Dive into two different worlds: one as luxurious as anyone would wish and one where you struggle to feed your family. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, the Korean film Parasite showcases the story of the poverty-stricken Kim family and the elite Park family. The film exhibits the cunning abilities of the Kim family, how they manipulated the Parks, and how quickly wealth can poison one's good reason. The plot-twisting thriller of this foreign film allowed it to gain media attention in American theaters and won itself multiple Academy and Golden Globe awards. The movie takes place in Seoul, South Korea transitioning between a gated rich community and the slums. Similar to the Kim family, many people in these conditions are treated in dehumanizing ways. As seen in the first couple of minutes of the film, the Kim family frequently experiences people urinating on their house and toxic chemicals being blown into their house. The destitute household finally receives a glimpse of hope when their son, "Kevin" (played by Choi Woo-shik), is given a tutoring opportunity by his friend. After making a fake résumé, Kevin is able to gain trust from the Park family and slowly starts his strategic plan to have his entire family work for them. The Kim family was suddenly blessed with an extravagant lifestyle, finally being able to afford top end food and other notable goods. Bong's Parasite allows the audience to experience the difference in social classes that is applicable in many countries today. Nevertheless, the film takes a drastic and dark turn once the Kim family is fully established in the Park's house. Through analyzing the film's lighting, camera positioning, and other mise-en-scene elements, one can see the theme of privilege and how it can turn into a curse. Bong's brilliant directing skills allow the watcher to immerse themselves in a film that is spoken in another language.
Since the movie switches its point of view many times, the audience is able to experience the daily life of each family. The film provides insight on how rich and poor families handle decision making, money, and how they are viewed by society. By doing this, the audience is able to recognize how influential wealth is to a human life. One way that we can identify the cinematic tricks Bong uses to reveal privilege can be exemplified in this statement by Edwin Hodge, "Whether it's social class status or your economic status, it is very evident that the top, if they get their way, will survive and be strong. They will lead those who are helpless, in many ways, to suffer". This statement of how the rich reign over the poor is seen in many ways throughout the film, especially with how the Park family treat the Kim family behind their back. This can also be seen when the Kim family achieves economic stability and treat the former housekeeper and her husband horribly.
As Jessica is meeting the madame for the first time, she knows that she has to have a certain method to manipulate her. Usually, the madame likes the sit in with lessons with her children, but Jessica orders her to leave the room. During Jessica's lesson, the madame and housekeeper devise a plan to sneak into the room. The scene becomes one with low-key lighting, again indicating that the mood is changing. To the madame's surprise, Jessica seemingly succeeded. Jessica convinces the her that the son has schizophrenia within his art. As this is happening, the camera pans back and forth from the madame's shocked face to the black zone in the art work. Jessica convinces her to pay a hefty fee for her services. This hints at and informs the audience of the ongoing theme that will take place in the film.
As Jessica is about to leave, the Parks offer her a ride with their chauffeur. During the ride home, the lighting is very low-key. The driver is persistent with giving Jessica a ride all the way home, however, she is defensive knowing that her social status will ruin her chances at the luxurious Park house. Knowing that this driver may be a problem in the future, she begins to set him up and leaves her underwear in the car in the hopes that he gets fired. As this is happening, the producers added in a "sneaky" type of music and performed an extreme close up shot of Jessica's face to show the seriousness of the situation. The scene quickly cuts to Lee Sun Gyun, the provider for the Parks, finding the panties placed in the car and assuming it was the chauffeur. This makes the Kim family's plan clear to the audience.
This is where Jessica starts to mention her father, Mr. Kim, in the hope that he gets hired as well. Again, as this conversation is happening the director zooms into the face of both women and dims the lights so that you can understand how much money is influencing their decision making. As Mr. Kim is about to meet Lee Sun Gyun, you can sense how he feels like he is inferior. As he is standing in the waiting room of his office, he bows to him from a far distance away, treating him with extra respect due to his social class. To show how Lee Sun Gyun responded to this, the director positioned the shot like it was through his eyes. The camera was also a high angle shot, possibly showing that he was looking down on Mr. Kim (Sikov, 2009).
