Parasite’s four Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture, have raised the profile of the acclaimed film to unprecedented new heights. It’s back in theaters all over the world, giving audiences who missed out on its original run a chance to discover what all the fuss is about.
President Trump appears to have no interest in watching Parasite even once; perhaps the subtitles would be an issue for him? But many fans of the film have found that Bong Joon-ho’s intricately layered thriller, like a steaming-hot bowl of ram-don, only grows more fulfilling with a second helping.
We can’t get enough of Parasite at Polygon, so here are some of the finer points that we picked up on when we watched the film again — which we absolutely recommend doing.
[Ed. note: The following contains spoilers for Parasite.]
The Park family never looks down. This was a huge relief in the first viewing, because it meant the Kims could get away while hiding underneath tables and beds. But when I watched the film again, it felt like more than a plot device: They literally do not care to look beneath them, because why should they?
Something that stood out upon second viewing is how often the characters comment on how “nice” everyone else is. There’s the pointed line when Chung-sook tells her husband that the Parks are “nice because they’re rich,” but the Park family also talks about how nice the Kim family is. Moon-gwang tells her husband that Chung-sook is a nice lady. Even when scheming to get Mr. Park’s driver fired, Ki-jung mentions that he seemed so nice. Hearing everyone described as “nice” feels especially cutting when you know the decidedly not-nice climax of the film. The word is deployed so often that it becomes meaningless.
Parasite offers an insightful examination of the myth of lifting yourself up by your proverbial bootstraps. It’s a trenchant class commentary in South Korea’s homogeneous society, but it’s perhaps even more relevant in the U.S., where race further complicates the matter. And it wasn’t until I rewatched the film that I realized the connection to my own career.
Ask people who oppose broad social programs about the reasoning behind their position, and you’ll get an earful that will tell you something about their value system. Some of them will say they don’t want their tax dollars given to “lazy” people who would rather live off a “government handout” than try to get a job. These folks may also invoke some of the concepts that comprise our romanticized collective vision of the American identity: an entrepreneurial spirit, rugged individualism, the Protestant work ethic. There’s a good chance of overlap between this group and folks who oppose affirmative action and workplace diversity initiatives — the kinds of people who assert that the existing system works because it’s a meritocracy where the cream rises to the top.
The thing with cream, though, is that it’s fluffy and it’s white.
I imagine Mr. Park indeed worked very hard to get where he is, running a tech company. Yet what did Mr. Kim do to deserve his family’s semi-basement apartment and low socioeconomic status? He tried to start his own business, but his Taiwanese cake shop went under — just like that of Geun-sae, who’s forced to hide from loan sharks. The Kims have to take any work they can get, like minimum-wage jobs folding pizza boxes. How do they pull themselves out of poverty?
They don’t. Ki-woo has failed multiple college entrance exams, but lucks his way into a high-paying gig when his friend Min-hyuk recommends him as an English tutor for the Parks’ daughter. And how do the other Kims scheme their way into jobs working for the Park family? Each of them recommends the next person to Mr. or Mrs. Park. In fact, the Parks even hired their original housekeeper, Moon-gwang, based on an endorsement from the mansion’s previous owner.
Sure, the Kims have varying levels of qualifications for the jobs they end up with. But these destitute people would’ve never had the opportunity to even interact with people like the Parks — let alone become their hired help — without a chance encounter between friends. A recommendation from a trusted source, someone you already know (or think you do), is the ultimate currency in the Parks’ upper-class world.
The same is true in fields like journalism. It’s easy to tell an aspiring writer to apply to every job opening and pitch freelance pieces to anyone who’s asking. But the truth is that without any incentives or initiatives to diverge from the status quo, editors will tend to give jobs to people they already know — and those people tend to look like them. In this line of work, the default is white men. As a member of an underrepresented group (women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, etc.), it can be incredibly difficult to get hired when the people in power, like the Parks in Parasite, can’t give you a chance because they don’t even know you exist.
The reveal that Geun-sae is living in the basement is so shocking partly because there’s no real sign of him in the first half of the film. There’s an obvious tell, however, that will register only for those watching Parasite a second time: Suddenly, the flickers of the lights above the steps in the Park household, which are revealed to be controlled by Geun-sae via switches in the basement, become more than just set dressing. They’re secret missives that we’ve been ignoring because, like the Parks, we simply didn’t know they were there.
With the plot revealed — and no longer needing to follow along with subtitles — I found myself scrutinizing Bong Joon-ho’s frames, which demand to be scrutinized. Bong, notorious for drawing piles of intricate storyboards that read like a manga (so much so that his Parasite drawings will become a graphic novel later this year), clicks shots into a bigger picture like his movie is a giant jigsaw puzzle.
That first pedestal shot down from the apartment windows immediately establishes both geography and theme: The Kim family lives below society. Their home, built bespoke by Bong’s production design team, traps them in the suffocating 2.35:1 aspect ratio as they practice lines for their big con. The mansion breathes, and Bong takes full advantage, pulling back wide to luxuriate in the setting. Look closely, and you start seeing the duality of the rich and poor in so many of the compositions, from reflections in windowpanes to characters emerging from unseen locations.
Bong delivers the kind of enigmatic-but-meticulous direction that makes you immediately track down explanations of the 180-degree rule, whether you’re a film buff or not. We’ve seen so many movies that just shoot the action to convey the story that the precision of Parasite feels like magic.
Lots of things jumped out at me the second time around. There was the role smell plays in the story; how the old housekeeper carries herself in front of the Parks, then shows up with a black eye and a bloody lip to meet the Kims; how the Kims’ street was laid out to accentuate the flood, and the intricacy of that entire constructed set. But my mind still lingers inside the shelter where an entire community is holed up for the night.
I found myself searching the scene for the small children that must have been there, for the looks on their faces and how their parents were tending to them. That’s when I noticed the pile of donated clothes, and the patient workers standing behind them while people screamed in frustration. And echoing in my mind that entire time was Mr. Kim’s words from the night before.
“You said you had a plan,” Ki-woo whispers to his father late that night.
“You know what kind of plan never fails?” Mr. Kim asks his son. “No plan at all.”
The deep Korean consonants of the phrase just gurgle out of his mouth like blood.
“If you make a plan, life never works out that way,” he says, lying on a cot and still coated in sewage. “That’s why people shouldn’t make plans. With no plan, nothing can go wrong.”
I’ve felt that kind of despair before. I’ve wallowed in doubt, wondered what the hell I’ve gotten myself and my family into, and I’ve put my arm over my eyes just so, to try and block out the light. Out of the entire movie, that moment felt the most real to me as a father. As a human powerless against the wheels of the world around me. It’s perfect, and serves to put a bullet in the chamber for the movie’s final “kill shot.”
Ki-woo just can’t give up making plans. He can’t put aside the dream of climbing up that ladder. It’s going to ruin him and his family, and there’s nothing his father can do about it.