A Movie With a Message; ‘Parasite’ Is a Social Thriller and Class Critique Done Right
In 2020, almost everyone has heard of Bong Joon-Ho’s cinematic masterpiece Parasite. If not from its critical acclaim and rave reviews, then maybe from its status as an awards darling. Not to mention its history-making sweep of the 2020 Oscar’s, winning four awards, including Best Picture and International Feature Film.
If you aren’t familiar with the film, then here’s a spoiler warning, so you might want to watch it first. We’ll wait!
Parasite, by design, is a social thriller, exploring the lives of two families from wildly different socioeconomic backgrounds. The term ‘social thriller’ has been thrown around sporadically through the years in reference to a certain type of movie. These movies were generally classified as horror, yet never truly fit the genre, with the subject matter being the cause for fear more so than the supernatural element – an example being Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
The modern take on the social thriller was popularised by Jordan Peele, following the release of his movie Get Out in 2017. Peele defines the social thriller as movies where humanity is the centre. These films usually speak to social issues important in this era. Currently, social thrillers are more pervasive in Western cinema with films like the aforementioned Get Out and others such as The Hunt (2020) and Luce (2019).
Bong however is no stranger to social commentary. His films all explore the class divide in societies and how individuals are powerless in this insidious system. His previous films such as Mother (2009), Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017) all followed individuals being oppressed by larger systems of power, finding a way to survive and thrive. Yet, often they fail to do so, allowed only small wins but essentially coming out as a victim of the system.
In 2015 Bong was among the 9,000 or so artists which were blacklisted by the President Park Geun-Hye’s administration. This was a result of Bong’s critical view of the government. This ban involved cutting off funding and support to these artists and pressuring major platforms to refrain from promoting them.
This time was described as nightmarish by Bong. Following the reveal of this blacklist in 2016, protests were sparked which led to the impeachment and removal of conservative president Park Geun-Hye. With that came Bong’s magnum opus, Parasite.
Parasite serves as a critique of an imbalanced society. In the film, we are introduced to two families, the Kims and the Parks. Starting off as a black comedy about the down-on-their-luck Kim family, the film follows the Kims weaseling themselves into the wealthy Park family’s as the help.
Initially the Kim family is shown as tenacious and willing to do anything to rise above their circumstance and the Parks seem the kind, laid-back employers. The Kims even exploit the housekeeper Moon-Gwang’s (Lee Jung-Eun) allergy to get her ousted from her position. While the Kims appear as if they are the titular parasite, it is quickly revealed that the Parks are no better.
A recurring idea Mr Park (Lee Sun-Kyun) holds is that the help should never ‘cross the line’. Visually this is represented in the framing of the shots, always showing the upper-class Parks being separated from each other by the use of walls. The Parks impose on the Kims without a thought and treat them with the otherness of the working class.
The Parks even make light of the plight of the lower class, using it for their sexual roleplay scenario. The Parks send a clear message that they are apart from the rest, better than the working class Kims.
Eventually, the plot hits its climax as the Park son, Da-Song (Jung Hyeong-Jun) celebrates his birthday. Things quickly unravel and descend into chaos. Leaving one member of each family dead, including the patriarch of the Park family. Yet another rich family moves in to replace the Parks, showing no change to the status quo. It shows that there is no fighting the capitalist machine and much like a Hydra, if you cut off one head, another grows back.
In Parasite, Bong does what is not commonly done: he portrays class realistically. Unlike the usual romanticisation of wealth, portraying the rich as gentle, kind and giving or the vilification of the poor as grubby money-hungry monsters. The Parks are like the Kims, humans trying to survive.
While the Parks have the creature comforts that comes with material wealth, they are nothing more than a cog in the capitalist machine. While the Parks’ excessive lifestyle while gatekeeping their wealth and status shows the pervasive classism that exists in society today, they are dispensable too. As they leave the house, they are easily replaced with a new rich family. The film doesn’t give resolution to the Parks, with the patriarch and breadwinner dead, we are left to wonder what will become of them.
The Kims and their cutthroat tenacity through unscrupulous methods highlight the relentlessness needed to try to escape the poverty trap. Yet, this only brings them to fall lower. In the last scene the Kim son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-Shik) imagines a future where he is rich enough to purchase the house. But in the final shot, the camera pans down to show him in the family home – the half basement.
Bong describes this as a ‘surefire kill’ to let audiences know the hard gritty reality: the Kims will never afford that house. The Kims, who are shown as the skilful, witty underdogs, cannot rise above their station. Proving that “with hard work anything is possible” is just a whimsical fantasy when meritocracy takes a backseat to nepotism.
Parasite‘s success as a film is partly credited to timing. It leaves us with a fear and uneasiness that doesn’t leave us even with the movie’s end. As a film, it perfectly plays to our social anxieties as a generation. The ‘horror’ begins and ends with the portrayal of society.
Ultimately, the film shows that there are no outright villains and heroes. That good and evil are just constructs and that there are no winners in life. Be it the Parks or the Kims, both families leave worse off as the movies end.
Despite its somewhat far-fetched subject matter, the events shown are believable. And that is where the message comes in. In Parasite, Bong doesn’t aim to make a film to fight for change but instead to make audiences feel the weight of reality. It makes audiences feel raw and exposed, to empathise with both sides and understand that in a world like this, no one can win.
Catch Parasite through these streaming services: