After its international success, Parasite (2019) became a cinematic phenomenon. Its witty script and craftsmanship are commendable, however Bong Joon Ho’s true win is how he smartly plays with symbols and allegories that say a lot about the modern Korean society.
Films such as Parasite (2019) – deep, and focused on conducting a vivisection of society – seldom need a bit of an explanation, or cultural context, in order to fully resonate with international audiences. Luckily for Bong Joon Ho, his satirical feature achieved a sublime success worldwide, guaranteed by the story’s universal narrative. But for those, who enjoy scavenging for gems hidden under the surface, Bong Joon Ho has plenty to offer.
In this article, I tried to elaborate on the most intriguing theories, facts and symbols, scattered along the exciting runtime of Parasite (2019).
The analysis of the social context in Parasite (2019)
One of the very first issues, touched by Bon Joon Ho in Parasite (2019), is how crucial it is to have connections or highly-valued credentials in South Korea. Early on in the film, Ki-woo (protagonist of the film) forges a uni degree, and as the family joins his grand life-winning scheme, they go to the moon and beyond in covering up their lies.
These mistruths reflect South Korea’s huge issue with access to well-paid jobs and securing fair chances to the youth. The government’s knees-deep in that bog, as nepotism and financial abuse has been leveraged by several well-situated politicians and governing officials. One such case was a scandal involving a former president of the country, who forced out changes to the scholarly admissions policy so that her daughter could enroll. So, iIf you ever wondered what corruption looks like, that’s a good example right there.
Given the bitter taste that the authorities leave – due to their demotivating actions – it’s no wonder Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) met with a widely appreciative response domestically. Mid-class citizens feel the weight of unfairness, and this film writes an ode to their hardships. In South Korea, the poor remain hardly noticed, and the galling scandals involving the wealthy people, stir the pot more and more. That’s also visible in the way young people feel about their future. In a poll conducted in September last year in Korea, a saddening 23% of lower-to-middle-class youths (understood as people above 20 years old) admitted they expect their life to improve over time. Ki-woo and his sister Ki-jung represent that failing generation, left to figure out their career without a shot at proper education.
There’s more to Parasite (2019) and the Korean society though.
Parasite (2019) is also a take on the Marxism theory, and the economic clash between the poor and the rich. No matter how much the Kims try, they always remain marginalized and left on their own. Their misery is encapsulated by the short conversation between Ki-taek and Ki-woo, right after their house is flooded – Ki-woo, you know what plan never fails? No plan at all. You know why? If you make a plan, life never works out that way – says Ki-taek.
The “no plan” quote has more meaning than just summing up the lost battle of the Kims. On multiple occasions, Bong Joon Ho reassures the audience that, according to the poor, becoming rich always requires a neat plan, and that the rich never appreciate (and often don’t deserve) their wealth. When Ki-woo says that the forged degree is due in no-time, (as his dream is to get a proper education) Ki-taek instantly congratulates – so you do have a plan! Reading between the lines – Parasite (2019) indicates that poor people have, indeed, no plans, because that often requires even traces of financial capital or stability. Otherwise life is just panta rhei & carpe diem combined into one.
The meaning of the flood scene
When I first watched Parasite (2019), I was also flabbergasted by the flood scene. The sheer brilliance of it was the way it made a paramount example of just how class division works – when you’re poor, you have nothing to lean on, and no backup plan either. To put it simply – the rising water takes everything from the Kims, not only their home.
It also refers to the danger of being poor, the kind of constant unease and instability that the Parks are never exposed to. That’s the high ground they gain – in their up-in-the-clouds house, rain is the romantic sound, listened to from a cozy living room.
While I’m at it, the flooding itself is also no coincidence. It’s likely an allegory to a similar tragedy that took place in Seoul’s suburbs, Mangwon in the late 80s.
A window into the class division in South Korea
When Bong Joon Ho delves into the area of social inequality, he’s cautious about judgmentalism. In fact, the director prefers contrast as his emotional powerhouse. We never really learn what made the Parks so rich, and it’s only an impression that their social status creates a precedence to treat poorer people with disdain. To deepen the effect of the contrast between the two families, Bong Joon Ho shares details concerning Ki-taek and his various business ventures – from establishing a patisserie shop to being a driver for drunk people, an occupation widely known as daeri. The latter’s by no means a respected job, hence it perfectly fits the image of Ki-taek as a broken down loser, who’s miserably at peace with his own misfortune.
Fair employment and social status aren’t the only things separating the Kims and the Parks.
Their lives differ dramatically, just as the houses they live in or habits they develop. Bong Joon Ho confronts these two families by applying contrast to every aspect of their life. If you pay attention, you might notice how the colors get brighter when in the palatial house of the Parks. Even the camerawork is more patient, almost as if representing a keen architecture-lover, who examines every corner of the audacious interior. The camera studies this exquisite interior.
