This article was originally published in 2019. We are republishing the piece ahead of the 2020 Academy Awards, during which Parasite will compete in the Best Picture field, among other categories.
Bong Joon-ho movies tend to end where they begin: The detective in Memories of Murder returns to the ditch where he discovers one of the serial killer’s first victims; the titular mother in Mother dances, her arms swaying like wheatgrass; the little girl Mija returns to the countryside after saving her pet from a slaughterhouse in Okja. The world appears unchanged, but they are no longer the same. Instead, there’s a disquieting dread. Despite the unspeakable horrors each character has witnessed, the world still spins, impassive and unmoved by the preceding events. As with many of his films, Bong Joon-ho has his eye on the superstructure that binds society together and continues to grind down the bones of its protagonists long after the final frame.
Parasite, Bong’s latest, gut-twisting, Cannes Award–winning film, is no different. Just as he called Snowpiercer — his film about class revolution set in a dystopia — his “hallway movie,” he has called Parasite his “stairway movie.” It is an upstairs-downstairs film that explores every available rung on the ladder of class aspirationalism. The movie starts in the half-basement apartment of the Kim family, with windows that barely peer above the ground. Half-basements are distinctively Korean spaces in urban centers like Seoul, and while the Kim house is firmly below ground, it still “wants to believe it’s above the ground.” Their home is an architectural purgatory that just meets the threshold of acceptable living and a fitting reflection of their psychological states: mean, but still hopeful.
In the opening scene, the family son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) hunts for a Wi-Fi signal to leech off while the rest of his family folds pizza boxes for cash. They let the smoke from the public fumigation into their apartment for some free disinfectant. They’re scrabbling to survive, but catch a lucky break when Ki-woo scores a job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family, Da-hae. The fun of the beginning of the film comes from watching Ki-woo and the rest of the family infiltrate the Park house as individual workers pretending to only know each other through vague networks: Ki-jung (Park So-dam) becomes an art therapist to the young boy Da-song, Chung-sook the mother (Jang Hye-jin) as the Park’s housekeeper, and Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) the father as their driver. In the age of extreme wealth disparity, the Kims’ striving and scheming is thoroughly relatable: After all, who wouldn’t suck on the teat of the rich if given the chance?
Then, as with so many of Bong’s films, there’s a moment about a third of the way through when the bottom drops out and Parasite morphs into something else. A story about two homes — the upstairs family and the downstairs — reveals yet another lurking underneath. The original housekeeper Mun-kwang (Lee Jeong-eun) returns and confesses that her husband, Kun-sae, has been stowed away in a secret bunker underneath the Park house for four years. The Kims are shocked by the state of his living conditions. When Mun-kwang begs the Kim mother to allow her husband to continue hiding there, she calls Chung-sook “older sister” and says that they are both “neighbors in need.” Chung-sook huffily refuses both labels. How could the Kims even compare to this lowlife who has been subsisting off the runoff of a wealthy family?
Instead, the two families fight for their place at the trough. Temporarily the Kims win out, trapping Mun-kwang and her husband, Kun-sae, in the bunker. That is, until the Kims are asked to sacrifice a weekend off to throw a birthday party for the Parks’ baby boy. In the final act, Bong carefully constructs the Parks’ carefree spontaneity onto the backs of the Kims. During the festivities, Kun-sae, the mad, entrapped husband, emerges from the bunker and stabs Ki-jung, creating total pandemonium. The Park child faints, and his parents demand the father, Ki-taek, drive them to the hospital, even as his own daughter is bleeding to death. That moment clarifies what they should have known all along: that their lives are still constrained by servitude, and that they work merely at the whims of their employer. So Ki-taek stabs the wealthy Park patriarch and runs away.
The coda of the film was the second epiphany Bong had while working on the script. (The first was the very idea of a third family hidden underneath the house.) He was waiting at a crosswalk in Vancouver when he suddenly realized how to end the movie after a sensational, bloody climax: The father would become the new resident in the bunker, hiding from the police in the last place they’d look to find him. The Parks would move out, only to be replaced by a German family. The particularities may have changed, but everyone’s station has remained the same. There would always be another wealthy person to live upstairs, just as there would be another poor person positioned beneath them.
The film ends with Ki-woo narrating the aftermath: He awakens in the hospital from head injuries only to have his Miranda rights read to him. He’s charged and on probation with his mother; his sister, Ki-jung, has died; their father long disappeared and his whereabouts unknown. On a hunch, Ki-woo hikes a mountainside that overlooks the Park house where he notices a flicker of light that registers as Morse code. His father, using a method Kun-sae perfected, is tapping out a message to him. The film ends with Ki-woo writing a reply. As he speaks in a voice-over, we see his fantasy take shape: He has a plan. He’s going to go to college, and get a job, and make a lot of money. He’s going to make so much money that one day he’ll be able to buy the house himself, and all his father will have to do is go up the stairs and walk out into the sun.
Parasite’s penultimate shot is swathed in fantasy: father and son hugging on the bright, green lawn of the Park house that is now rightfully theirs. Bong could have ended the film on that note of dreamlike ambiguity, but instead he returns to the half-basement where the movie started, descending from the cramped window space down to Ki-woo writing the letter to his father. There is no mistaking what the reality is. His desire to continue striving is Sisyphean and is the boulder that will eventually crush him. Hope is the emotional parasite in the film: the thing that keeps us going but sucks our marrow dry.
“It’s a surefire kill,” Bong tells me about the final shot. During our few days together in Los Angeles, we discussed the many filmmaking choices he made for Parasite, including the ending. He’s using a Korean phrase (확인사살) that essentially describes the final gunshot you take to make sure someone is good and dead. Imagine an action flick where a trained soldier shoots down an enemy and then walks up to their body and shoots them once more in the head. That’s the surefire kill. The ultimate insurance. And that’s what he wanted the ending to do.
“Maybe if the movie ended where they hug and fades out, the audience can imagine, ‘Oh, it’s impossible to buy that house,’ but the camera goes down to that half-basement,” he says. “It’s quite cruel and sad, but I thought it was being real and honest with the audience. You know and I know — we all know that this kid isn’t going to be able to buy that house. I just felt that frankness was right for the film, even though it’s sad.”
Bong Joon-ho’s worldview comes through most clearly in his endings: clear, bleak, and unrelenting. While his films aren’t necessarily autobiographical, they are personal in the sense that what he wants the audience to feel is the same dread, terror, and anxiety that he feels about the world: the impending climate catastrophe, human-rights abuses, and the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. The detail in Snowpiercer of the small children being used as labor to keep the engine running, for instance, was inspired by news of child-labor practices. Parasite, too, took some inspiration from the Papin sisters, two live-in maids who killed their employers in 1930s France. The horrors in his films often mirror what he sees in the world.
“There are people who are fighting hard to change society. I like those people, and I’m always rooting for them, but making the audience feel something naked and raw is one of the greatest powers of cinema,” he says. “I’m not making a documentary or propaganda here. It’s not about telling you how to change the world or how you should act because something is bad, but rather showing you the terrible, explosive weight of reality. That’s what I believe is the beauty of cinema.”