Film Review: The Parasite

You might consider me as a minority when it comes to being a movie fan. I have little to no love for action hero movies like the Avengers, Star Wars, or Harry Potter series. That is why when my wife invites me for a film to watch Spiderman, she’ll probably expect I will doze off inside the cinema.

I can’t watch certain films that employ cameras that move violently and cause my eyes to hurt when I watch car chases or scenes that depict pandemonium and panic. I discovered this after watching Bourne Identity and felt disoriented for a day. While I acknowledge films often consist of made-up scripts, even if some of them inspire true accounts in real life, I mostly stay away from recent Hollywood big-budget films with shallow storyline — I read the plot without ever feeling bad of getting spoil alerts. I’d rather know the film was well-made than lose a couple of hours of my life to a Golden Raspberry Awards candidate.

I am no film buff by any stretch. No wonder I don’t even know the names of leading artists on most top box office Hollywood movies and prefer to watch TV show reruns like CSI Las Vegas, Monk, and Frasier. Even if it means my wife gets annoyed if I switch on the nth reincarnation of The Opposite, my favorite Seinfeld episode.

Secret Garden was the only Korean TV drama I attempted to try, finished, and enjoyed watching. Not even my wife lobbying for me to end Crash Landing on You — starring Secret Garden’s leading man, and my favorite Son Ye-jin — could persuade me to do so. But leading to its Oscar nomination and eventual clinching the award for Best Picture, I was already intrigued by The Parasite.

Some movies have been so bad they led to the audience heading for exits in the middle of the film, seeking refunds, or wish they could get back an hour and half of their lives back. But there are also prominent ones we won’t mind to watch repeats and revisit these films in future binge-watching sessions. So despite some skeptics among friends, or at least those who couldn’t figure out how the ending turned out.

Although I heard good feedback about The Parasite, my friend Liv said she was puzzled about how the movie ended. Our choir group planned to watch the film during a gathering in February and I got it on YouTube. Although it did not materialize, I had the movie to myself and repeat as I needed. Hence I have tried to piece together the ending scenes, how they played out, and why they played out that way.

The verdict: well-crafted with an amazing layer of storylines and symbolic references.

Top L-R: Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik)
Bot L-R: Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam), Choi Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), Park Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), Park Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin)

Similarities and opposites

The main characters of the movie are the two families: the dirt-poor Kims (the most common surname in Korea) and the affluent Parks (third most popular surname). Both families have four members, with two children — the girl as the elder sibling.

They live in houses that have levels that metaphorically describe their status in the society. The luxurious Parks occupy a home multiple levels, with a staircase leading to upper floors where bedrooms are located. But they also have basement level, which serves as general storage, and a place where their long-time helper Moon-gwang has managed to hide her husband, Geun-se. In contrast, the Kims live a level below the ground in a cramped household that’s often at the mercy to nature’s wrath.

When the Kim family keeps the windows open for the insecticide smoke to enter, they welcome free fumigation and scent. This is a contrast to the Kims, whose reaction to unsettling smell could be interpreted as a result of their longstanding barrier and intolerance with how poor people’s exposure to filth and squalid conditions. They’re the same people who wade through their cramped spaces and ride subways that changing into fresh clothing won’t take away that smell they are identified with.

Selfishness and hardwork

The Parks are rich and seem to be living the life expected from a well-to-do family. But they’re insensitive and have little to no regard for others as if they can survive on their own. Though the arrangement is mutual and not a master-slave arrangement of the Middle Ages, the masters have little sympathy towards their servants. The family patriarch Park Dong-ik doesn’t hide his displeasure at his driver, Ki-taek’s body odor. Also, when the slum dwellers suffered from the huge flood and lost the little they have, the Parks seem to see the deluge as a blessing to set up an outdoor tent for son Da-song’s enjoyment.

Even when pandemonium ensues in the final scene when Geun-se finally manages to escape and exact his revenge, traces of Park’s self-centeredness are apparent. When he saw Geun-se fatally stab Ki-jung, Dong-ik remains oblivious to it and instead demands Ki-taek the car key to bring to the hospital his son who fainted in the scene. Even as Chung-sook grapples to the ground risking her life to save everyone from Geun-se’s violence, the Park family remains focused on looking after their own. Park Dong-ik couldn’t hide his disgust over the stinking smell as he moved the wounded Geun-se aside, just to pick up the car key.

The Kims may be poor and appear to live off the wealth of their masters, but they’re not lazy. Their manipulation to gradually take over the roles of the driver (leaving Ki-jung’s underwear in the car led to his firing) and household helper (triggering her allergy to peaches led the Parks to believe she has a contagious disease) to infiltrate the Parks’ family are an appropriate description for parasites. But they are characterized as hardworking fellows and find their way to get out of poverty through hard work; they did not rob the Parks. They performed their job descriptions and got paid as agreed.

