WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, in select theaters now.
Parasite, director Bong Joon-Ho’s darkly hilarious thriller about class gaps, was one of the clear winners of this year’s festival season, and is shaping up as an Oscar favorite.
The film follows the Kim family, poor but close-knit and ingenious, as they take over the service job positions available at the Park family mansion, trying to embed themselves into the building fabric, and largely succeeding. That is, until one rainy afternoon when the Parks leave for the weekend, and the Kims come out to play. The house then begins to reveal its long-buried secrets, as it turns out the Kims may not be the titular parasites, or at least not the only ones: A middle-aged couple has been secretly living in the Park’s basement for years.
In a Q&A this week at the Toronto International Film Festival Lightbox, Bong described the Park mansion like an onion, whose layers are slowly peeled back at the same time as the family patriarch's hidden traits. At first it seemed as if he was a sophisticated IT industry CEO, but as the narrative progresses, his comments about the subway and the smell of his employees highlight the darker aspects of his mindset.
"And to put it more roughly, the story is about the rich and poor, it’s about polarization," the filmmaker said, "and I think that house in itself represents that polarization, because you have the rich living there, and then you have that couple that has been secretly living in their basement. So you see, it’s reflective of the polarization of that structure in itself.”
However, it’s not as if the Kims and the basement dwellers aren't pulling their weight: Each of them contributes to maintaining the Parks’ lifestyle, which prevents them from performing even the most basic actions, like going to the supermarket, taking the subway and educating their children.
“And it’s not just the poor family that are the parasites, it’s also the rich family as well," Bong observed. "Because they leech off the labor that the poor family provides: They can’t drive for themselves, they need to hire a housekeeper, so everyone is our parasites, including the third family.”
The scene that best illustrates this one-sided symbiosis depicts one of the basement dwellers using his head to activate the automatic lighting system of the house when Mr. Park comes home each night, so that literal light bulbs turn on above his head as he climbs the stairs. Those same lights are later used by the successive basement dwellers to signal in Morse code for help from the outside world, a subtle subversion of the aesthetically pleasing into the desperate.
Stairs of every type are important in Parasite, to the point that they were an integral part of the early cast and crew meetings.
“I called Parasite 'a staircase movie,'" Bong said. "So even in pre-production, my set directors and I held a staircase team contest, where we each selected a staircase scene from our favorite movies. I told Kang-ho Song, who plays the father of the Kim family, that if I were to summarize the story of one guy, especially from his character’s perspective, I would call it a story about a man that wants to go up the stairs, but ultimately ended up going down the stairs.”
Some of the stairs that appear in Parasite are copied from 1955's Rififi, about a hopeless band of thieves that plan to rob a jewelry shop in Paris in daylight, and from 1960's The Housemaid, about the fear and hysteria of the upper-middle class and their increasing uneasiness with “the service."
The director also cited recent films that explore his economic inevitability and class disparity, including Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters and Jordan Peele's Us, as well as Le Transperceneige, the graphic novel series by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette that was adapted by Bong as Snowpiercer.
“My thoughts have always been about the have-nots, about the weak, about those people given this mission that they can’t handle and struggling within it," he said. "And that’s because I think that the deepest emotions and the deepest traumas of the human condition are revealed through stories like that. I think that as a contemporary artist, it’s easy to be attracted to these themes because capitalism is our daily life, it’s the time zone we live in. So, it’s very natural to feel inspired by our surroundings. I think that an artist who’s never dealt with a theme like that is actually more original, would actually be more unique.”
Two scenes in Parasite are drenched in Snowpiercer imagery: The first is when the Kims decide to keep their semi-basement windows open, to get “free extermination” of the parasites that infest their claustrophobic apartment while they work folding empty pizza boxes. It's mirrored in the climactic scene, where a garden party with an abundance of childish treats is taken over by the metaphorical parasites. The second reference to almost dystopian class stratification is the spectacular flood that flows down from the wealthy area of the city and destroys the Kims’ entire neighborhood with waist-deep sewage water.
