According to USA Today, the last decade has seen some of the worst changes in economic inequality yet. It seems fitting that we wrapped up 2019 and began this decade with “Parasite,” the South Korean movie that zeroes in on the worst parts of living in late-stage capitalism.
Capitalism teaches us to 1) optimize and be efficient; 2) make yourself useful; 3) get ahead of your peers. It was satisfying to watch the protagonists of “Parasite,” the Kims, use those skills to pull off a scheme that gets each of them employed in the wealthy Park residence.
Could it be possible to hack capitalism if you are good enough at it? As the audience, we were able to pretend with the Kims for a short while. But they find out any aspiration of elevating yourself — literally and figuratively — is just an aspiration. And the devastating result is what makes “Parasite” so impactful.
The following review includes spoilers.
A United Front
”Parasite” is about the Kims, a family of four who rely heavily on each other to survive. The movie opens by giving us a glimpse of life in the cramped semi-basement they live in. They get by with creative and questionable hacks. First, they watch a tutorial about folding pizza boxes so they can do it more efficiently than a machine (and get paid less for it). Then, they celebrate having access to wi-fi, a necessity in our society. These moments establish that the Kims are poor, scrappy and each other’s greatest resources.
When Kiwoo (Choi Wooshik), the son, is offered an opportunity to tutor the daughter of a wealthy family, he takes it. His sister Kijung (Park Sodam) helps out by forging a university diploma so he qualifies for the job. Kiwoo recognizes an opportunity to take advantage of the family’s needs, so he refers Kijung as a therapist for the Park family’s artistic son. When the siblings realize how easy it is to fool Mrs. Park (Jo Yeojeong), the gullible housewife, the logical next step is to get their parents Kitaek (Song Kangho) and Chungsook (Jang Hyejin) on the Park family payroll as well.
As their scheme gains momentum, they gather to plan how to get the longtime housekeeper fired so Chungsook could replace her. The ridiculous yet well–thought out plan to get rid of Moongwang (Lee Jungeun) was so much fun to watch. It was truly a team effort that involved rehearsals, taking peach fuzz to trigger an allergy, taking a selfie at just the right angle, and invoking “tuberculosis in OECD countries.”
The final celebration comes when the Kims get to live like their masters for a night. Interestingly, we never see the Parks spend time in their house together. The Kims eat junk food, drink fine liquor, take baths, and briefly argue. Living like the rich is certainly better than living in a semi-basement, but hardly the kind of paradise that capitalism would have people believe. As the movie goes to show, their triumph at getting rid of their working class counterparts is short-lived.
”Parasite” takes a dark tumble when Moongwang returns and the audience, along with the Kims, find out that the house has a basement. It is where the former housekeeper hides her husband, Geunsae (Park Myunghoon), from loan sharks. He hides underground after a failed business venture saddles them with debt that they don’t have the means to repay. As the protagonists realize that they are not the only parasites, all order goes out the window.
Everything is on the line and the parasites fight for their place in the Park residence. When Mrs. Park calls and informs Chungsook that they will be back in eight minutes, the protagonists scatter like insects to return the house to normal after physically beating out their competitors.
The metaphor of “parasite” comes even more alive in the next scene. Kiwoo crawls upstairs like a spider. Kijung sweeps trash and rolls underneath the table to hide. Kitaek wrangles an almost-dead body underground. Chungsook gets right to work, making food without missing a beat. Our parasites are busy living, but are invisible to their hosts. When the Parks finally return, they have no clue that under their roof, two families just battled for their lives.
The myth of rising above
All the employees in the Park residence fight hard for their lives, but the most intriguing character to me was Moongwang, the original housekeeper who works seamlessly between the basement, ground floor and upstairs. She is the only one who has access to all three worlds due to her unique role. When she is driven out of that role, the ecosystem becomes chaotic.
Moongwang has a lot in common with the Kims; she makes herself useful and she is efficient. We see her cut fruit for Kiwoo and Dahye while they study. She cooks and cleans flawlessly so Mrs. Park doesn’t need to. In short, the parasites make their wealthy employers lives’ convenient. The difference is that the Kims want to rise above, and that motive ultimately destroys them.
When Moongwang pleads to Chungsook that they are “neighbors in need,” Chungsook scoffs and replies that they are nothing alike. This particular moment, long before the movie moves swiftly to its tragic ending, stood out the most to me.
The mentality that to succeed means to rise above your peers, rather than rising together, is one of the most toxic things about capitalism. Even though the Kim family is very united, that solidarity doesn’t extend to their peers in the same socioeconomic class. In fact, the two poor families wage war on each other. Moongwang becomes a North Korean broadcaster, a video becomes a nuclear weapon, and the Kims raise their arms in surrender. In the end, there were no winners in this war.
By capturing how ridiculous and ruthless capitalism is, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” has become an iconic and award-winning film. It crosses language barriers to tell a story of what happens when people have to work like machines, live like parasites, or act as props for the wealthy. We are not meant to live that way, and seeing the absurdities play out on screen somehow validates our own experiences and observations. The dystopia is already here — “Parasite” is just a mirror that looks into the worst parts of it.