South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is a devotee of Ken Loach, the British socialist director, and it shows. In Parasite, he uses a parable to explore the socio-economic malaise that pervades our postmodern societies. The story has resonated with audiences globally: it won the 2019 Palme d’Or and is the first non-English language movie to be named Best Picture at the Oscars.
The film introduces us to two families at the opposite ends of the food chain. The Kims are desperately poor, living in a basement flat where the WiFi comes from their upstairs neighbours and gainful employment is a mirage. The Parks, on the other hand, live in a pristine mansion, with a maid, a chauffeur and tutors for their offspring. When their worlds collide, the film turns into a comedy of manners.
The son of the Kim family is introduced to the Parks through a friend who suggests he covers an absence and tutors their daughter. One by one, the entire Kim family is hired by the Parks, although the Kims pretend to be strangers to each other. The sister becomes an art therapist for their son; the mother becomes their new maid; and the father becomes their chauffeur. Meanwhile, the former maid’s husband lives in an underground bunker unbeknown to the Parks, who bought the house with the maid.
Tensions escalate as the Kims are derided by the Parks on a daily basis over markers of poverty such as the way they smell. Beneath a veneer of politeness lies a stream of humiliations. The house becomes a death trap for the three families – the former maid and her husband as well as the Kims, but also for the Parks. In a shocking scene of outright violence, the Kim patriarch kills his Park counterpart. The act is a response to political injustice, as both men are victims of societal structures.
The film is powerful for its allegorical character. Neither the Kims nor the Parks are particularly interesting. Their lives are equally banal, and that is what makes their stories so riveting. Though set in South Korea, it could easily enfold in any major global city. The same issues of abject poverty and obnoxious privilege, extreme desperation and acute apathy, can be seen in London, Los Angeles or Sydney. What makes the film so engaging yet troubling is that we are taken one step further – to the point of no return.
Joon-ho does not provide any solution to fix the status quo before it is too late, but he clearly suggests that the pains of poverty cannot be easily remedied with a job. Instead, self-esteem needs to be restored through an acknowledgement of human dignity, no matter how (un-)fortunate our journeys have been. If at first the Kims’ relentless pursuit of employment within the Park household may seem parasitic, we are left wondering if their employers’ nonchalance about the economic despair on their doorstep could be seen as equally parasitic.