Bong Joon-ho's Parasite deals entirely with characters at opposite ends of the social spectrum, resulting in a hard-line, binary, Snowpiercer-esque class division between poor and rich. We begin with the Kim family scouring the ceiling of their semi-basement apartment for stray wi-fi. When son Ki-woo finds a job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy (and gullible) Park family, the endlessly resourceful Kim clan con their way into the Park household via a fraudulent chain of recommendations, posing as tutors, drivers and housekeepers.
Throughout, Bong sustains a point-for-point contrast between the two families, emphasising and re-emphasising the social gulf by which they are divided, not least through the use of setting. The Kims’ semi-basement is dark, dingy and cluttered. Narrow clerestory windows permit a floor-level glimpse of a grimy backstreet beneath a mass of overhead cables. Meanwhile, the ultramodern Park residence is slick, spacious and sun-drenched - a materialist paradise filled with avant-garde art and backlit ornaments. When it floods, the Park house is safely poised high above the waterline, while the Kim semi-basement is engulfed by sewage water. The Kims lose their home, and the Parks smile up at the blue sky, ‘thanks to all that rain yesterday’. The film is littered with similar ironic dialogue satirising the sheltered naivety of the Parks, particularly the mother, whose passing remark that housekeeper Moon-Gwang ‘knows this house better than I’ is glaringly proleptic.
The dichotomy between the families is fortified by Bong’s narrative perspective, which aligns us with the Kims, while the Parks remain aloof and inaccessible. The film’s opening shot focuses on a bundle of socks hanging from the semi-basement ceiling. This not only alludes to the Kims’ reality of living literally underfoot, but establishes the intimate, domestic terms on which they are presented to us, sleeping on the floor and eating bread from the packet. However, we are always kept at a guarded distance from the Park family. It is only through a series of staircases and electric gates that we are actually permitted entry into their home, after which we frequently see them emerge from or recede into hidden spaces. This mystique brightens the illusion of their untouchability, and sharpens our perception of the social rift. In Mother, Bong similarly distances us from the mysterious big city lawyers by limiting our view of their strange practices and rituals. In both cases, the viewer is placed upon a level of observation beneath that on which these wealthy, enigmatic characters stand, embedding their status in the form of the film itself.
Importantly, Bong draws attention to the cleanliness and smell of both families. The Kims unflinchingly wade through sewage water, and benefit from street fumigation to combat their stinkbug infestation. Meanwhile, the Park house is weirdly spotless - a sterile environment closer to a white-cube style art gallery than a family home. It exists in a state of eerie perfection, presided over by the high-strung, obsessive Park mother, who faints at the sight of blood. Defined primarily by her horror of despoilment, her infectious characterisation comes to establish the house’s dominant atmosphere of bristling tension. There is also a perceptible note of foreboding lurking in the score’s moody piano ballads as the film creeps towards the Park house, or in the faint sound of the electric gate ominously locking shut on entry. This nerve is pressed to breaking point as the Kims surreptitiously lounge about the immaculate living room, smashing glass and drinking from the bottle in an excruciatingly drawn out masterpiece of doorbell anxiety.
The Kims’ actions here are symptomatic of their unwavering ambition to exceed their current lot and bridge the existing class divide, as they enact the fulfilment of the economic dream represented by the Park house. ‘This is our house right now,’ they boldly claim. Though they are clearly willing to employ means of dubious morality to attain their end, they are engaged in a perpetual struggle for dignity. When Ki-Woo leaves for his job interview with a handful of forged certificates, he insists that ‘I’ll go to this university next year. I just printed out the documents a bit early’. Similarly, Ki-Tek wrestles to maintain a grip on traditional family ritual and honour in an unforgiving economic climate. ‘So you have a plan?’ he beams, ‘Son, I’m proud of you.’ This hard-scrabble optimism is a stark contrast to Ki-Tek’s attitude of abandon by the end of the film - ‘With no plan, nothing can go wrong… None of it fucking matters’. Bong implies that the underhand methods of the Kim family are a strict necessity of the treacherous social conditions to which they are subjected. They are given no alternative in ‘an age where an opening for a security guard attracts 150 undergraduates’. They are sure that Mrs. Park is ‘Nice because she’s rich’, not in spite of it, an assumption which is intensely scrutinised as the film progresses.
When Mr. Park finds Ki-Jung’s underwear in his Benz - planted to effect driver Yoon’s dismissal - his horror is exaggerated to an extent that is both funny and unsettling. He seems on the verge of tears - ‘Does dripping his sperm on my seat turn him on?’ This unwarranted hyper-bodily characterisation indicates a troubling belief in the inherent dirtiness of the lower-class, dramatised by the living room scene mentioned above. Park and his wife frantically jump to laughable conclusions in a woeful parody of crime investigation, over-kitted with surgical gloves and a forensic-style envelope: ‘He must be a pervert… Meth or Cocaine?’ Though comical in tone, these unfounded accusations illustrate the extent of their snobbish naivety, and their spiny capacity for prejudice.
