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Why “Parasite” Is Bong Joon-ho’s Biggest Hit and Darkest Film Yet

“Parasite” speaks to Korean audiences’ real-life woes in an intricately crafted and empathetic manner.

By , 11 Oct 19 23:18 UTC
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Courtesy of CJ Entertainment.

Parasite is famed Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s ninth feature film, and his first to receive an award at the Cannes Film Festival. By winning Cannes’ coveted Palme d’Or this year, Bong broke a glass ceiling—no Korean directors have won the prize before. Lauded by both critics and viewers (including South Korean president Moon Jae-In and North Korea’s propaganda apparatchiks), Parasite was also a commercial success; the film raked in $90.1 million worldwide to surpass The Host as Bong’s top grossing film. What explains Parasite’s resonance, especially among Korean audiences—who generated $70.9 million of the film’s global gross?

A Tale of Bottom Feeders

In Parasite, the Kim family of four bottom-feeding outcasts gets a taste of luxury and Korean high society when they collectively swindle their way into becoming the wealthy Park family’s household staff. Everything begins when their son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) learns about an opportunity to tutor the Parks’ daughter in English; all he has to do is fake his university credentials.

Faced with zero chance at upward mobility or even moderate respectability, the entire family follows suit with drastic yet comical measures to infiltrate the Parks’ house. Father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) becomes a driver, wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) a maid, and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) an art tutor. They leech off of the Parks’ wealth like parasites, gaining a fleeting taste of how Korea’s 0.1% live.

Like most of Bong’s movies, Parasite tackles an issue that plagues society at large: socioeconomic inequality. However, Bong’s more recent films, like Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017) addressed the topic with a more global mindset—for instance by heavily incorporating Americans into the plot or using predominantly English dialog. In Parasite, Bong returns to uniquely Korean environments and hones in on South Korea’s specific flavor of wealth inequality.

Socioeconomic Inequality in South Korea

The Kims’ ban-jiha (Courtesy of CJ Entertainment).

South Korean officials often boast that their country is the 4th largest economy in Asia and the 11th largest economy in the world. While South Korea’s rapid rise from a war-torn nation to an industrial powerhouse and OECD member is quite impressive, endemic challenges persist within the nation’s modern economy and society.

South Korea ranks 32 out of 36 in the OECD for income inequality, and half of its citizens over the age of 65 live in poverty despite rising life expectancy. High property prices prevent younger generations from owning homes or growing their savings. Those who rent using Korea’s unique jeonse deposit system often lose their money to predatory landlords, exacerbating the country’s housing woes. As a result, South Korean millennials have taken to labeling their “hellish, hopeless” homeland “Hell Chosun” (Chosun being a historic name for Korea) as a way to express their frustrations.

Parasite vividly portrays “Hell Chosun” from the beginning. It opens in the Kims’ dwelling—a squalid ban-jiha (Korean for half-basement) lacking cell phone signal but full of cockroaches. The family’s sole source of income comes from folding pizza boxes, and there isn’t much optimism for the future. To drive the theme of “parasitism” home, there’s even an amusing moment when fumigation fumes blow into the Kims’ half-basement hovel.

If the Kims live in hell, then at least initially it seems like the Parks live in heaven. Nestled on the side of a hill, the Parks’ veritable modern mansion features marble countertops, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a yard as spacious as the house itself. It’s clean, closed, and screams “holier-than-thou.” Later in the film, the Park mansion’s different floors create another layer of subtle commentary around class hierarchies, especially as characters quite literally climb or stumble between them.

This clever use of contrasting settings—low versus high, cluttered versus spacious—helps Parasite viscerally convey a sense of inequality. When the film transitions from one polar opposite to the other, it paints an image of class divide so stark that audiences can easily root for the Kim family, despite their lying and cheating methods. The Kims become a set of perfect anti-heroes that Koreans living through “Hell Chosun” can rally around.

Elitism and Infatuation with Status

Mrs. Park (Courtesy of CJ Entertainment).

