By James Powers
Contains Mild Spoilers
The South Korean film Parasite, this year’s winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or, is full of striking imagery. Unexpected but trenchant symbolism keeps cropping up in this film that might, at first glance, seem to be relatively grounded in realism. But one particular shot, about two-thirds of the way through, struck me as an especially nifty visual shorthand for the movie as a whole. The shot in question is, technically speaking, a straightforward downward pan. It starts framed on a young couple cuddled together on the couch in a posh, dimly-lit living room. These are Dong-ik and Yeon-kyo Park, husband and wife, unwinding after a rather tiring and frustrating day.
Then the camera starts to creep downward behind the coffee table, revealing four people crammed together beneath it like sardines. This is the Kim family: father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, brother and sister Ki-woo and Ki-jung. Unlike the Parks, they’ve actually had a great day. Unusually great in fact – that is, up until about fifteen minutes prior. Then things got crazy and, well, now they’re here, hiding underneath the Parks’ furniture. Back to the status quo, it would seem: the wealthy and gracious Parks above, the insolvent and uncouth Kims below.
When I describe that shot, it might seem a little trite and obvious as far as visual storytelling goes. Panning downward from the upper class on the couch to the lower class under the table – sure, real deep. But you haven’t seen everything that came before that shot – you haven’t seen how the Kim family ended up crammed together underneath that bougie coffee table. Or, for that matter, how the Parks ended up on that couch. And where everyone ends up after that, well… whoof.
Although Parasite is a foreign film, it speaks volumes about one of the biggest U.S. exports. Namely, the American dream: the idea of upward mobility, making oneself, going from rags to riches. It suggests that that dream is indeed within anyone’s grasp – but also warns of the messy, harrowing and even bloody price tag that comes with it. Speaking as a debt-ridden young man just starting out at the bottom of the Los Angeles food chain, I found it both relatable and foreboding. Speaking as someone who loves movies, I found it to be a great story.
When we first meet the Kims, they seem a little bit like the South Korean version of white trash. They hang around in their cluttered basement hovel at the end of an alley, mooching wifi from the coffee shop across the street and folding pizza boxes en masse for a quick buck. When the alleyway is getting sprayed for bugs, they decide to leave their windows open and get free extermination out of the deal. Too bad that spray doesn’t also repel the wino who’s fond of taking leaks outside their door after his benders.
But while the Kims at first seem like shiftless bumps on a log, skating by on minimal income and effort, they’re actually very resourceful and committed when the opportunity presents itself. Through a friend and a bit of document forgery, Ki-woo lands a gig as tutor to the Parks’ daughter Da-hye. Once he gets his foot in the door, Ki-woo then pays it forward by fibbing Ki-Jung into the Parks’ employ as well, this time as an “art therapist” for their hyperactive young son Da-song. And so on, until the whole Kim family have entangled themselves in the Parks’ lives without the latter even realizing it.
This setup sounds almost like a comedy of errors – something that Shakespeare or Austen might have cooked up – in which we look on with amusement as the plebian Kims try to con their way into a better station. But alternatively, as one insightful YouTuber points out, it also has the trappings of a home invasion thriller, in which the idyllic Park household finds itself under siege by vicious, voracious outsiders.
What’s great about Parasite is that it manages to be both. The Kims display an ingenuity that makes us root for them, but the Parks’ genteel naivete also makes them likeable – if a bit laughable. We don’t necessarily want the Kims to fleece them, although it’s fun to watch the attempt. Despite the Parks’ wealth, they’re not stuck-up or avaricious. Quite the opposite; they come off as generous, good-natured, and trusting to a fault.
Of course, it’s not hard to be good-natured when you have all the material comforts that money can buy, as Chung-sook drily observes at one point. And although that’s just a snarky aside, her comment turns out to be more disturbingly insightful than she realized. The Parks may not be Scrooges, but still, mere graciousness isn’t enough to offset the hidden costs of their wealth – costs they may not even be aware of themselves.
Those costs almost literally pop out of the woodwork in a big midpoint reveal, at which point Parasite turns the corner into thriller territory with impressive agility. Suffice to say that, in the end, no one is where they started out, but no one really ends up where they wanted to go, either. The rich get taken down a few pegs, but those trying to climb out of poverty also get burned. And not everyone makes it out alive.
The more I think about it, the more the film reminds me of the work of famously dark Catholic author Flannery O’Connor. She tells stories about damaged, selfish, desperate people who end up on collision courses with one another, often with unexpected and grimly hilarious results. Within her mordant fables, however, she always leaves the door open for grace to work on her characters. More often than not, that grace comes through the very havoc they bring upon themselves, rather than undoing or forestalling it. Everyone is a screwup in the worlds of both O’connor and Parasite; and in both cases, some people thankfully learn from their mistakes. But some aren’t so lucky.
Now back to my self-pitying comment earlier about being a poor post-grad in LA, and how that made me relate to the Kims. Those of us in the 99% might be tempted to read elements of Parasite as a warning to the wealthy that their time is limited and that we, the downtrodden meek, will soon inherit the earth. I’d like that, personally. I’d like to see the SoCal NIMBYs loosen their death grip on urban real estate, employers bump up entry-level salaries so my peers and I can pay off our student loans, and those stupid Mercedes G Wagons go the way of the dodo. But that’s not what happens, neither in the film nor in reality. If anything, the film seems to suggest that both wealth and the pursuit thereof is a trap. But nor does it glamorize poverty as a more enlightened alternative.
So where does that leave us? Christ famously warned that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Parasite, with its darkly comic vision of the American dream gone bad in South Korea, suggests that riches may not even be worth the hassle in this life, never mind the next. In short, he who dies with the most toys still dies. But it also acknowledges that he who doesn’t have enough toys is going to die before his time. Bummer.
Depending on how you look at it, the film may end on precisely this note, and without any mention of a hereafter that could make the catch-22 worth it. But it may also offer an O’Connor-esque occasion of backdoor grace. After all the blood and thunder of the climax, a certain clarity is left in its aftermath for one of the characters. Thanks to that clarity, riches become no longer an end in themselves for that character, but rather the means to a more noble end that – perhaps – propels that character forward. If there were to be a sequel to Parasite (not that there should be), it might play out like The Count of Monte Cristo in reverse, where wealth is pursued as a means of redemption rather than revenge.
And that, perhaps, is the loophole. The catch about prosperity, as Jesus tells us and as Parasite suggests, is that it will either elude or betray you if grasp after it as an end in itself. You need it to a certain degree, but you place your hope and trust in it at your peril.
This isn’t really a revolutionary thesis, but it is one that is extremely easy to forget. What makes Parasite such an effective film is that it “re-presents” this old, universal lesson to us, not by articulating it explicitly but by incarnating it in a very particular, vivid, absorbing story. A great movie is no more and no less than that.
About the Author
James Powers is a writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.