That last few years have seen a glut of movies and TV shows about class conflict and the vulgarity of wealth inequality. Just off the top of my head, there’s been “Knives Out,” “Squid Game,” “White Lotus,” “The Menu,” “Triangle of Sadness,” etc.
Bong Joo-ho’s “Parasite” certainly wasn’t the first example of the trend — “Sorry to Bother You” came out only a year earlier — but arguably it’s the movie that made it mainstream. And it’s not hard to figure out why: It’s really fucking good! It won Best Picture at the Oscars! This was the first time I’d seen it since it was in its original theatrical run, and I regret not revisiting it sooner.
Simply put, “Parasite” is about a poor family, the Kims, that cons its way into being employed in the personal service of a wealthy family, the Parks. The Kims are broke, folding pizza boxes for money in a half-basement apartment. The Parks, meanwhile, live in an architect’s mansion at the top of a hill. It’s a vertical twist on the spatial metaphor central to Bong’s earlier sci-fi parable about inequality, “Snowpiercer” — and one that the film cleverly exploits in its jaw-dropping twist.
(This is a stupid little personal blog that almost no one aside from my wife will read, but I’m still not going to spoil the twist here. It’s just too good.)
What makes “Parasite” so good, I think, aside from the excellent performances and cinematography and witty script, is that it treats its subject matter with a rare degree of subtlety. The members of the Kim family are poor, desperate victims of an unfair socioeconomic system, sure, but they’re also liars and cheaters who throw their fellow workers under the bus to get ahead (and, ultimately, do much worse than that). The Park family is obscenely wealthy and oblivious to its own privilege, but they aren’t portrayed as being particularly wicked or cruel.
The title itself refers to this ambiguity. Bong said in an interview (which I discovered on Wikipedia, crack researcher that I am): “Because the story is about the poor family infiltrating and creeping into the rich house, it seems very obvious that ‘Parasite’ refers to the poor family… But if you look at it the other way, you can say that rich family, they’re also parasites in terms of labor… So both are parasites.”
It might be tempting, then, to let the characters off the hook or dismiss their agency in the film’s tragic conclusion. I don’t think “Parasite” is interested in anything so tidy or, frankly, nihilistic as that, though.