Contrast is also crucial in the carnage finale – with its psychedelic score in the background and overly luminous lighting, the birthday party seems almost unnatural. That’s how it’s viewed from the Kims’ perspective – it’s just too good to be true, that’s why it feels like a lucid dream.
Is Parasite (2019) based on a true story?
Bong Joon Ho was far from attaching any true story to his widely acclaimed film. While some sources mentioned that the director worked – at some point of his life – as a tutor working for a wealthy family, it’s nonetheless hardly imaginable that any of Parasite’s (2019) shenanigans were actually true.
Still, as I mentioned in the part above, some parts of the film could be inspired by real events.
The city levels
Throughout the entire film, Bong Joon Ho sells the idea of floors used as a metaphor for the social disparities between the Parks and the Kims. That’s a smart way to use the city’s urban plan as a reflection of class divisions, but – before I carry on with praising it – let’s lay out the foundations of this theory.
Right from the opening scene, Bong Joon Ho emphasizes the importance of a basement-level flat where Kim family resides. By placing the camera on the pavement level, the director puts his audience in the shoes of the poor – that’s the way they see the outside world every day. The apartment is dark, cramped and makes an impression of a stinky place too. It’s not the coziest place to spend your days at.
With that view planted in our head, Bong moves on with the metaphor. When the two contradicting forces collide, Bong makes the border between very visible. It’s as if we could draw a two-dimensional blueprint of how the characters move upwards and downwards – inside the house, but also outside of it. As we climb all these levels, the intention of Bong Joon Ho becomes apparent, and his metaphor of up and above, almost hell and heaven, crystallizes.
Let’s look at a particular scene to grasp the idea.
After a pulse-rising sequence at night, when the Kims luckily manage to flee the house unnoticed, they ran down the city stairs. As they move downwards, the view turns uglier and more sewer-ish. By the time they arrive at their suburban dungeon, their flat is flooded and damaged beyond repair, and they’re left with nothing but a lie to sustain the next day. Bong explores the micro of the macro – the architecture floors and levels are used as social status representations. The lower they go, the darker the world gets.
Layers and floors reflect the class division, but they also help in setting the mood for particular scenes. The basement and the suburban flat are dark and unwelcoming, and that’s where most tragic events take place. In fact, I found the whole “secret basement motive” to be far more flabbergasting than anything else in the movie, for it’s a double-layered proof of that “levels and floors” concept.
Look who and how lives there. A man so withdrawn from normal life that he becomes a servant, not even an employee. And he lives in a basement rathole that derives from slasher movies and horrors, with its bleak greenish colors, and humidity that you can almost feel through the screen.
The constantly changing perspective
Before I started reading about perspective in films, I wasn’t aware of its impact. Despite watching dozens, and dozens of movies, this obvious characteristic never struck me as a universal lock-picking tool that often helps understand the intentions of the artist. However, perspective can often cause troubles too. Shuffling it can be hurtful for an unskilled filmmaker, yet luckily, Bong Joon Ho is not an unskilled filmmaker.
In Parasite (2019), any pottering around the perspective is barely noticeable. Like a driver who smoothly switches gears, Bong conducts his shifts seamlessly.
A vast part of the story is seen from the combined perspective of the Kims family. One after another, they execute the neat plan with outstanding precision, alas it’s obviously too perfect to be true. However, we mostly listen to their side of the story – how the father drowned financially after a few entrepreneurial misfires, or how their great scheme is born.
The perspective changes when Bong introduces the wealthy family of Parks. Their views bring the much-needed depth to Parasite’s (2019) social analysis, and that’s because the script allows them to tell their part without antagonizing them. This is vital to how both parties are perceived by the audience. As we sympathize with Kims – sneaky, cunning bastards who outsmart their rival – we’re also given a glimpse at Parks, who are snobbish rich people – yes, but snobbish rich people who vigorously accept their new employees. It’s never a one-sided, good-guys-bad-guys pattern.
This changing perspective provides essential information on the characters – how they feel, what they think. What later reveals the craft of Bong as a filmmaker is that he doesn’t need much time to do so.
In an example, Mr. Park values hard-working people, and respects Mr. Kim despite his flaws – being a chitter-chatter, and the sweat scent surrounding him. Furthermore, it’s likely that Mr. Park is far from a loving husband, what could possibly point to a very calculative, cold nature of the man. Some directors struggle with saying that much over an entire film, while Bong Joon Ho provides all of that information in just one scene.
Perspective comes in handy due to the genre mix too. In order to bring his favorite genre to the mashup – horror – Bong turns to child’s imagination. That scene works only because – for a brief moment – the South Korean director looks at the events from Parks’ kid’s perspective. A creepily smiling head, emerging from the darkness, wouldn’t work if it wasn’t shown in that specific way. It’s a detail, but one that reveals Bong’s astonishing wit as a storyteller. He knows when to switch gears, and walk in the shoes of a different character than the protagonist – even if that’s needed for one, short scene.
