We’ll start with the easy analysis, because it’s right there in the title. Parasites are fascinating little critters. They clamp onto and feed off of a host, seeping resources that the host should be, could be, using for themselves. They’re thieves, and they’re bad for the host, certainly, but the relationship is a little more complicated, because if the parasite is too effective and seeps off too many resources, the host dies, shrivels up, and traps the parasite. The gravy train has ended. The parasite is trapped in a carcass, totally divided from the resources it needs. The parasite dies.
It’s an awesome title for Bong Joon-ho’s newest film, which is always nuanced but rarely subtle. Parasite focuses on two families. The Kim family lives in a basement apartment, with no phone service and no wifi. Space is cramped. They fold pizza boxes for barely any cash. When son Ki-woo’s (Choi Woo-shik) friend Min-Hyuk visits and suggests Ki-woo take over his place as an English tutor for wealthy high schooler Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the family’s fortunes seem to turn. Once in the Park household Ki-woo senses opportunity, and soon he has convinced Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) to hire his sister, father, and mother as a replacement the former service staff, whom the Kims have strategically gotten dismissed. The Kims cannot act as a family while in the house, and the thrills for the first half come from fear that they will inevitably, eventually, be found out.
So, who is the parasite? Knee jerk reaction is the Kim family, because they are parasites. They’ve latched onto this other entity, and are slowly attempting to bleed it dry without ever fully killing it. Truthfully, however, they’re never shown to be in any serious danger of that. It’s not entirely clear how long they work for the Parks (the film moves blessedly breezily for its entire 2 hour 15 minute runtime) but their circumstances never seem to substantially change. They are definitely better off working for the Parks, yes, but they never leave the basement. They might now have enough food, and cellphone service and wi-fi, but they’re still relatively where they always were, a fact they are reminded of again and again throughout the film. In one superb section they flee the Park house in a rainstorm (they were having a family party there, approximating the wealthy while they are out of town) and literally descend, in the rain, down a series of stairs to their own neighborhood where the water has begun to accumulate and flood. They never truly “rise up.” They are no more likely to bleed the Parks dry than a single mosquito is likely to entirely drain a human. There’s just too much.
The Parks are the other possible parasite, though they aren’t “directly” a parasite on the Kim family. But they do feed off their help, in the sense that they don’t appear able to function without them. They are parasitic in that they need another organism (a service staff) to live. The difference is that they can easily hop from organism to organism. Should this service staff fail, there is always another to take its place. The Kim family is good at what they do, seriously, but so was the service staff they replaced.
The Park family might serve as a parasite in another sense too. I recently wrote about the fear of taking what I’ve been thinking about and applying it to the art in front of me, but in this case, the film is pretty overtly about wealth inequality and the power dynamics it breeds, and to say Bong Joon-ho would agree that no one can earn a billion dollars. The film leaves a little hazy what Mr. Park does for work (tech… I think?). But I bet Bong Joon-ho would be willing to say that the Park family shouldn’t be living in the comfort they’re living in if the Kim family is living in the discomfort they’re living in. The Parks are a parasite on society. They bleed it out, but put nearly nothing back in – at the very least, it’s not an equal exchange.
Parasite doesn’t outright condemn them, nor does it make the Kim family into virtuous heroes. Both families are treated as people who are a result of their circumstances. The Parks are kind, but, as Chung-sook points out, it’s because they can afford to be kind. And the Kims nearly never come into direct conflict with the Parks – the antagonists (or the people they antagonize, depending on how you look at it) are their fellow working class – those they screw out of the job, and those who want their jobs, and, most importantly (in the way to phrase this in the least spoiler-y way possible) the people who worship the Parks for the money they have, who aren’t in the least bit incensed by the inequality but instead treat the Parks as if they’ve earned their place, as if this is the natural order of things, as if they are Gods. The Parks mostly stay above the horror and tension, because they are insulated. Until, of course, they don’t,
As always, I’ve focused too much on the story and not enough on the actual film. Everything here works. As I said earlier, the film is long, but it doesn’t feel it, which is a tremendous point in its favor. It’s rare a film exceeds an hour and forty and I feel it’s justified, but Parasite never, ever drags. Perhaps it’s because it’s a constantly transforming film – it feels like a heist, a thriller, a comedy, a drama, a horror movie… it changes perhaps every twenty minutes, but the consequences of each section grow and stretch and mutate in the next one. It’s masterful, and it’s a whole lot of fun, and it’s edge of your seat.
The seamless transitions wouldn’t be possible without a steady hand on everything else. The acting, in particular, stands out – because of the shifts throughout they have to perform in essentially a series of different tones, and they’re able to pull it off easily (Park So-Dam and Song Kang-ho are particular stand outs). I’ll be honest and say the editing and cinematography didn’t leave a particular impression on me beyond being very good. A movie like this, which primarily takes place in one location – one location where the geography matters – always has a challenge of actually teaching the audience the mapping, and Parasite makes what is actually pretty challenging look pretty easy. That says enough about the technical aspects – they’re good enough that they make themselves look easy.
Go see Parasite. I want to talk to someone about it, but don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. I give Parasite 9.5 peaches out of 10 gifted young artists.