Parasite: symbols and meanings of Bong Joon-Ho’s film

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This article reveals the explained plot and the detailed events in Bong Joon-ho’s movie Parasite, revealing its meaning, symbols and storyline. We recommend you to read it only after watching the movie, and not before, in order to preserve the pleasure of the first vision.

In order to understand the beauty of Parasite, the film by Bong Joon-ho winner of the Academy Award as best movie in 2020, it is enough to think about “a drizzle, and all this rain and drizzle is building up—and when it reaches the suspenseful height, the tempo should feel like a typhoon”. This is how the author wanted to describe the storyline: Parasite begins with a very light tone, but almost immediately it digs his claws into the flesh of social satire, he surfaces a black humor dark like the night, bringing the spectator into this strange surreal comedy mood and then, more or less in the middle of the movie, it suddenly turns into a thriller with horror tints, it momentarily goes tragedy and indulges in a grotesque, memorable and bitter ending.

Difficult, if not impossible, to classify it. After two American co-productions, the black sci-fi fairy tales of Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017), born from the success of the dazzling Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), Bong returns to his homeland to carry out an entirely personal project, which initially could have turned into a drama: like the director’s previous Hollywood films, Parasite is also in a certain sense a fairy tale, full of symbols and metaphors, but this time the director’s maturity and his wise and elegant use of the mean allow to achieve a result that makes the two, albeit excellent, predecessors turn pale.

The plot

The Seul of Parasite follows a very long tradition that starts from Metropolis and continues with infinite variations to the present day: it is populated by very poor people in its slums while the rich are at higher levels, far from the dirt, far from the stench and, above all, apparently far from problems and pain. The Kim family, father, mother, son and daughter little more than teenagers, is a family of poor people among the poor people: they live in a basement (therefore below the lower streets), forced into spaces so tight that it’s impossible to get up or move quickly without risking hitting your head on an edge or a shelf, they communicate with the outside world through WhatsApp (but only when they can steal the wi-fi signal from some neighbours, because in that street there are still poor people, a little more wealthy, who have a connection), they live with small, underpaid chores, they don’t have the money to pay a decent disinfection for cockroaches (the initial scene of the “free disinfection”, where they risk to die intoxicated too, is memorable) and, icing on the cake, every time they are all gathered together to eat, a drunk man urinates on their window.

Everything that surrounds the Kim family is unsteady and unstable like their lives. This family, which is anything but Dickensian in its poverty (indeed, from the beginning we understand that the Kims are very well disposed towards the art of scam), will find themselves by a pure coincidence of destiny to come into direct contact with the Park family, the same in composition (father, mother, daughter and son) and completely different in terms of income. The pattern of this first part is already widely tested by a century of comedy in the cinema, with the poor man introducing himself into the home and life of the rich man. With a perfect narrative trick, the young man of the Kim family, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), receives a possibility of employment thanks to a friend who recommends him as an English teacher for the private lessons of the young girl of the Park family (Ji-so Jung). The boy is enthusiastic about the idea: he gets a fake certificate of participation at the university prepared by his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park), very skilled in this kind of thing (“if there was a degree in falsification of documents you she would take it with praise!”, her father proudly states) and shows up at the Park house pretending to be a promising university student.

Here the first sensational detachment of the film is felt: the Park residence is an immense design villa with a large garden, minimalist style, made of large spaces, wood and immense windows, a luxury that the young boy never has seen in his life. This is the hilarious portion of the film: the young Ki-woo is immediately accepted as a teacher by the naive and sensitive mother of the family (Yeo-jeong Jo) and by the girl, who has a crush on him, and in the meantime he immediately senses that in that house there is space and work for his entire family: his sister quickly and furiously invents an important background of artistic and psychological studies and immediately becomes the new art teacher of the “prodigy child”, very spoiled, of the family (Hyun-jun Jung); with a diabolical trick (the girl leaves her underwear in the car) the two kids manage to get the family driver fired and to have their father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song, Bong’s fetish actor) take his place, but the worst comes with the poor housekeeper Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee). Taking advantage of the woman’s terrible peach allergy, the three members of the Kim family manage to convince the wife that Moon-gwang is seriously ill with tuberculosis, causing her to be fired with an excuse and getting their mother and wife to take over.

The gigantic Park house has no cockroach problems like the tiny Kim house, but now it also has a serious problem with parasites: the four scammers, proud to all have a generous salary thanks to their deception, are ready to enjoy the good life in the Park house every time the owners are out.

Even the most perfect plans, however, can always be victims of the unexpected, of an agent of chaos that suddenly manifests itself and against which nothing can be done. The agent of the chaos of Parasite is Moon-gwang, who suddenly reappears in the house, while the Parks are away and the “parasites” are partying: in the villa’s fallout bunker, of which nobody is aware except her, Moon-gwang has in fact been hiding her husband Geun-se (Myeong-hoon Park) for more than four years, trying to escape from some ruthless creditors.

