Parasite exposes the greed and desperation of income inequality

Though it takes place in South Korea, Parasite provides a thorough criticism of one of America’s worst problems

Cover+art+for+Parasite.

courtesy of Madman Films on YouTube

Cover art for Parasite.

It isn’t often that a foreign film wins Best Picture at the Oscars — in fact, before 2020, it was never. Only a special non-American film could win such a coveted American award, and I agree with the voters that Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite hits the mark. The film is in Korean, but its universal theme, expert filming techniques and superb storytelling transcend language and culture.

One of Parasite’s best qualities is its message. Though the lavishly rich Park family and dirt-poor Kim family live in South Korea, their disparity is identical to that of many Americans, meaning these families’ situations reflect those of people all over the world. Parasite criticizes the gung-ho capitalism that has created vast wealth inequality in South Korea in several ways, such as how the Kims remain poor despite jumping between minimum-wage jobs and the Parks remain rich off much less taxing work. The film never directly references the United States, but this criticism of wealth inequality rings true here as well. The fact that this inequality is international only strengthens the movie’s critiques.

The filming of Parasite is nothing short of masterful. Where the film excels most is in its impactful use of single shots. Critical moments are often contained within just one unmoving shot, such as when the camera pans to show an entire city block while the Kims are running through the streets in a downpour. The film also uses light and darkness well. One striking example of this is the Indian tent: Da-song, the Parks’ son, spends the night of the downpour in a brightly lit tent in the dusky backyard. The contrast created by juxtaposing light and dark makes the movie’s symbolic elements really pop.

Parasite’s story relies on effective storytelling techniques and intriguing twists to keep the viewer guessing. Parasite is a thriller, and as such, much of the runtime hangs thick with tension. The stakes are almost never sky-high, but Joon-Ho manages to make them appear monumental. Sparse music, lighting and action crank the dial to teeth-chattering and keep it squarely in place. This useful scarcity serves another function: it helps the viewer understand and feel the same emotions as the characters in real time. For example, Mrs. Kim’s mortified expression and unsteady walking reveal her thoughts when she first steps into the hidden basement in the Park house. Though she never verbally expresses her first impressions, her reactions clue the viewer in to the depth of her fear. But it also provides uncertainty — does Mrs. Kim think the basement is a dungeon for prisoners? Does she think she’s going to die? Parasite consistently succeeds at keeping the viewer on their toes and showing, not telling.

A perceptive eye and a clever wit can best enjoy Parasite’s story. It doesn’t waste details. When a character says something, what they say will typically have implications somewhere down the road; for example, Ki-woo, the Kims’ son, tells Mrs. Park that he used to be a Cub Scout. This conversation might seem meaningless at first glance, but the payoff is enormous at the end of the movie when Ki-woo uses his knowledge of Morse Code to translate the message his father is sending him from the Parks’ basement. Parasite does this often. Its expertly planned story feels clean, crisp and concise, and its predictable twists deserve at least one rewatch.

Parasite isn’t perfect, though. My biggest concern is its caricaturesque depiction of rich people. The Kims are wily, resourceful and closely knit, but the Parks come off as stupendously dumb and utterly cold-hearted. They have no complexity, and other than the humor Mrs. Park inadvertently creates, none of the Parks have any likable qualities. It’s painfully clear that Joon-Ho wrote them to be hated. I don’t think this is a good way to write characters, especially ones you are trying to constructively criticize. You can’t build up a strawman of an antagonist and then attack it. How can it fight back?

My two other issues with Parasite are much less groundbreaking. I liked the hopeful note the movie concluded on, but I felt the ending dragged on too long. I think the film could have better preserved its tense, suspenseful tone if it had ended when Ki-woo climbs the mountain and spots the light in the Park house flashing. The switch to hope creates a jarring shift in mood. Also, I found Ki-woo and Da-hye’s brief relationship both unrealistic and pointless in terms of the story. It all happens much too fast, and their romantic fling hardly affects the plot at all. It just feels tacked on. Plus, Ki-woo is college-age while Da-hye is a high school sophomore. The age difference makes every second of their relationship uncomfortable to watch.

Overall, I love Parasite. I barely paused the movie at all while I watched it — it was just too absorbing, and I couldn’t look away. The film spends most of its runtime in the Park house, and while it seems beautiful and idyllic at first glance, it becomes a world of its own rife with deception, greed, revenge and murder. For all of its thriller elements, though, Parasite is ultimately a commentary on the dark side of wealth inequality and class disparity that applies to people and cultures everywhere. Its message is especially relevant here and now — the gap between the rich and the poor continues to dramatically widen in the United States, just as in Parasite’s South Korea.