On Parasite: What Lies Behind the Oscar 2020 Best Picture
Capitalism, inequality and then some
There’s been no shortage of buzz where South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s film, Parasite, is concerned. After all, the film is a record-breaking addition to Bong’s already illustrious body of work. It’s raked in accolades at major film festivals all across the globe, sticking with a history-making landing by taking home the award for Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars.
All this fanfare doesn’t come without reason. Unlike Bong’s previous films, Okja and Snowpiercer, Parasite featured no Hollywood household names, sticking to South Korea’s own pool of talents to form an ensemble cast that has easily won the internet over. Despite this—and the “one-inch barrier of subtitles”—the film has managed to dismantle geographical borders by speaking a language globally spoken: capitalism.
Warning: This article may contain spoilers from here on out
Parasite tells the story of the Kims, a family of four that lives in a cramped, semi-basement unit in South Korea. When the only son, Ki Woo—who is implied to be proficient in English despite not having gone to university—is presented with the opportunity to take up his friend’s job as a tutor to the daughter of the privileged Park family, the Kims begin to infiltrate the Park household one by one. Ki Jung, whose artistic skills include forging legal documents, comes in as an art therapist. Their mother poses as an experienced housemaid, while their father rehearses his professional driver act to perfection.
From the onset, it becomes clear that the Kims have long traded off their sense of right and wrong. To their characters, however, they are simply doing what they can to get by.
Something about Parasite, despite its near-surreal twists and turns, feels akin to watching a documentary. While the film starts with a disclaimer disconnecting it from any coincidental references and characters, there’s an odd familiarity to them: the Parks who live lavishly in excess and the Kims who—despite their talents and resilience—hardly scrape by. For the Parks, bad weather means cancelling a camping trip and throwing a last-minute garden party the next day. For the Kims, it spells the destruction of a home and a night on the cold floor of a makeshift evacuation center. While the Parks are bothered by the distasteful smells that emanate off their employees, the Kims fearlessly wade through putrid water to save their most valuable belongings in a flood. Bong’s ability to highlight the contrast between these characters, no matter how well they appeared to be getting along as employer and employee in the beginning, highlight a divide we’ve too many times: the glaring, growing distance between rich and poor.
This documentary-like quality to Parasite also translates in the way the film delivers hard-hitting truths without so much as a sugar-coated layer. In true Bong Joon Ho fashion, the film is a realistic punch to the gut. Right as the Kims begin to enjoy the fruits of their con-anchored labor, we discover that there lies another family living beneath the Park household in even more dismal conditions. Towards the end of the film, the audience begins to ride a daydream of change—only for the illusion to crumble at the last minute.
By the end of the movie, all of this begs the question: Is there any escaping society’s spin-cycle of inequality?