The ambiguous end – what really happened in Parasite’s (2019) final scene?
Dad, today I made a plan – a fundamental plan. I’m going to earn money, a lot of it. University, a career, marriage, those are all fine, but first I’ll earn money. When I have money, I’ll buy the house. On the day we move in, Mom and I will be in the yard. Because the sunshine is so nice there. All you’ll need to do is walk up the stairs. Take care until then. So long.
After the party-massacre dust settles, Ki-woo writes a letter, which he then sends to his father by using the Morse code. In a dreamy sequence, we get to see Ki-woo as a finely situated man himself, who purchases the very same house, as if only to reunite with his father. But that illusion quickly evaporates as Bong cuts to the flat, in a frame identical to the opening one.
It was all a dream, wasn’t it? Well, that’s what most people understood.
But knowing Bong, or even judging from the last two hours we’ve spend with him, that dream sequence could be a kind of sneaky foreshadowing. Hence the true question is that – does Bong leave any breadcrumbs that could lead us to thinking Ki-woo can actually make that money?
Sadly, I don’t think so.
That would be contradicting versus the subliminal message of Parasite (2019) – or one of them – that we make our own luck, and this luck has its limits. Now combine it with the paramount scene when Ki-woo asks his pupil/lover Park Da-hye if he fits the „rich people picture”. The Kim family was never meant to climb the ladder that high, and the fall had to be painful. As painful as the family’s separation, and the death of Kim Ki-jung.
Furthermore, Ki-woo is now less capable mentally capable, which lowers the chances of great wealth, if not crosses them out completely. That’s what Bong Joon Ho himself admitted, in an interview with Vulture; It’s quite cruel and sad, but I thought it was being real and honest with the audience. You know and I know — we all know that this kid isn’t going to be able to buy that house. I just felt that frankness was right for the film, even though it’s sad.
Did George Orwell and Nikolai Gogol inspire Parasite (2019) too?
While Bong Joon Ho didn’t mention any of these two writers as his inspirations, the themes present in Parasite (2019) are slightly related to the works of Gogol and Orwell. In fact, after doing some digging, I have found a few interesting references.
In his first novel ever entitled Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell wrote about the life of beggars and tatterdemalions in two major European cities. Through a series of recollections, which graphically painted the picture of just how miserable life can be down at the bottom, Orwell was still able to find happiness there. Moreover, the English writer explained that many of these no-income people were actually very creative and their status was – quite often – a result of an overwhelming laziness.
Does it ring a bell?
It should, because that’s what the Kim family represents too. Instead of slowly accumulating financial capital through a decent job, they’re on a lookout for a shortcut. They are also lazy, and that laziness keeps them anchored to the low-income profile. Moreover, they are well-used to this kind of life, although crave to move up the ladder.
In terms of structure, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) has somehow similar tones to The Overcoat, a milestone novel for the Russian literature by Nikolai Gogol. The writing style of Gogol, known as skaz, blossomed with a range of emotions, often boldly mixing tragedy and comedy together. While The Overcoat and Parasite (2019) aren’t too close thematically – the Russian novel is a bitter satire about social alienation and servitude – Bong’s rich narrative canvas bears some similarity to Gogol’s. The director implements contrast in most surprising places and uses a simple story that elaborates on the society and people’s behavior.
Other details that make Parasite (2019) awesome
- Ki’taek’s wife – Kim Chung-sook – is most likely a former athlete. It’s hinted in the house flood scene, when Ki-taek picks up a frame with a silver medal. It’s a proof that she used to be a hammer thrower in her earlier days.
- The “avaricious” interior design of the Parks’ house was designed by Lee Ha Jun, and it incorporated works of several Korean artists, including carpenters, painters and designers.
- When talking to Vanity Fair, Bong admitted that Alfred Hitchcock’s opus magnum inspired the film too. The theme that caught the attention of the South Korean filmmakers was… the Bates house. To be precise, it’s the stairs and its interior, which made Bong Joon Ho rewatch Psycho (1960) several times.
Summing up the analysis of Parasite (2019)
When it comes to films as rich thematically as Parasite (2019), one can find layer after layer. Even every consecutive screening could possibly reveal a new detail. I strongly encourage you to share your own views and interpretations or question mine. And if you like this kind of analysis, head over here and read a similar symbolism overview of Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse (2019). And a few more articles about Parasite (2019):
- Cultural Hater’s review of the movie
- 20 most promising directors of our times – according to Bong Joon Ho
- Top films of 2019 according to Cultural Hater
Resources used in the article:
- The Economist article
- Vanity Fair interview
- Vulture – Parasite ending analysis
- Jacobinmag – article about Korean neoliberalism
- Hani.co.kr – report on the happiness of Koreans
- Interview with Parasite’s production designer
Let me know which movie should I analyzed next! Write a comment below!