As Mr. Kim is having his driving test, the scene becomes a montage of all the luxurious things the Kim family can now afford, such as pineapple pizza. They then contemplate how to get rid of the housekeeper so that the mother of the Kim family, Lee Jeong-eun, can be included as well. They discover that she is allergic to peaches and tossed peach shavings on her to frame her for having tuberculosis. As this is happening, the director uses dramatic music and many clips in slow motion. Now, the audience know that the family's plan is in its final stages and that it is working to perfection (so far). To convince the madame even more, they need to spike another allergic reaction so that she sees it in person. Jessica gets a text message that it is time to frame the housekeeper once more, turning the shot into an extreme close up. As Mr. Kim and the madame arrive at the house, they see the housekeeper in a coughing fit. To perfect the plan, Mr. Kim pours ketchup on a tissue that was thrown in the garbage to make it seem like there was the housekeeper was coughing up blood. The camera quickly transitions to a close up shot of the mother and blacks out to show the shock coursing through her veins. The lighting after this transition becomes low-key as they have a serious conversation of what to do with the maid. This tells the audience that their plan has worked and they are about to fulfill their life of living lavishly.
Bong's directing style and versatility is seen throughout the entirety of the film. One impressive way that he accurately depicted the differing social class is through the use of staircases. Bong refers to this as verticality, and he used his own personal experience to perfect it from the ground up (Patti Sunio, 2020). Bong had everything custom made in the Park's house to truly show the privilege that they have. For example, the dining room table costed $22,300, the artwork surrounded the house priced at $50,000, and the garbage can that was used to frame the housekeeper for having tuberculosis at an astounding $2,300 dollars. The utilization of these prestigious household items allows the audience to realistically recognize the privilege that some families are blessed with. On the other hand, the Kims live in a semi-basement flat. One brilliant way that Bong portrayed their impoverished conditions to the public was through scent. But how does one transmit a scent through a screen? Joon Ho compiled items that were 10-20 years old and scattered them all around the basement flat. This gave the house a very grimy and dusty feel to it. Additionally, to show how low they were in social class, Bong made the Kims climb to be able to get out of their home. Even though they were half way underground, the other half that way above ground acted as hope and a way out of the slums.
Additionally, Bong designed each house with parallel front facing windows. Using a large formatting camera, it allowed these windows to take up the majority of the scene when on screen (Logan Baker, 2020). Because of this, it allows the audience to feel like they are looking out the same window but seeing very different conditions. One window had a plentiful amount of sunlight and hope coming through it, while the other had minimal and left the house with a dull feeling. These windows give rise to two different mice-en-scenes. The Parks' house had highkey and natural lighting to fit a certain aesthetic of luxury. However, the Kims' house had low-key lighting and minimal to no use of natural lighting, which is why their house lights were on during the day time.
Bong also utilizes multiple points of views throughout the film, particularly members of the differing families. He is able to show the gradual shift in power and the divisions between the two families privileges. For example, he first shows the division of wealth between the two families when Kevin meets Yeon-kyo. If one looks closely you can see the lines of the fridge handle dividing the two. It is also important to note that Kevin started on the first floor of the Park's house, and eventually was granted permission to tutor on the second floor of the house. The director uses staircases to show how he is moving up the ranks of social class. This is also seen when Mr. Kim meets Lee Sun Gyun, as the lines of his glass door separate the two on opposite sides of the screen. This trend of distinct social classes continues as the Kims advance their way up the totem pole. For example, when the housekeeper gets fired after being framed, the audience sees her descending her way down the hill where the rich live. In contrast, when Lee Jeong-eun is made the new housekeeper, the audience sees her walking up the staircases of the house. This tells the audience how each character's social status was fluctuating.
