that, really, has shown nothing but kindness.
“They’re nice because they’re rich,” Chung-sook fires back.
Still, they lounge and they eat, and they remain oblivious to the storm throwing rain against the giant glass windows. So, when the door bell rings, the family freezes—the living room looks like a war zone, a mess of broken glass and booze—because the sound is unexpected and intrusive, a ding reeking of wealth; a signal that the Kims aren’t safe.
Because, after all: they do not belong there.
But it’s only Moon-gwang, dripping wet from the storm and desperate, on the doorstep. She needs to come in because she left something in the basement before she was fired. If you’re in the audience, maybe you let out a small sigh of relief, because for a moment, there was the unthinkable breath of panic that the Parks had arrived home early (until, of course, twenty minutes later, when they do in fact arrive home early). The rest of the family scatters, hiding where Moon-gwang won’t see them.
After Moon-gwang leads Chung-sook (and the rest of the family, tip-toeing behind) down into the basement, Parasite changes. It morphs into an entirely different film, where nothing is off the table and answers are indiscernible.
As the film progresses, we come to understand what the title means. Parasite, among other things, is about class—which is a simplistic term for a much more complex issue that Bong Joon-ho explores within the Kims and the Parks. There are layers upon layers of analysis within the film regarding the idea of the upstairs/downstairs trope. Parasite’s nature of parasitism is cyclical, with the downstairs rising to conquer those above, before they must return below ground once more. It’s a vicious cycle of class struggle and wealth disparity, but one that is found to be unnervingly effective in the final half hour of the film.
These ideas are exhibited most strongly in the character of Ki-taek, as shown in an exceptional performance by Bong’s frequent collaborator, Song Kang-ho. After Moon-gwang’s secret emerges and the film is at its most adrenaline-filled, there is a quiet moment where Mr. Park makes a comment to his wife about Ki-taek specifically: that although he’s a good driver, he reeks of an unfamiliar smell—that of poverty. We watch as Ki-taek tenses from a poorly chosen hiding spot, his scent right under the Parks’ nose as they sit on their couch in their silk pajamas, completely oblivious to the horrors lurking within their own home.
Mr. Park’s remark about Ki-taek’s smell serves as an unexpected catalyst for the events that transpire in the last half hour of the film. Set to a cheerful score and a beautifully illuminated sunny day, what emerges can only be described as a final battle. Within what feels like seconds, the audience watches in transfixed horror as the parasite destroys its host, before becoming a parasite once more. It will leave you breathless and disgusted; mesmerized and deeply, deeply unsettled.
It’s a dystopian idea, that those subordinate can truly never rise above, but when we take a look at Parasite’s glossy exterior, it feels only natural that something underneath seeks to destroy it from the inside out. And when we can’t look away, we have to wonder what that says about ourselves.
Parasite asks more questions than it answers. It seeks to rattle us, like imagery of snakes eating their own tails. It raises disturbing questions within ourselves about where, exactly, we would fall if we were placed into Bong’s world. How dare we laugh at people being schemed out of their livelihood because of the Kim family’s own greed? And yet, how can we not feel a bit of euphoria when the four of them eat and drink the Park’s food and alcohol the night that everything changes—because they did it, they did it, they won.
We ask ourselves: in our own lives, are we the parasites or the hosts?
And above all: is it possible for us, like each of the characters in the film, to somehow be both?
Seen at North Carolina FilmFest 919—Parasite is now playing in select theaters nationwide