The discovery of Moon-gwang’s secret marks the transition from satire to high voltage thriller, which takes place in a matter of seconds with a totally unexpected and unsettling change of style: in a continuous exchange of roles, the Kim family and the other pair of squatters continually pass from victims to executioners depending on whether they are in a position of strength or weakness, in what is one of the most convincing representations of the concept of war between the poor seen in recent years. When Kim’s mother Chung-sook (Hyae Jin Chang) is still in an advantageous position, she treats Moon-gwang, servile to him, as a criminal to be arrested, while when the situation turns upside down and the Kim’s secret is revealed, it’s Moon-gwang to mistreat the “rival” family, forcing them to kneel and keep their arms raised as she performs the intimidating imitation of a North Korean news program (the compromising video is compared to a nuclear missile by the dictator Kim Jong-un).

A violent brawl between the two families and the unexpected return of the Park family leads the Kims to miraculously get the best out of the situation: Moon-gwang (who suffers a head injury that will be fatal shortly after) and her husband are locked up in the bunker, while the father and the two boys Kim manage to hide in the house without being discovered by the owners (but constantly risking, with levels of tension and suspense comparable to Hitchcock’s best movies). It’s during these scenes that we discover the rotten face of the Park family, when the two spouses discuss the stench emitted by the Kims, during a sexual foreplay, without knowing that their employees are hidden a few centimeters from them.

Having escaped the danger, however, another drama arrives, which opens the tragic segment of the film: the rains that hit Seoul have become torrential and the home of the Kims (meanwhile escaped from the villa) is completely unusable. Displaced, refugees in a gym, the Kims are called the next day for an extra day of work at the Park house, because the owners want to celebrate the birthday of the little Da-song in style, totally heedless of the tragedy that occurred at the low levels of the city. Still fresh from the trauma related to the humiliations they had suffered the night before, the Kims return to work at the Park home, with Ki-woo determined to go down to the bunker to get rid of Moon-gwang (he doesn’t know that she’s dead already) and her husband.

Geun-se, however, went mad with grief after the death of his wife: after having managed to knock Ki-woo down, with the same stone that the boy brought the day before (beautiful, among other things, the shot in which the the young man’s blood mixes with plum juice), the man re-emerges from the darkness in which he had been confined for years, while the Parks celebrate Da-song’s birthday in the garden with some very rich friends, stabbing Ki-jung and being killed in turn in the scuffle with the girl’s mother. Shocked by the sight of his children’s condition and disgusted by the reaction of the family man Park (Sun-kyun Lee, who continues to be disgusted by the smell of the poor even in such a tragic moment), Ki-taek kills with a stab in the heart his employer, and immediately after he flees and takes refuge, irony of fate, right in the bunker of the Park house (turning himself into the copy of the man who ruined his life and plans).

After this delusional final massacre, the film ends with the exit from coma of Ki-woo (who, due to the head injury, has an uncontrollable laugh similar to Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, the other big candidate as best movie in 2020 Academy Awards). After having left behind the legal problems due to the colossal scam of which he was the architect, he manages to get in touch with his father still hidden in the bunker, thanks to morse communication, and begins to fantasize about becoming very rich, in order to buy that house and free him.

The interpretation and the meaning of the movie

If in the end the story of Parasite can appear very simple in its scheme (a comedy-like misunderstanding that turns into tragedy without ever losing the satirical component) and in the perfectly linear plot. What strikes is the construction of the characters and, first of all, the mastery with which Bong manages both to direct the actors and to stage everything: with the excellent use of both space (the direction in the scenes in the Kims’ house and the scenes in the Parks’ house are so much different that it seems to watch two different films) and time (the aforementioned tension scenes, the passages from one genre to another), the director manages to keep our eyes glued to the screen from the beginning to the end.

There is not a single truly positive character and everyone plays a role, from Ki-woo who breaks the promise made to a friend and plans to marry the daughter of the Parks without ever revealing his true identity, to the Park spouses, who await the middle of the night to reveal to themselves what they really are (emblematic the wife’s desire for cocaine, while she’s scandalized by drugs during the day): each of them wears a mask to show what the social condition requires him/her to be. Co-protagonist of the whole story is the house full of mysteries of the Parks, created from scratch by the scenographers, in which the director’s eye moves sinuously, trying to use as little as possible the cuts, to give us the impression of being inside the house, together with the characters that populate it.

With his chilling parody of the obsession for social mobility, Bong wins both at Cannes and at the Academy Awards and Parasite immediately became one of the most acclaimed movies of in recent years, yet another triumph of South Korean cinema, increasingly present, important and successful also in the western market. A film whose success could lead to a greater presence of oriental cinema in theaters, already destined to become an instant classic of our times.

Rating: 5.0/5. From 1 vote.
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