Despite this, Park is most distressed at the thought of Yoon doing it in his seat - ‘Why cross the line like that?’ His sustained obsession with ‘crossing the line’ sheds light on his own sense of self-superiority. By foraying into the back seat, Yoon has overreached into the domain of wealthy men like Park. His arrogance is further demonstrated by his hands-off approach to Yoon’s dismissal. The rich have no business among the poor, and the poor none among the rich. Park is set towards reinforcing the hard line of class division. This is also evident in his tense, awkward interactions with replacement driver Ki-Tek, who has a propensity for asking personal questions (as well as not looking at the road). When asked earnestly if he loves his wife, Park squirms behind a formal, business-like deflection. It seems Ki-Tek has ‘crossed the line’ by entering into his personal affairs. When the topic comes up again, with Ki-Tek reluctantly roped into playing the role of an Indian at Da-Song’s party, Park’s stern response clarifies the terms of their strictly transactional relationship - ‘Mr. Kim, you’re getting paid extra’. He could never be a friend, merely an expendable employee behind - or rather, beneath - an untraversable social barrier.
When the family frequently turn their noses at Ki-Tek’s distinctive smell, the comedic tone quickly darkens, as these playful jibes reek more and more of a dangerous class prejudice. In smattering these grains of comedy, Bong is also sowing the seeds of tragedy. ‘That smell crosses the line’, Park jokes, ‘You sometimes smell it on the subway’. It later transpires that the smell, common to all of the Kims, comes from the semi-basement. That is to say, the smell so offensive to their employers is an unavoidable consequence of their economic status. It is the smell of poor people. This distaste for the smell of the Kim family renders ironic Park’s worry that, with housekeeper Moon-Gwang fired, ‘the house will be a trash can’ and his ‘clothes will start to smell’. It is only through the labour of the poor that the Parks are able to sustain this smell-based belief in their own superiority. The parasitic relationship between the two families works both ways. Frequent cuts between them emphasise their absolute contrast, while also bringing them into startling proximity, reflecting the tightness of their symbiotic entanglement. This paradoxical relationship between rich and poor is disturbingly dramatised by the juxtaposition of Park’s dignifying welcome-home sensor lights and the nightmarish image of deranged and strait-jacketed Geun-se bashing his bleeding forehead against the switches beneath. While Geun-Se is a literal parasite to the family, Park also unknowingly relies on him for control of his lights. So involved is their relationship that Geun-se becomes ‘a ghost in the house’, dwelling deep in its innermost veins.
It is perhaps in the climactic party scenes that we are most aware of this simultaneous proximity and division of rich and poor. The Kims, paid to attend, are technically working. They cannot count themselves among the elegantly dressed guests, despite being formally invited. There is a sick irony in the juxtaposition of the lavish ‘impromptu’ party, complete with caterers and musicians, and the murderous head-squashing just beneath their feet. It is here that Bong gives us the sharpest sense of not only the seeming untouchability of the rich, but of their utter naivety. These are two irreconcilable worlds separated by a knife edge.
So chaotic is the final bloodbath that it is worth detailing what actually happens, and its implications for the film. When the insane, grief-racked Geun-Se emerges from the basement, blinking in the sunlight, it is only the Kims in the most immediate danger. The party guests scatter as he fatally wounds Ki-Jung and hunts down Chung-Sook, guilty of his wife’s death. Meanwhile, Da-Song has fainted at the apparition of Geun-Se, and the Parks make their escape to rush him to hospital. Only neglected daughter Da-Hye stays behind to tend to Ki-Woo (‘Kevin’), while her parents show no concern for anyone except their son, swiftly dropping their facade of civility to expose raw, heartless indifference. Park’s demand that Ki-Tek drive them to the hospital (he is being paid extra after all) before attending to dying Ki-Jung is nothing short of depraved. Although he is unaware that she is his daughter, he is still devoid of feeling for the young girl bleeding to death in front of him.
Yet even these moments of utter tragedy and horror are touched by the long finger of Bong’s black comedy. There are elements of the comically absurd woven into the chaos - the ridiculous Red Indian costumes, the over-the-top operatic vocals, the sausage-loaded barbecue fork on which Chung-Sook prongs Geun-Se, or the slapstick parody of the cake smeared over his face, mingling with his blood; most of all, as Park hyperbolically cringes at Geun-se’s smell, reasserting the presence of this superficially playful motif at the most untimely of times. This is how Parasiteworks, and why it is so genuinely shocking even in the most saturated of decades. It is the most playful, lightly comical strands of its fabric that mutate into the most horrific and heavily tragic.
Still only the Kims are seriously afflicted, the rich somehow untouchable, until Ki-Tek takes up the knife himself. With Park’s death, the illusion of untouchability is shattered, and the line definitively crossed. And yet there is no triumph or justice - only tragedy, with two fathers lost and two families broken beyond repair. Doomed to a life of confinement, Ki-Tek weeps with regret and sorrow. Though Ki-woo’s final sun-bleached vision of a prosperous future and reunion with his father strikes a note of wistful optimism, it is disengaged from the bleak reality. Bong ends back in the semi-basement apartment beneath another bundle of socks, with Ki-woo plagued by brain damage, excitedly planning this impossible future in an undeliverable letter to his father. The Parks have moved on and another family replaced them. Nothing has changed - perhaps this is the real tragedy.