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All The Write Moves: Parasite

November 4, 2019
5 min read time


We live in uncomfortable times, so perhaps it’s fitting that one of the year’s most acclaimed movies is a symphony of discomfort. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has earned myriad accolades since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it was awarded the Palme d’Or. Now considered a frontrunner for a foreign-film Oscar® — and a possible contender for best picture — Parasite tells a strange and complex story rooted in the idea of class divisions intersecting with personal identity.

And while Parasite was produced thousands of miles from Hollywood, a free-flowing exchange of ideas between American filmmakers and their international counterparts has existed for as long as cinema itself has existed. Accordingly, the astute screenwriter pays attention not only to storytelling trends within domestic cinema, but also to techniques being innovated and/or perfected overseas. Parasite packs a lot of narrative and thematic material into 132 minutes of morbidly compelling screen time.

Among other things, Bong and co-writer Han Jin Won make a daring choice by completely changing the tone of the film with a mid-movie twist, which won’t be discussed here so as to avoid spoiling the experience. What will be discussed here are some of the ingenious tools that Bong and Han use to create the unique world of the story up to the point that things take a sharp left turn into darkness.

A mosaic of metaphors

When the movie opens, we meet the loving but economically challenged Kim family, who live in a squalid basement apartment. Right away, Bong and Han layer the storytelling with rich metaphors, because not only do the Kims live below street level, but their building is at the base of a seemingly endless set of hills and stairs leading to an affluent neighborhood high above. The Kims’ living situation is a visual embodiment of their economic status.

We quickly learn that each member of the Kim family — father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), and daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park) — is clever, industrious, and resourceful. By establishing these characteristics, Bong and Han imply that what keeps this family from escaping poverty is poverty itself. It is not accidental that when an opportunity for advancement arises, it comes with a catch. In order to pursue a lucrative job as a tutor for a wealthy family, Ki-woo must pretend he is a university graduate, even though he’s never attended a day of college.

Enter the next metaphorically hefty element of Parasite’s tricky storytelling. Upon meeting potential employer Mrs. Park (Yeo-jeong Jo), Ki-woo discovers that she’s as gullible as she is rich. Conditioned to believe that money fixes everything, Mrs. Park is vulnerable to suggestions that problems requiring expensive solutions pervade her household. The implication is that because the Parks don’t have “real” problems like worrying about how to pay bills, they grasp for the illusion of a normal existence fraught with challenges.

Because Bong and Han weave dense tapestries while constructing the home lives of the Kims and the Parks, the critical-analysis game of identifying metaphorically significant elements could go on for quite some time — but what actually matters for this discussion is the underlying point. In the world of Parasite, every detail contributes meaningfully to the expression of theme. Bong and Han selected an arch storytelling style and then made it work by applying that style to every single beat of the script. Had they faltered, even for one scene, the sleight of hand behind the magic trick would have become visible.

Takeaway: Telling a story in an exaggerated style requires total commitment.

The scent of poverty

One of many disturbing motifs running through Parasite involves the dynamic between Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee), the patriarch of the wealthy family, and Ki-taek, the patriarch of the poor family. Explaining how these characters intersect requires revealing one of the big storytelling moves from the first half of the film. After Ki-woo gets the tutoring job, he contrives a way to get his sister, Ki-jung, hired as an art teacher for the Parks’ youngest child. Before long, the siblings convince the Parks to hire Ki-taek as a driver and Chung-sook as a housekeeper. By using bogus identities, the Kims prevent the Parks from realizing that all of their new employees are related to each other.

Hence Ki-taek’s proximity to Mr. Park. Although the wealthy man is impressed by his new driver’s skill behind the wheel, he finds something off-putting about Ki-taek — specifically, his smell. In various scenes, Mr. Park explains why he finds the odor offensive, associating the fragrance with such blue-collar activities as riding a subway train. Once again, Bong and Han operate on a metaphorical level. Mr. Park dislikes the way Ki-taek smells because, to Mr. Park’s “refined” sensibilities, Ki-taek smells poor.

As the movie progresses, we realize that Mr. Park’s olfactory snobbishness runs even deeper than the idea of a class division. In a visceral sense, Mr. Park regards Ki-taek as a dirty animal. Consider the secondary motif of Mr. Park describing the “line” that subordinates should not cross. To Mr. Park, an employee who assumes equal social footing with an employer has improperly penetrated the border separating haves from have-nots.

Bong and Han express this idea by conveying Mr. Park’s revulsion whenever Ki-taek’s humanity — the physical emanations of his body — violates Mr. Park’s rarified personal space. This motif might seem odd or even silly, but in practice it’s highly effective — every time Mr. Park reacts to the scent he finds unpleasant, Ki-taek instinctively sniffs his own body and clothing.

Mr. Park’s contempt for the underclass is so powerful that it makes a member of the underclass question his own humanity.

Takeaway: Showing a character’s sensual experience of the world is an offbeat manner of expressing the character’s worldview.

Make yourself at home

Once the Kims are settled into their jobs at the Park home, they stumble across a unique opportunity. The Parks leave for a weekend camping trip, so the Kims temporarily relocate from their subterranean hovel to Parks’ mansion, where they indulge themselves by drinking the Parks’ liquor, eating the Parks’ food, and sleeping in the Parks’ luxurious beds. The Kim family’s choice to abuse their employers’ trust has fateful consequences once Parasite reaches its wild mid-point story turn, but it’s worth lingering on the illicit party for another reason.

Despite its unusual qualities, Parasite belongs to the tradition of the social parable and broadly adheres to the standard elements of that tradition. By experiencing an adventure, a set of characters with a shared cultural identity learns lessons that reveal truths about society writ large. Per the social-parable model, the Kims’ brazen scheme works until they take more from the Parks than they need. In other words, they pay dearly for pushing their luck.

Hubris is a powerful force in parables because it’s a tidy mechanism for illustrating the importance of humility, the opposite of hubris. And yet in the context of Parasite, notions of hubris and humility get twisted. Although the Parks are never overtly cruel to their employees, the Parks’ hubris manifests as an innate feeling of superiority. Similarly, the Kims have a sense of humor about their poverty, but they lack the humility that we usually associate with sympathetic characters. The Parks are prideful without seeming prideful, and the Kims seem humble but actually are not.

The sequence of the illicit party is one of many powerful moments underscoring Bong and Han’s ingenious use of hubris and humility. The Kims help themselves to the Parks’ home because they think they’re entitled to more than crumbs from the master’s table. However, because the script clearly states that Mr. Park earned his money through success in business, isn’t he entitled to his lavish lifestyle? And doesn’t he pay reasonable salaries for the privilege of having domestic help? Or is the very idea of domestic help inherently dehumanizing? Are the Kims wrong to invade the Parks’ home, or are the Parks wrong to put themselves above poor people? Both? Neither?

The second half of Parasite explores these questions in provocative and even shocking ways, but the hinge connecting the first and second halves of the movie is the scene of the illicit party. It is the moment when the Kims succumb to hubris. Call it “be careful what you wish for” or “pride goeth before a fall,” but there’s a reason why the concept of succumbing to hubris has been central to human storytelling for centuries.

Takeaway: Nothing activates a parable like the notion of pushing one’s luck.


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