Defying Categorization, ‘Parasite’ Crosses National Boundaries to Tell a Universal Tale of Class Envy, Overreach and Hubris

Actress Cho Yeo Jeong plays Mrs. Park in “Parasite”
Evoking a subtle aura of fear and paranoia: Cho Yeo Jeong plays Mrs. Park in “Parasite” (photo courtesy of Neon + CJ Entertainment).

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet seen “Parasite,” this article may tell you more about the film than you want to know going in to a first viewing.

Much has been made by movie critics about the difficulty of categorizing “Parasite”—that rare foreign-language film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and, as was revealed at the Academy Awards ceremony this past February 9, the first ever to win that coveted honor. Is it a comedy about socioeconomic-class distinctions, a thriller, a horror flick or a hybrid of all three the likes of which have never been seen before?

I have not seen another South Korean film, so I’d be the first one to admit that, to the extent “Parasite” exhibits traits characteristic of its native country, it may be those very same qualities that cause some Western observers unfamiliar with them to find the film so implicitly confounding.

On the other hand, I found the movie, especially upon a second viewing, to be rather accessible. While it may require some deliberation to come up with another individual title it closely resembles, “Parasite” appears to draw on several genre traditions of the best Hollywood movies—be they classic westerns such as “High Noon” or “The Wild Bunch,” suspense films in the mode of Alfred Hitchcock or post-New-Wave/post-auteur-theory works by filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

Beyond other movies, however, “Parasite” takes its cue from leading works of Western dramatic literature—the plays of George Bernard Shaw, for example, in its puncturing of class pretensions; domestic tragedies by playwrights such as Anton Chekhov and Eugene O’Neill in its exploration of family dynamics; and, above all, William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in its increasingly revved-up narrative drive and the inevitability of its apoplectic climax. Like any great work of art, “Parasite” employs character attributes, plot devices and thematic motifs to tell a universal human story of class envy, overreach and hubris—crossing national borders in a profound and lasting way.

Built on Metaphor

“Parasite” starts off as a comedy of manners — or the lack of them — pitting two nuclear families (the Parks and the Kims) against each other and pairing the son of one with the daughter of the other and vice versa. We first meet the Kim family in their crowded basement apartment when the Wi-Fi has gone out — presumably owing to lack of payment — and they have to hang awkwardly in one spot of the household to “borrow” it from a nearby eatery.

Picture of the Kim family from "Parasite"
Meet the Kim family (from left to right): son Ki-woo/“Kevin” (played by Choi Woo Shik), father Ki-taek/“Mr. Kim” (Song Kang Ho), mother Chung-sook/“Sis” (Chang Hyae Jin) and daughter Ki-jung/“Jessica” (Park So Dam) (photo courtesy of Neon + CJ Entertainment).

The plot is set in motion when Ki-woo’s school chum, Min, asks Ki-woo to take over a tutoring job while Min is away at the prestigious university he was accepted by. When Ki-woo protests that he doesn’t have the proper credentials for the position, Min tells him to simply fake it.

Min’s visit to the Kims’ basement dwelling is underlined by a gift to the family from his grandfather: a mounted chunk of rock that looks like it was carved right out of a mountain range. The gift, Min tells them, is said to bring material wealth to those it is bestowed upon. “This is so metaphorical,” Ki-woo exclaims. Like the proverbial gun that’s destined to be fired once it’s displayed in Act I of a drama, this ancient stone is one metaphor you can bet will be used to dramatic effect before the movie’s closing fadeout.

Park So Dam (left) and Choi Woo Shik as Sister and Brother Kim
A comedy of lack of manners: Park So Dam (left) and Choi Woo Shik as Sister and Brother Kim (photo courtesy of Neon + CJ Entertainment).

When Two Social Classes Collide

The seventh feature film directed by Bong Joon Ho, “Parasite” is thought by at least some observers to be the culmination to date of the master Korean filmmaker’s work — even if it also represents a wholesale departure from the genres of his previous films. 

“Completely unpredictable in its development, the film resists categorization and doesn’t fit into any established genre,” state the Press Notes disseminated by the film’s distributors, Neon and CJ Entertainment. “Its mix of black humor, social commentary, satire and suspense is characteristically Bong Joon Ho, and yet it’s hard to find another film from his filmography – or from that of any other director – that quite resembles this work.”

Bong Joon Ho directing Song Kang Ho on the set of “Parasite”
A master filmmaker at work: Bong Joon Ho (left) directing Song Kang Ho on the set of “Parasite” (photo courtesy of Neon + CJ Entertainment).