Following this shift of power, the Kim family find themselves looking out through the more luxurious parallel window. The Parks had gone on a camping trip, leaving the Kims to enjoy whatever high end foods and liquors were in the astounding house. However, their seemingly perfect plan was about to be ruined by the former housekeeper. As they receive a doorbell ring late at night, the director gives the scene an uneasy vibe by incorporating an intense thunderstorm into the misc-en-scene. As they see the housekeeper popup on the intercom, the lighting becomes very low-key, telling the audience that something is about to change in the story line. The camera angle transitions from a wide shot showing the whole family relaxing on the couch to a closeup of Lee Jeong-eun's concerned face, relaying this feeling to the audience. When the former housekeeper asks to be let in, the camera pans to the rest of the Kim family's worried faces. Bong allowed us to feel the deliberation going through their heads at that very moment, especially because any change in plan can ruin their new fortune. As the former housekeeper makes her way down into the basement, she vanishes into blackness, possibly indicating that she is going somewhere that we have not seen yet. As she finally pushes the door open, she screams "Honey!". The camera pans from Lee Jeong-euns's face to the rest of the Kim family hiding above. As Lee Jeong-eun follows the former housekeeper down the dull and twisting staircase, the camera follows from behind. Bong didn't use any cuts here to add to the suspense of the plot twist. When they finally reach the bottom of the basement, the room is completely concrete and lacks any natural light source, giving it a very dull and claustrophobic aura. The use of light can show the gap between the rich and the poor and how their life conditions are severely different.
The plot twist is finally revealed as the three other Kim family members fall down the stairs for the former housekeeper to see. She threatens to send a video of all of them to the madame, crushing their dreams of the lavish life. The former housekeeper and her husband then rise up the concrete stairs, showing that they are about to have their taste in luxury. The two then enjoy themselves in front of the parallel window whilst the Kim family is being recorded with their hands up. The Kim finally see a glimpse of hope and attack the two, turning the once relaxing scene into a brawl. As soon as Kevin gets a hold of the phone and deletes the video, the phone rings and the room turns eerily quiet. On the other end of the phone is the madame, stating that they will be home in eight minutes due to the campsite flooding. To portray the immense amount of work the Kims had to do to clean up the house in five minutes, the director pans around the house to show the broken glasses, food crumbs, and other items scattered. This allows the audience to fully understand and experience how hectic the environment was turning. As the Parks get home, the Kims frantically find hiding places so that they are not exposed.
The use of different lighting, staircases, and ascending/descending give rise to the multiple parabolic themes found throughout Parasite. "Parable, paradoxes, hyperboles, and extreme commandments all disorient only to reorient us. But what is reoriented in us? and in what direction? I would say that what is reoriented by these extreme sayings is less our will than imagination. Our will is our capacity to follow without hesitation that once-chosen way, to obey without resitance the once-known law." (Ricoeur, 281). Ricoeur later goes on to say in "The Logic of Jesus, the Logic of God" that, "Our imagination is the power to open us to new possibilities, to discover another way of seeing, or acceding to a new rule in receiving instruction of the exception" (281). Throughout the entirety of Parasite, many parabolic elements used can relate to this statement.
Bong uses many distinct elements to make Parasite the eye-catching film that it is. He created two polar opposite families, each at completely different ends of the society. By doing this, he was able to accurately define privilege and the lack of it, while also showing how it can totally remodel a person. The Kims begin this film by having no knowledge of a comfortable, financially stable life. The only thing sustaining the family is a small profit that they earn from folding pizza boxes. However, once the promising opportunity arises for Kevin to tutor, greed and selfishness start to control the good will of the Kims. This mentality is transferred to the entire Kim family as they all join in on the scam.
Moreover, what makes the film so interesting is the ambiguity of it. Through the first half of the film, one might wonder why the film is called Parasite. Who is the parasite? What is the parasite? One thing that the filmmakers wanted to avoid was the common dichotomy between rich and poor. Usually, the rich are portrayed as extremely snobby and the villains in a story. Whereas, the poor work together and are viewed as good. Nevertheless, by providing that component of ambiguity to the film, it leaves us guessing who the parasite is. It is not obvious which main character it is until the final twenty minutes of the movie.