The latter was one of the most technically challenging parts of the movie to film. “We built that entire neighborhood on a giant water tank, and we worked with a special-effects team to control the level of the water," Bong explained. "And because we built it on a set for special effects, we were able to pour in very clean water for our actors, even though it looks very dirty. That entire flood sequence was important technically, but also thematically, that’s why we put in so much effort to work on that sequence. Because, you know, water always flows from top to bottom, so it felt like water flowing from the rich neighborhood to the poor neighborhood ultimately submerged the home of the protagonists."
The flood sequence is the turning point for the Kims, and not because all of their possessions are destroyed, but because of the sharp contrast between their situation at the beginning and at the end of the same night.
Ki-jung (Park So-dam), the Kim daughter, starts the night in a luxurious bubble bath in the Park mansion, watching a flat-screen TV and drinking designer mineral water, and ends it despondently sitting on the overflowing toilet of her semi-basement -- it's the only spot where she can steal their neighbors' Wi-Fi -- hopelessly smoking a cigarette like a condemned woman.
Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), the Kim son, starts the evening daydreaming about marrying into the Park family while reverently reading Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so) teenage journals, and finishes the night crawling through water and clinging onto the scholar rock, a lead-heavy symbol of everything he wants to become, but which ultimately crushes his skull.
And as for the parents, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) and Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), at the beginning of the night they are resting together with marital bliss, only to be separated, stressed and surrounded by strangers by the end. For any other director, this would be the Kim’s darkest time of the soul, from which they would rise to end the third act of the movie on a relatively positive note – but for Bong it’s just a soul-crushing foreshadowing of even worse things to come, regardless of how hard the Kims try to pick themselves up and make amends with the basement-dwelling couple.
Bong poked fun at the concept of metaphors in movies, but it was difficult not trace a direct line between the tensions between North Korea and South Korea, and the relationships among the Kims, the Parks and the basement dwellers. The Parks have gladly adopted a lush Western lifestyle, complete with imported American goods that they deem of better quality than Korean ones, and their dual use of art and English to improve their children’s promising futures, which could be a reference to South Korea's soft power. They represent the “rich, K-pop” face of a country that has increased its GDP tenfold since the 1960s.
The Kims are, as the director put itm “the people that weren’t able to board that fast train of wealth, they feel very inferior." That economic situation could be increasingly applied to any citizen, anywhere in the world.
Finally, the basement where the couple has lived for four years “represents the past and also the scary future where a character like Da -Song [the Parks' 7-year-old child, who mistook one of the hidden people for a ghost] feels like if he does something wrong, he might end up in a basement like that. So it’s the space where you have the past and the future overlapping, a place where time has sort of evaporated.”
The architect that built the Park's mansion also designed the basement as a bunker capable of withstanding a nuclear attack from North Korea. Combined with Moon-gwang’s (Lee Jeong-eun) use of Kim Jong-un’s parodied and missile analogies to blackmail and threaten the Kim family, it’s almost too clear that the part of North Korea was assigned to the out-of-sight basement dwellers.
The three families finally converge at the explosive garden party scene, and the outcome is as explosive as a real-life military confrontation might be; just look at the Western feathers adorning the Parks and the Kims, and at the table arrangements for the party, which Mrs. Park designs after a famous military figure.
When asked about the aftermath of the garden party, and the ending of Parasite, Bong didn’t hesitate about his decision to bring the movie back to reality.
“Around the time that TIFF came to a close, I turned 50 and now my son is 23 years old," he said, "and with this film I wanted to express the fear that I have that maybe this won’t really improve in my lifetime, or even in my son’s lifetime, rather than just throwing out random and false hope to the audience, I thought it was best to end on a more honest note.”
Directed by Bong Joon-ho, Parasite stars Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam. The film is playing in select theaters.