Yes—and no; for while “Parasite” may, in its totality, be unlike any earlier film of Bong’s, consider the following descriptions from the Press Notes of several of them:

• “Memories of Murder” (2003): a modern-day narrative that “delves into the investigation behind a well-known serial murder case that was never solved, depicting the authoritarian era of the time with satire and sharp insight”;

• “The Host” (2006) “takes as its basis the abduction of a young girl by a strange creature that crawls out of the Han River, turning the monster movie genre on its head while also issuing stinging social commentary”;

• “Mother” (2009), which tells the tale “of a woman trying to protect her son from a murder charge, “is a dark portrait of motherly love taken to the extreme”;

• “Snowpiercer” (2013) is a science-fiction movie that “portrays the last remnants of humanity in a future world that has been frozen over due to mankind’s overdone efforts to fix global warming”; and

• “Okja” (2017), an adventure story in which a country girl named Mija goes to rescue the genetically engineered “‘super pig’ she raised from the profit-driven corporation that owns it.”

Each of these films sounds radically different from all of the others; yet, each of the descriptions above contain aspects that can be found in “Parasite.”

In an interview published in the Press Notes, Bong provides a few clues to what he is up to in his latest film. Regarding the title, he says the initial expectations were for a “creature” or science-fiction movie and it may be no coincidence that the title resonates with that of his earlier film, “The Host.” But “Parasite” is very much a real-world story. “There are people who hope to live with others in a co-existent or symbiotic relationship, but that doesn’t work out, so they are pushed into a parasitic relationship,” said the director, who views the title as an ironic one — much like that of “Memories of Murder,” which evokes the sense of warm, pleasant and even nostalgic feelings about, of all things, a murder.

If the choice of title for “Parasite” was intended to throw off viewers’ expectations, Bong’s attitude toward categorizing films into distinct genres would seem to have a similar effect. In the interview, he emphasizes the film’s real-world grounding—terming it “a human drama,” “strongly imbued with the contemporary,” that, even though it consists of “a string of unique and distinctive situations,” is something that could actually happen in the real world. Comparing it to a story one sees on the news on TV, the filmmaker says he has no objections to his film being described as “a crime drama, a comedy, a sad human drama, or a horrific thriller. I always try my best to overturn view expectations, and I hope “Parasite” succeeds in this way.”

One way that “Parasite” definitely succeeds is in its portrayal of contemporary society encompassing not just South Korea but the entire developed world. Here I quote the filmmaker at length because, of everything he says in the interview, this statement is the most important—as it provides the key to understanding what Parasite is really about:

…One way to portray the continuing polarization and inequality of our society is as a sad comedy. We are living in an era when capitalism is the reigning order, and we have no other alternative. It’s not just in Korea, but the entire world faces a situation where the tenets of capitalism cannot be ignored. In the real world, the paths of families like our four unemployed protagonists and the Park family are unlikely ever to cross. The only instance is in matters of employment between classes, as when someone is hired as a tutor or a domestic worker. In such cases there are moments when the two classes come into close enough proximity as to feel each other’s breath. In this film, even though there is no malevolent intent on either side, the two classes are pulled into a situation where the slightest slip can lead to fissures and eruptions.

In today’s capitalistic society there are ranks and castes that are invisible to the eye. We keep them disguised and out of sight, and superficially look down on class hierarchies as a relic of the past, but the reality is that there are class lines that cannot be crossed. I think that this film depicts the inevitable cracks that appear when two classes brush up against each other in today’s increasingly polarized society.

Crossing the DMZ

Surely, “Parasite” contains elements that render it a singular work of art that could have been made only by a South Korean filmmaker working in, and telling a story about, South Korea. For example, at one point in the film, Mrs. Park tells another character to arrange tables for an outdoor party the way an admiral aligned ships for a famous battle against the Japanese. And a subtle aura of fear and paranoia hangs over the film’s setting that betrays its proximity to the country across the Demilitarized Zone ruled by a dictator, Kim Jong-un, who, at any moment, could decide on a whim to drop a nuclear bomb.

Mr. Park (Lee Sun Kyun) utters the unspeakable to his wife. Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong).
Close enough to feel each other’s breath: Mr. Park (Lee Sun Kyun) utters the unspeakable to his wife. Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong). (Photo courtesy of Neon + CJ Entertainment.)

Of course, today America and the entire world are subject to the unpredictable whims of another unstable leader—President Donald J. Trump. By that same token, “Parasite” speaks to the fears and paranoia of people living everywhere beyond the Korean peninsula. It is also a film steeped in the traditions of the best Hollywood movies and the Great Books of Western tradition—from the western, via it’s “cowboys vs. Indians” motif and “Gunfight-at-the-OK-Corral”-type climax, to Milton’s “Paradise Lost and Dante’s “Inferno” in its evocation, through the movie’s stunning production design, of the levels of Heaven and Hell separating the basement squalor of the Kims from the other-worldly grandeur where the Parks reside—and where the parasites within dream to dwell forever.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s