In the final scenes of the film, the plot takes an even more drastic twist. The Parks plan a gathering for Park Da-Song's birthday and invite the Kims over for the festivity. As preparations are being made, the audience can sense the pain in each Kim face, due to their house being destroyed. To relay this to the audience, the filmmaker utilize close up shots positioned at a low angle to perfectly capture their facial expressions. During all of this, Kevin goes down to the basement with the metaphorical scholar rock in hand. As he is walking down the dull lit staircase, the camera is angled upwards, making it seem like we are looking up from the ground at him. He accidentally drops the rock down the staircase blowing his cover. As he makes his way down he sees the former housekeeper unconscious and checks to see if she was okay. He suddenly gets dragged back by her husband. Kevin suddenly escapes the trap and the camera tracks both men up sprinting the staircase. Right when it seems like Kevin escapes, the man knocks him unconscious with the scholar rock. This is the first clear information in the film that tells us who the parasite might be.
As the parasite arises from the basement the camera pans and follows him into the kitchen to get a knife. Outside, where the party is being held, is brightly lit to show the cheery mood that is within the environment. As the parasite makes his way outside, he sees Jessica and quickly sprints to stab her. The camera then begins to move very rapidly back and forth from Jessica to the rest of the crowd to perfectly depict how hectic and quickly the cheery scene has turned grey. As Jessica falls after being stabbed, Park Da-Song is revealed behind her and falls into a seizure. One impressive thing that the filmmakers did was have both fathers kneel down to help their suffering kids at the same time, showing that no matter how much wealth they have, they can go through similar struggles. Mr. Park then pleads Mr. Kim for the car keys to save his son. After Mr. Kim throws the keys, Mr. Park picks them up and makes a wince at the smell on them. This triggered Mr. Kim to lash out and stab Mr. Park for mistreating him. As Mr. Kim makes his escape, the camera angle becomes a bird-eye-view and looks down on him, possibly indicating that he will be looked down on by society once again. As he is running away, he descends down multiple staircases, further signifying his lowering in social class.
After this whole ordeal, the scene transitions to Kevin waking up from brain surgery. The brain surgery resulted in him having uncontrollable laughter. Whether it was being read his miranda rights, being sentenced to probation, or seeing his dead sister, he couldn't keep a straight face. This could be the director's way of showing how greed can corrupt the mind. Could Kevin have turned into the next parasite?
However, Kevin did stop laughing for one thing: news reports of his father. After the Parks moved out of their now "cursed" house, Kevin ventured out to see if he could find any signs of his dad's whereabouts. As he peers through the parallel window, he sees the light flickering, indicating a morse code. This informs the audience that the father has been hiding out in the basement to avoid judgement and punishment from society, similar to why the original parasite hid down there. Is Mr. Kim the new parasite? Has money corrupted his mind and lowered him even further than before?
Sikov, E. (2009). Film studies: An introduction. NY, Columbia University Press.
Radish, Christina. “'The Purge: Election Year': Edwin Hodge on Dante's Evolution Throughout the Horror Franchise.” Collider, 24 Sept. 2019, collider.com/the-purge-3-edwin-hodge-interview/.
“A Peek inside the Homes in Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite.” South China Morning Post, 21 Feb. 2020, www.scmp.com/magazines/style/tech-design/article/3051568/parasite-how-director-bong-joon-ho-used-staircases.
Pictures 1 (Cover)-5,7,10-19: Retrieved from Parasite 2019
Picture 6: Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/criterion/comments/es50tx/my_fake_criterion_cover_for_parasite_2019/
Picture 8-9: Retrieved from https://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/creating-the-look-of-parasite/
Picture 20: Retrieved from https://www.amctheatres.com/movies/parasite-60540
The essay fulfills the requirements set for the Final Project for Parables in Pop Culture (T/RS 228) at The University of Scranton, under the direction of Dr. Cyrus P. Olsen III, for spring semester 2020, under the conditions of COVID-19 lockdown.