Parasite: Reading Between the Subtitles
The movie came into much spotlight in 2019, when it first released. It was the most talked about film of the year. It is acknowledged worldwide for its many-layered characters and plots showing the difference between the upper and lower strata of the society in similar situations. But in spite of its fame, a few lessons and interpretations of the incredibly popular, almost surreal tale are yet to achieve the seat under the limelight. Read on to see how Perspectoverses’ own Suhasini Mitra unfolds the film and how it holds true society in the most integrated manner.
Bong Joon Ho, the sui generis South Korean auteur behind one of a kind, modern wonders like “Barking Dogs Never Bite” and “The Host,” has always made films that refuse to fit the narrow parameters of any particular genre. Each of them is built atop a bedrock of comic violence that Bong uses to support the weight of the heavy stories he places on top of it, but simply categorizing “Snowpiercer” as science-fiction or “Memories of Murder” as a mystery would require you to ignore the rare magic that holds them together, and deny the master-controlled instability that allows them to keep changing shape before your eyes. Bong’s latest offers another compassionate parable about how society can only be as strong as its most vulnerable people.
The difference with this tender shiv of a movie is that it doesn’t rely on its metaphors, or even let them survive; on the contrary, it attacks them with a wide variety of household objects until it becomes clear just how possible all of “Parasite” really is. It proves once and for all that with Bong Joon-ho, as with the hyper-stratified systems that he depicts, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And the more his films transform, over the course of an act, a scene, or sometimes even a single shot, the more holistic they become.
“Parasite” begins with its most relatable moment of leeching, as the members of a poor Seoul family scurry around their squalid, basement-level apartment looking for a few bars of free wi-fi. It seems like one of the local businesses, sick of having their network slowed down by a bunch of freeloaders, finally got around to installing a password. The movie revolves around the Kim family of four. The husband; Ki taek, the wife; Chung soon, the son; Ki woo and the artistic daughter Ki jung. The movie starts out with Chung-soon grumbling on with a list of maladies while folding the massive stacks of flat pizza boxes that are piled in their grimy kitchen — the pittance a local restaurant pays them for that service has become the family’s only source of income.
The house and the atmosphere they are living in is a clear indication to their poverty stricken financial condition. So when Ki-jung’s handsome, higher-class friend moves to the United States and asks him to take over his job tutoring the teenage daughter of a nouveau riche businessman, the underqualified Ki-jung jumps at the chance.
His artful sister forges up some documents, and the next thing he knows he’s standing in the foyer of a spacious granite mansion somewhere in the hills above the city. It’s a fine home for the obliviously affluent Park family, even if the sweet but daffy Mrs. Park and her longtime housekeeper are the only ones there to look after the kids. Da-hye is a raunchy student who treats her tutors as indentured partners, while little Da-song is a hyper-active kid with some real trauma and a nascent artistic streak that his mom likens to basquiat with a straight face; “Parasite,” like all of Bong’s films, is laugh-out-loud funny until the moment it’s not.
Lucky for the Park family, Ki-woo happens to be related to someone who could look the part of an art teacher — of course, he and his sister pretend not to know each other when she shows up for her interview. It isn’t long before Ki-jung schemes to have Mr. Park’s driver fired, creating another open position. The housekeeper is the only obstacle left at that point; once Chung-sook has replaced her, one family will have completely latched onto another and feed off their financial resources.
One family lives above the hills, and the other lives below a flood zone. This movie doesn’t hinge on major plot twists, per se, but the cleverness of its structure only takes shape as one clan gets more comfortable living off another, and the top and bottom rungs of the financial ladder start meeting in the same place.
When Mr. Park heaps praise on his new driver for not “crossing the line,” you can almost see the divide he’s talking about. Few movies have so strategically traced how certain jobs cause the rift between tax brackets to collapse. Ki-woo and his family share a space with the Parks, but they occupy a different reality; they spend most of their time in that mansion, but you can feel them navigating around their employers’ lives with surgical precision. Of course, cut deep enough, and those careful boundaries start to bleed. This being a Bong Joon-ho movie, that blood eventually comes out in huge splashes, and it seeps into some very unexpected places.
By the same token, there’s a reason why “Parasite” feels like his most crestfallen movie to date, and also his angriest. If the third act becomes a touch anticlimactic for how fast Bong stitches up some fresh wounds in order to race towards his ending, that feeling is redeemed by a massively powerful last shot that puts all of the director’s work in perspective. Unlike his previous movies, which all had more readily available precedents, the hyper-kinetic anguish here only relates back to his previous movies. It clarifies a shared dream of co-existence, and the closer his characters come to making that dream a reality, the more devastating it is when everything goes off the rails or crashes down on itself.
The impotent rage he feels about that spills into every frame of this incredible film, and leaves us all a little richer as a result. Giddy one moment, unbearably tense the next, and always so entertaining and fine-tuned that you don’t even notice when it’s changing gears, “Parasite” takes all of the beats you expect to find in a Bong film and shrinks them down with clockwork precision. The film contains a number of inspired sequences that pulse with the same, chaotic, morally relative madness of Bong’s signature moments; one is underwater, one is on stone, one is on grass.
Exciting as they are, all of them produce a heart-in-your-throat queasiness that comes with not knowing who deserves to survive. Bong has a profound empathy for Ki-woo’s family, but his plot hinges on the damage their economic aspirations have on the people they displace; in order to move up in this world, someone else has to be brought down. Likewise, the Park family is never portrayed as explicitly “bad,” even if their money has made them a little dumb and desensitized.
The movie leaves us in wonderment about why it is called Parasite. The name usually has a negative underlining to it- Something that lives off another. Though many have noticed the clear symbolism of the Parasites being the Kim family who leech off the wealthy park family, this author has another perspective. The movie in her eyes has carefully shown its viewers how much the upper-class socialites depend on the poor strata of the society, rendering that the true parasites are the affluent, rich people who actually depend on the help of the families like the Kim’s.
The movie is so thoughtfully put together that it deserved all the Oscars it received, if not more. The rifts in socio-economic classes of society, the prejudice between them, and the parasitical bridge that both brings them together yet rips them apart is what makes it so very symbolic and resonant. The entire cinematic experience is filled with every kind of imagery and hinted truths portrayed as lessons. To explore them, you need to only watch.
Written by Suhasini Mitra
Illustrated by Aishwarya Saraf