Warning: This article contains movie spoilers.
Parasite opens with a bug bomb. As the Kim family squats in their sub-level flat at the base of a sunken Seoul street, thick, noxious fumes seep in, drowning their speech in coughing fits. Only family patriarch Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) remains unaffected, seemingly immune to the deluge at hand. This is but the first flood to afflict the destitute Kim family. Parasite is a film about what happens to those living below sea level when the rain comes – those who cannot tread water and who have no access to an ark.
We meet the family’s cherished son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), face glued to phone as he scuttles from nook to cranny in pursuit of an unsecured internet signal to leech off of. The Kims’ basement abode peers out through a grimy glass to a bleak surrounds of stray animals and pests, drunken neighbors and public urination. When Ki-woo is presented the opportunity to work as an English language tutor for the well-to-do Park family, he fakes his credentials and vaults into a world galaxies from his own, one filled with bounteous snacks, plenty of space to stretch out, and strong Wi-Fi.
Once embedded in this land flowing with milk and honey, Ki-woo begins to unfurl a clever scheme: to fleece his wealthy patrons by slyly replacing their coveted help staff with his own family members. “I’m a scout by nature,” Ki-woo reassures the Park clan’s anxious matriarch as he surveys his new terrain. Ki-woo is prone to adolescent intensity: “this is so metaphorical,” he often gapes, struck by how the physical surround appears to mirror his internal states. Director Bong-Joon-ho’s past films, especially Snowpiercer, have been criticized for blunting more sophisticated, metaphorical critiques of power. Parasite is a masterful return to form for a materialist storyteller intimately concerned with how exactly shit rolls downhill, and what happens to those on the bottom when it does.
In Parasite’s Seoul, altitude is a refined metaphor for power, elevation a barometer of prestige, while the subterranean prefigures the subhuman. After the Kims oust beloved housekeeper Moon-gwang in an elaborate frame job, the film pauses its manic romp to dwell on a rare moment of scarcity. With wind blowing and rain falling, Moon-gwang scrapes suitcase wheels downhill across slippery concrete, weathering a look of panicked shock at her new homelessness. To be human is to be above ground, and to be able to choose when to go outdoors. The rich go camping; the poor face encampment.
“If you are put out,” notes Toni Morrison, “you go somewhere else; if you are outdoors, there is no place to go.” In contrast to being exposed to the elements outdoors, as in science-fiction thrillers like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and J.J. Abram’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, Bong constructs the subterranean as a complicated refuge – a treacherous middle passage of tenuous, constrained freedom.
Bong physically juxtaposes the two households by constructing twin doorways: the Parks, heralded by piercing fluorescence emanating from the refrigerator door, filled with edenic greens and bounty. The Kims are invoked by the doorway of darkness which leads to the basement, a gaping blackness that threatens to conceal and swallow all who enter there. One produces and the other consumes. One gives nourishment and the other subjugation.
“Maybe luxury is the easiest matrix to pass through,” observes Zadie Smith in her novel Swing Time. “Maybe nothing is easier to get used to than money.” We know that any gas will instinctively expand to fill the size of the container into which it is placed. Bong suggests that human beings are rather the same: watching the rain fall through the immaculate windows of their adoptive manor, the Kims spread eagerly across every comforting corner of their new mansion – they soak in bubble baths, open up diaries and the good wine, and enjoy a drunken last supper, musing about the unworthy poor.
In Parasite, the opposite of upward mobility is a downward spiral, and a major downpour marks the film’s chilling, inevitable descent towards its chaotic telos. Hours later, as the Kims flee down stairways and ramps to their own home, water torrents downwards. The Kim household, long under water financially, is swamped as the false promises of “trickle-down” economics are exposed as vacuous. A rising tide does not “float all boats” so much as drown the poor.
As in East Asian films like Godzilla, in which a terrible beast arises from submerged nuclear waste, Bong’s works invoke the notion of the haunted past to explore the impacts of historical trauma on modern life. “The stone, it keeps clinging to me,” intones Ki-woo, seized by the phantoms of history. “I’m serious, it keeps following me.” Ancient threats resurface frequently in Parasite — fears of being “hanged and quartered,” wartime French phosphorus, tuberculosis, tomahawks, prophetic stones, things we’d imagined outdated or long extinct bear down upon the Kims and Parks with startling immediacy. Bong warns us against forgetting colonial violence, becoming like the German-speaking family that moves into the abandoned house at story’s end, unaware of the slaughter that preceded their habitation.
The Korean people have suffered multiple foreign conquests over the centuries, and Parasite is a film teeming with the ghosts of the divided peninsula; Ki-taek jokes to Mr. Park that he is familiar with any street “below the 38th parallel;” Japanese food makes an appearance in Park’s home, as do newspaper clippings from the United States. Moments before threatening to expose the Kims’ schemes by threatening the nuclear option, Moon-gwang pleads to exchange a monthly remittance for food scraps – “we will send it to you every month!” – illustrating the inescapably predatory nature of human relationships under colonial extraction.
Interaction between the wealthy and the servants who order their lives occurs in a supposedly demilitarized zone – yet even when Park and Kim are wearing the same feathered uniforms, the cellar-dweller is never allowed to forget who truly holds the power. Rather than romanticizing the contractual proximity between the rich and the poor, Bong uplifts the mutual cruelty that animates the coupling families and the vampiric relationships that emerge in their scalding exchanges.
Underground, Moon-gwang explains to the Kims that many old mansions, unbeknownst to many, have bunkers that were built into their foundations, so their owners can hide if nukes go off or if “creditors break in.” This exposition resonates with the unsettling fact that opens Jordan Peele’s US: “There are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the United States ... Abandoned subway systems, unused service routes, and deserted mine shafts ... Many have no known purpose at all.”
Like US, Parasite is a home invasion romp with a postcolonial twist, chiding us gently for not recognizing the calls coming from inside our own haunted houses. Parasite can be read in the tradition of political horrors likeThe People Who Live Under the Stairs and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, films that riff allegorically on the home invasion genre, probing themes of race and gender.
In 1983, theorist Gayatri Spivak published a paper in which she argued that despite the proliferation of global decolonization movements, her nation’s most oppressed peoples were rarely granted authentic agency. Drawing from Antonio Gramsci’s term, Spivak named the least powerful in society the subaltern – often colonized subjects, usually women, whose voices are structurally written out of existence by the surface dwellers. The subaltern is not permitted representation – it is represented. Highlighting the West’s profound inability to genuinely listen to the Other, Spivak posed the question: Can the subaltern speak?
Parasite poses a variation on Spivak’s original inquiry: If its speech is not permitted, can the subaltern shriek? Speech is a transaction in which there is a listener. Because the dominant culture lacks “the ears to hear,” even the subaltern’s most elegant communications – respectful ablutions, complex codes eked out through flashing lights – experience a distorting effect, and are rendered inept, “primitive” shrieks unintelligible to those above deck. At the film’s end, a garden party is interrupted by the surprise entrance of a member of the underground, whose carbonated movements and justified rage are received only as manic babble.
All the way until its explosive end, Parasite remains concerned not only with the colonial past, but with judgment, with final reckonings yet to come. My preaching professor used to wear a t-shirt that read: “one day the poor will have nothing left to eat but the rich.” Recalling whose colonized gardens and conscripted labor have allowed the wealthy to so amply recline, we might cite the Pauline admonition that “those who do not work should not eat.” Indeed, Jesus promised that the poor would always be with us – he made no such assurances for the rich.