Interactions between the Kims and Parks in Parasite also highlight another consequence of “Hell Chosun” and its associated systemic inequality: the glorification of all things “elite.” Whether with education, professional hierarchies, or physical appearanceobsession over status pervades Korean society. One might recall Psy’s 2012 hit song “Gangnam Style,” which criticized Koreans’ materialistic and elitist tendencies by satirizing Seoul’s Gangnam District, known for plastic surgery clinics, shopping, and general high society living.

Similarly, Parasite pokes fun at Korea’s elitism through multiple techniques. The Kims acknowledge elitism’s power, and exploit it to a ridiculous degree as they infiltrate the Park household. For instance, Ki-woo forges a Yonsei University (one of Korea’s prestigious “SKY” universities) diploma, despite only being a high school graduate. Meanwhile, Ki-jung pretends to have graduated from an American art college, though she has no formal art education. Both even make up English names to complete the impression that they’ve perfectly checked off all the boxes necessary to be “elite” tutors worthy of a rich family’s employ. Those who understand Korean will also notice how the Kims’ speech patterns start off crude and profanity-laden, but develop a gentler, more “educated” tone as they spend more time at the Parks’.

The Parks buy into the Kims’ tricks hook, line, and sinker. Youthful matriarch Mrs. Park barely bothers to validate Ki-woo’s credentials or check if he actually knows English; the fact he came recommended by the previous tutor is enough. She absorbs Ki-jung’s nonsensical interpretations of her young son’s artwork, and comically peppers random English words throughout her Korean dialog to build rapport. Mr. Park later falls victim to flattery and fancy business cards, allowing the older Kims to gain positions.

The fact that this wealthy and supposedly sophisticated family could fall for such blatant trickery exposes the hollowness of South Korea’s elite obsession. To the Parks, “who you know” and the appearance of status seem far more important than “what you know” and actual capability—something that doesn’t seem too distant from reality for many South Korean moviegoers. Scandals over nepotism regularly pop up in South Korean society, ranging from an airline executive’s daughter throwing a hissy fit over nuts to the Minister of Justice allegedly forging college application materials for his daughter. Parasite simply reflects this reality in a more entertaining way, using Bong Joon-ho’s trademark dark humor.

No Solution

Courtesy of CJ Entertainment.

For all of Parasite’s social commentary, the movie presents no real solution to the Kims’ socioeconomic woes. Without giving too much away, Parasite ends on a more bluntly violent and dejected note than Bong’s other films. Unlike those from The Host, Snowpiercer, or Okja, Parasite’s underdog protagonists aren’t as easy to empathize with, and they don’t wage any epic battle against a big bad villain.

Instead, Parasite lays it thick with the Korean sense of “han,” which sociologists describe as “a feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds.” It’s almost as if Bong captures the audience’s attention by slowly revealing that he’s put his characters in the audiences’ own shoes.

Korean netizens seem to reflect this sentiment. Parasite enjoys high ratings across Korean internet portals like Daum and Naver, with many commenters praising the film’s stark, personally relevant realism. As one netizen on the popular forum Todayhumor summed up, Parasite has an evocative ability to “portray the reality of [Korean] society—where the lower class citizens can only dream.”

With Parasite, Bong Joon-ho returns to his Korean roots, weaving an intricate story whose careful deployment of setting, dialog, and humor create a perfect storm of empathy for downtrodden audiences. For many Koreans, the film isn’t just entertainment—it is a beautifully crafted black mirror onto their lives, warts and all. As socioeconomic inequality continues to increase for many countries beyond Korea, Parasite may yet gain more admirers, and box office takings to boot.

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Parasite is currently playing across select North American theaters.

Parasite (Korean: 기생충)—South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Running time 2hr 12min. First released 21 May 2019. Starring Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam.

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Minsoo Kim is a California Bay Area native and a UC Berkeley graduate. He has a professional background in technology and currently works in venture capital. He has a penchant for spontaneous traveling and enjoys taking calculated risks, having lived in West Africa for nearly a year. He is still waiting for his big break in travel broadcasting a la Anthony Bourdain.

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