Spoilers for Parasite below
I don’t think it’s very controversial to say that the best kinds of movies are the ones in which you can see deep and metaphorical themes, but where you can also not pick up on any of the messages it is sending and still be floored by it. There really isn’t a better recent example – certainly not anything from this year – that comes to my head than Parasite.
Written and directed by Bong Joon Ho, this film follows the Kims, a poor family in South Korea who are looking for income wherever they can. When their son becomes employed by the exorbitantly wealthy Park family, the Kims are given a chance for better economic standing.
From the beginning, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), the son in the Kim family, keeps mentioning how different things are “metaphorical.” It’s a not-so-subtle way at hinting to look just a little more deeply at the events in the film.
When you do this, it becomes very obvious that this is a movie about the struggle between the high upper class and the low lower class. The Kim family has no prospects to exit their poverty. They are all jobless and they’re stuck walking around their small apartment trying to steal local free Wi-Fi signals. It is only by happenstance that Ki-woo’s friend tells him of an open position tutoring for the wealthy Parks. Even though Ki-woo is very smart and knows English well, he doesn’t have any sort of degree, so he will have to lie about his formal qualifications for the job.
Here, off the bat, it is showing that in a world where all of these aforementioned formal qualifications are valuable currency, the only way a poor person like him can get a job is through lies and deceit. Ki-woo is hired as the tutor for the Parks’ daughter, and eventually he is able to finagle his way into getting his sister and parents jobs with the family as well (his sister becomes an art tutor for the young son, his father becomes the family’s personal driver, and his mother becomes the maid). The catch here is that all of the jobs were obtained due to deception in some form. While his sister is shown to have exceptional art skills and his parents are shown to excel in their respective roles, the only way for them to make any money from it was through all of this lying.
All of this lying just sneaks right past the rich Parks. Until this all breaks apart at the very end, they do not suspect anything. This just shows how little attention the upper class pays to those below them, and how little credit they even afford them. They never once think that all of this could be going on right under their noses, because why would they? All they do is show distaste for the poor. Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), the father of the Park family, mentions to his wife how bad his new driver always smells. Even when he is doing him an excellent service, all he can focus on is the negative.
The irony of it all is that Dong-ik doesn’t see anywhere close to the full extent of the negative. When the Kims come across the former maid who is now as impoverished as they are, they are greatly at odds. Instead of trying to come together and help each other out of empathy, all they can do is get in each other’s way. Director Bong is bringing his bleak outlook for the poor to the forefront here.
It is mostly at the fore when Ki-woo and his father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) have a conversation about planning a future. Ki-woo is still young, and therefore full of the hope that he can get out of his current economic standing and make something of his life. But Ki-taek is older and has had more time to let reality sink in. He explains to his son how making plans can only bring disappointment and not the hopeful outcome he seeks.
Here is really where the crux of the movie is. At the end, Ki-taek is in hiding because he killed Dong-ik, but his son is still looking for him. Ki-woo writes Ki-taek a letter saying one day, he will make enough money to buy the house under which Ki-taek is hiding, and he will be free. He brings this great hope of rescuing his father from a dark future. Just when it look like the movie may end on a glimmer of hope with this dream of a future being shown on screen, we fade to black only to reveal Ki-woo still in the family’s little hovel, with no real chance of ever getting out.