Looking down at the birthday celebration downstairs, Ki-woo, who was first employed as a tutor to Da-hye, asks if he fits in, realizing a mistake he did when he kissed her. He read her diary before, and assured himself about her feelings. So despite their life in poverty, the Kims, in general, don’t attempt to mask their identity as wealthy people, even though they seem to find an opening through Ki-woo.

When Ki-taek saw his daughter felled by the madman, and the indifference Dong-ik did to get hold of the car key, he was enraged. He probably remembered other instances when his body odor was often the subject of the Park couple’s jokes while hiding under the living room coffee table.

Twists and turns

When the now-departed helper Moon-gwang rang the doorbell while the entire Kim family was inside Park’s residence, it marked the exact midpoint of the movie, turning it from a seemingly predictable series of scenes into something sinister, unforeseeable plots.

We used to easily label the Kims as the film’s parasites, and why not. They’ve “attacked” the Park household with cunning and calculated steps. Now, they’re enjoying their presence of luxury they never felt before, munching snacks and sipping whiskey as they watch the rainfall on the green lawn through a glass wall. They talked about Ki-woo marrying Da-hye and inevitably integrating into the Park household even more. But that plan would soon meet a nasty surprise moments later.

Ki-taek, dressed in Indian party costume, receives a playful plot as warriors attacking the cake bearer Ki-jung with swinging tomahawks. The scene was to be followed by the heroic act of Da-song, the birthday boy as one who will fend off the attackers and rescue his art therapist, the cake princess. Little did they know that an actual attack will happen moments later.

“I guess your wife likes surprises,” the driver asks. But Geun-se’s attack is not whats he had in mind.

The scholarly stone and other symbolisms

One enduring element in the film was the presence of the scholarly stone whose appearance ranged from its handing over by Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk to being used by Geun-se to knock Ki-woo unconscious. The film has subtle symbolism (the house levels), but the role of the stone appears more puzzling than the others. We see its value to Ki-woo as he brings it with him when he does his tutorial lessons, believing perhaps that this will bring lucky charm on his way to success, perhaps marrying his way into the Park family.

But while the stone was seen as a symbol of hope, brought by a friend who led him to a well-paying job, its value was hollow. When Kim’s house was flooded, Ki-woo noticed that despite his initial assumption that the stone was real, it was proven hallow and fake when it floated along with other household items. Nevertheless, even when the family was evacuated into the gym, Ki-woo continues to hold the stone with high value.

“It wants to be with me,” Ki-woo replies to his father when asked why he continues to stick with it.

From a metaphorical symbol of hope and luck, the stone turned out to be a literal weapon used against Ki-woo. Ironically, by being fake and hallow, the rock might have spared him his life.

Why did Min-hyuk send this fake gift, to begin with? In an earlier scene, he said it was his grandfather who insisted that he bring the stone to the Kims with the belief that it will bring material wealth to the family. Perhaps more impoverished people believe such things bring wealth, just like pinning their hopes on winning the lottery by placing bets no matter how high the odds are? Was Min-hyuk innocent and only passed the belief of his grandpa about the stone’s value? Or he did it to cover up his real intention of picking Ki-woo to take up that tutorial job even though he had worthy university classmates? He asserted that Ki-woo is a less risky fit for Da-hye, whom Min-hyuk planned to ask out once she enters the university. But Ki-woo himself showed signs of betrayal when he professed his plan to date Da-hye, behind his friend’s back.

Living in a fantasy world

When a German family takes over after the Parks move out, the characters may have changed. Yet, they played an all too familiar role. The new dwellers live in the comforts of that big house. But downstairs, a new parasite has taken over: Kim Ki-taek, who was seen descending in a flight of stairs shortly after he fatally stabbed Park Dong-ik. The situation was only confirmed when Ki-woo climbed up to a snowy mountain to get a good glimpse of the house and witnessed that familiar flicker of the light bulb. Decoding its Morse Code message, he confirmed that his dad was the one living in the basement.

The film ends with what’s left of the Kim family moving into that house they used to find employment, now as rightful owners. The hug by the father and son seems to culminate hard work and success that came after that tragic scene that cost them, one family member.

But in reality, it was close to impossible. It takes more than just proper education, and even a string of fortunes to get the Kims towards that desired house. Leading to that scene are portraits of a successful Ki-woo being led to the house for inspection, but this probably happened only in his imagination. This is because of his effort to rescue his father down the basement.

The film makes a vivid picture of the disparity between the rich and poor, how they are interwoven together, and how the gap projects the existence of two different worlds even though they are not too far apart from each other. The film is shot to depict the Korean way of life but replacing the location to say, New York or New Delhi, the situation might not be too different. The film may be in Korean, and we are often glued to subtitles as much as the action, but this is too relatable across different cultures. This is what makes this movie earn its well-deserved Oscars.

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