Ostensibly, the 2020 Academy Award-winning South Korean film “Parasite” seems to depict the problems of a polarized society here, sharply divided between the rich and the poor. That was why Korean left-wing politicians hailed the movie as a victory of socialism over capitalism and tried to use the movie’s international recognition for political gain so that they can win the upcoming election in April.
After watching the movie, however, viewers realize that such a view is only partially right. Indeed, in “Parasite” there is no conspicuous conflict between the rich and the poor. On the contrary, if anything, the rich Park family tries to help the poor Kims, who are happy savoring the extravagant lifestyle available at Parks’ luxurious mansion.
However, their peace is shattered when they encounter a man in the basement bunk of the mansion. The man turns out to be the former housekeeper’s husband who is hiding from his creditors. While the two poor families clash and try to eliminate each other, they all go down, dragging even the benevolent rich family into total destruction.
Parasite is a hilarious comedy or a tragicomedy about a poor family’s plot to climb the ladder of social and financial ascension that ends in tragedy. While watching the movie, viewers cannot but help laugh at numerous funny scenes and witty dialogues up until the ending credits. The sad thing is that the poor Kim family’s scheme to take over the Park’s mansion is doomed to fail because it accommodates forgery, fraud and slander, not conscientious hard work.
Their caper begins as Kim Ki-woo fakes a university certificate to pretend he is a college student so that he can get a part-time job as an English tutor for a daughter of the Park family. Then, gradually, the Kim family hatches a plot to infiltrate the home of the Parks. First, Ki-woo recommends his sister Ki-jung to Mrs. Park, who does not know their relation, to be an art therapist for her young son. Then Ki-jung recommends her father Ki-taek to be the Park family’s chauffeur. Ki-taek, in turn, recommends his wife Chung-sook to be the housekeeper of the Park family, all under false pretenses and fake names.
In order to take over the home of the Parks, the Kim family maliciously slanders the chauffeur and housekeeper who originally work for the Park family. Due to the Kim family’s wicked conspiracy, the two innocent people lose their jobs. In order to step up financially, the Kim family does not hesitate to step on other poor people ruthlessly. Yet, they have neither remorse nor a sense of guilt for their immoral behavior.
In “Parasite,” the poor Kims are perpetrators and the rich Parks are victims. The poor are avaricious and malevolent, whereas the rich are gullible and benevolent. Indeed, the Parks never attempt to do any harm to the poor Kim family. In this movie, the poor family exploits the rich one, not the other way around. Therefore, “Parasite” is the inversion of socialism or Marxism, not a praise for it. Indeed, it takes the side of neither the poor nor the rich. Rather, it exhibits a mutually dependent relationship between the rich and the poor, or between the host and the parasite.
The conversation between Ki-taek and Chung-sook illuminates the situation. To her husband Ki-taek who says, referring to Mrs. Park, “She is rich, but still nice,” Chung-sook replies, “Not ‘rich’ because she is nice. ‘Nice’ because she is rich.” Then, Ki-taek agrees, “Rich people are nice and have no resentment.” These dialogs highlight the underlying themes of “Parasite”; “It is unethical to become a parasite by taking advantage of the host’s innocence and naiveté. It is also immoral to destroy other competing parasites ruthlessly. Finally, if the host dies, parasites die, too.”
The poor Kims daydream that they can take over Park’s luxury mansion someday through marriage. Unfortunately, their daydream cannot come true due to the conflict between the two poor families who live in the semi-basement and in the basement bunker, respectively. The outcome is the destruction of the three families including the rich one. At the end of the movie, a German family purchases the Parks’ mansion. Perhaps the lesson is that if we deceive, slander and fight each other, our society will crumble and foreigners will take over our country.
At the end of “Parasite” Ki-taek, after killing Mr. Park, escapes to the basement bunker of the Parks’ mansion. There he remains a hidden parasite, scavenging food from the refrigerator and sends a message in Morse code to his son. Reading the code, Ki-woo is determined to make money and purchase the mansion to set his father free someday.
In order to avert the inevitable annihilation of our society, we should strive to live together peacefully, helping and caring for each other. Surely, that is the lesson we should learn from “Parasite” and that is what makes this Academy Award-winning movie so great.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University. -- Ed.