“Parasite” Mines the Power of Symbolism In One of 2019’s Best Films
With Parasite, filmmaker Bong Joon Ho has not only delivered one of 2019’s very best movies, but the symbolism he’s woven throughout the picture is some of the finest placed on film in years. Bong’s visual metaphors are so striking that the movie requires multiple viewings to appreciate all of the subtext going on in it. Bong has infused the story with many cheeky metaphors, starting with the very title itself. (The film is not about a virus, but rather humans leeching off of others.) Some of what Bong and fellow screenwriter Han Jin Won have written is even hilariously self-aware, like when two different characters exclaim, “It’s a metaphor!” Such moments infuse this black comedy with a knowingness that makes the film all the more riveting.
The parasite in question is actually a South Korean family whose existence is sustained by mooching off of others. The Kim family scuttles about in their grungy, below-the-ground apartment, doing as little genuine work as they can to get by. As the story starts, they have lost their access to the free wi-fi emanating from the business above them, and desperately hold their phones up towards the ceiling hoping to regain the signal. It’s a clever introduction to these invaders, a group of human leeches who will soon latch onto human hosts and not let go. (From here on out, major spoilers will be revealed.)
This family of four consists of dad Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mom Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), twentysomething daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park), and teen son Ki-woo (Woo-shik Choi). They’re all employed, if you can call it that, as box folders for a local pizzeria. It’s a dismal lot in life but they’ve all gotten used to it. Their cramped dwelling is a dump where the toilet is inexplicably situated on the bathroom countertop, and windows are left open to share in the pesticide spraying of the city streets. The Kim’s hope it will kill those parasites living off of them – the cockroaches and water bugs.
In these garish opening moments, Bong introduces his film’s main themes and some of the symbolism at play. That sub-basement apartment represents the Kims’ station in life. They’re outcasts in the caste system of Korea, the lowest of the low, beneath human dignity both literally and figuratively. The metaphors only get stronger from here.
The plot kicks in when Ki-woo’s friend Min announces he’s leaving South Korea to study abroad and hopes his buddy will step in to tutor the rich high school girl he’s fallen for. Her name is Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), and she comes from the wealthy Park family living in the lushest part of the city. To better Ki-woo’s chances of employment, the two boys work up a false back story to boost Kim’s credentials.
With the help of a fake diploma created by Photoshop wiz Ki-jung, Ki-woo impresses the sweet but naïve Mrs. Park (Yeo-jeong Jo) and lands the gig. Not only does Ki-woo become a fixture in the Park’s sprawling, designer home, but he starts a secret physical relationship with his student as well. When he meets the Park’s 8-year-old problem child, Ki-woo cooks up an elaborate lie about a savvy art tutor he knows who could help the boy. Enter Ki-jung, faking extensive credentials as well, with no one the wiser that she’s actually Ki-woo’s sister.
In short order, Ki-jung frames the Park’s chauffeur to get him fired, enabling dad to step in as the new driver. Now, three Kim’s are in the house, and none of the gullible one-percenters ruling the roost are aware that this is not only a family, but a group of con artists. Of course, the final Kim gets hired as the housekeeper/cook when her family carries out a vicious plot to paint the existing loyal housekeeper Moon-Gwang (Jeong-eun Lee) as a tuberculosis-carrying health risk. The Kim’s are ruining lives while bettering their own.
Shrewdly, Bong indicts us all in the audience as Kim’s co-conspirators. Just as Hitchcock guilted moviegoers privy to the crimes of his story’s protagonists, so too does Kim point the finger at all of us watching. We invest in the Kim’s and cheer on their deceptions, and fret whenever their ruse is about to be discovered. The Kim’s, as it turns out, are pretty awful protagonists. They may not deserve their poverty, but they certainly don’t earn the right to become vicious pranksters preying on the wealthy Park couple (Sun-kyun Lee and Yeo-jeong Jo) the way they do. The Parks may be a self-absorbed and gullible lot, but they’re not nearly as egregious as the Kim clan turns out to be.
As the Kim’s take over, Bong turns their actions into metaphor. Their constant climbing up and down the many staircases in the Park home illustrates not only their ruthless ascent but the ease in which they now move back and forth between their stations. Visuals of sliced produce, constantly being served as snacks, represent the literal fruits of the Kim’s nefarious labor. And an unrelenting rainstorm halfway through the film not only washes away their past home but the cleansing waters almost give away the Kim’s con as they metaphorically start to drown in all their lies.
Perhaps the most searing symbolism occurs halfway through the film when a revelation of a secret in the bomb shelter below the basement is revealed. That revelation turns the Park home into a house of horrors for the Kim foursome. Bong even turns the dark doorway to the basement and its shelter into a metaphorical doorway to hell by shooting it as an indeterminate void of blackness. Indeed, that doorway’s darkness really puts the black in this black comedy.
It is also at this point in the story where Bong’s comedy turns into something more akin to the horror genre and it becomes a movie masterpiece as well. The twists become more and more wrenching, and the social commentary, all the more stinging. The Kim’s spin such a deceitful web of lies that they cannot help but get caught in their sticky trap themselves. The film’s cinematography and score start to push towards something that would make Dario Argento jealous, all the while enhancing the living nightmare that the Kim’s find themselves in.
Bong dots his frame, both the foreground and background, with numerous other effective symbols as well. When the Kim’s sneak in and out of rooms, they often scramble on all fours to evenly distribute their weight, suggesting that they are scattering bugs. At one point, the dad must escape exposure by crawling out of a room on his belly, slithering away like a snake. The Park boy’s obsession with dressing up as an American Indian comments on the history of America’s forcefully taking what they wanted from indigenous people, suggesting that the rich and powerful Parks may be similarly inclined. In Bong’s world, no one is innocent, and all their actions connect to socio-economic disparity.
Like Bong’s breakout hit Snowpiercer proved in 2013, the filmmaker is a political one. Yet in Parasite, even though it’s filled with vivid visuals, the director doesn’t let his actors exaggerate. Each of them gives strong yet controlled performances, especially Yeo-jeong Jo who expertly navigates the line between a nervous mother and an entitled madam of the house. Bong also resists painting the Park family as too loathsome. They may be wealthy and entitled, but they are victimized too. And even though the Kim family actions are awful, we can almost admire them for how deftly they lift themselves out of poverty. Almost.
In the end, as in most of the best black comedies, everyone loses a lot, and no one really triumphs. Perhaps the most frightening message of the film is that parents cannot protect their families. Even with all four of the Kim’s in the house together, none is ever safe. Despite all of their money and esteem, the Parks forfeit far more tangible possessions. Perhaps the real parasites at play here are the inevitable realities that eat at humankind via station and ego. In the film’s climax, a lot of violence occurs, and all the bloody gore isn’t much of a metaphor or symbol. It is what it is – death and destruction – and its boldness lies in such absolute clarity.
Watcher the trailer for Parasite below:
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