Who is the eponymous “parasite” in Bong Joon-Ho’s Academy-Award winner? The film, which made history as the first foreign-language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, tells the story of the impoverished Kim family, who use clever deception methods to all get jobs with the extraordinarily wealthy Park family.
Joon-Ho and his film were praised for important and incendiary social commentary, yet it became difficult to understand what message the film truly wanted to send, as the purported villains appeared innocent and even sympathetic, making the heroes’ moral ambiguity more starkly apparent.
The film was beautifully shot and well-acted, easily meriting the mountains of praise it garnered. It fascinatingly melded dark satire and deep tragedy. However, it began to lose focus and become lost in regard to its social commentary.
What Is the Message?
It became difficult to follow what the message of the film truly was, due to the confusing variance of the likability of certain characters. At first, watching the Kim family scheme their way into creating jobs for the children is exciting fun. The two youngsters use their wit to improve their situations and engineer opportunities for themselves.
However, to get their parents positions for the same family, the pair must engage in far more nefarious activities. Namely, they get two innocent employees fired to open their positions for their parents. The daughter frames the young chauffer for inappropriate sexual activity, and the father and son give the loyal housekeeper the appearance of active tuberculosis.
The housekeeper’s firing is especially heartbreaking, as she had worked for the house’s previous owner and showed great affection and care towards both the house and its owners. The scenes of deception and manipulation are certainly entertaining, but I struggled to see how the film was highlighting the dangers of social inequality.
For a film regarding the evils of inequality and class divides, it would make sense for the Parks to be portrayed as villainous. However, they were quite the opposite. While Mr. Park had a propensity to be cold and teenage daughter Da-hye was prone to the bouts of immaturity expected for a high schooler, overall the family was comprised of good, caring people.
Mrs. Park especially came across incredibly sympathetically. Her establishing scene shows her hiring Ki-woo, the Kim son, offering him more money than his predecessor, and showing great concern for her traumatized son Da-song. Nearly every action she takes is intended to support her children, making her both an easy target to manipulate and a thoroughly likable character.
None of this is to insinuate that the film makes it difficult to empathize with the Kim family. On the contrary, their situation is portrayed with such nuance that anyone can be moved by their plight. Yet the victims of their trickery are likewise suffering, with the added tinge of their suffering being at the hands both of their poverty and the Kims’ machinations.
By far the most sympathetic characters in the movie were Moon-gwang, the Parks’ housekeeper, and her husband. Her arc is easily the most heart-wrenching, following her unjust firing, subsequent homelessness, and desperate attempts to help her husband, who later is secretly hiding from debtors in the basement of the Park’s house.
The pair are in the direst of straits at the start of the film, and their circumstances only worsen as the story progresses. They are the true tragic figures of the film, truly driven to desperation and abject helplessness, worsened by the Kims. It is Moon-gwang who truly makes me wonder if the film is truly commenting on social inequality, or has a different message in mind.
An Alternative Interpretation
Interestingly, the film’s purpose becomes far clearer if viewed as an allegory for blinding ambition. At first, the Kim family’s manipulations to secure their children jobs with the Parks are harmless trickery, hurting no one. While there is still some fun to be had witnessing their far more treacherous machinations, it is the same sensation felt when watching gangster films, the thrill of watching morally ambiguous antiheroes behave badly in oh-so-clever ways.
However, once they land in their positions and attain a sense of stability, their behavior continues to baffle. They raid the Parks’ liquor cabinet when the family is out of town and make a mess of the home in their drunkenness. The move seems uncharacteristic for the previously calculated and cautious Kim children, and comes back to bite them when the Parks return home early. When they accidentally kill Moon-gwang and kidnap her husband, all previous attempts to see the movie as social commentary on class discrimination fall flat.
“Parasite” watches the Kims fall from grace, at first led by desperation but later greed and ambition, with the same care and interest afforded to many of today’s beloved antiheroes. Had the film been forthright about its position, it could be read as a modern “Julius Caesar,” borrowing Shakespeare’s nuanced take on watching a once-righteous cause turn dark and ultimately deadly.