This review contains spoilers.
There’s a sense, when things are going far too well, that something bad is coming. It could be the calm before the storm. The anxiety of life being too good to be true is similar; the idea of everything going right can’t exist without the acknowledgement that something will eventually ruin that winning streak. “Parasite” (2019) presents something similar — its humor disarms the viewer and its characters are likable. But it’s clear that the con job isn’t going to end well. That anxiety haunts “Parasite” and tortures the viewer.
Director and writer Bong Joon-ho spends much of the first part of “Parasite” with the Kim family in their impoverished, dirty basement apartment. The father, Ki-taek, is unemployed. The mother, Chung-sook, and their two children, son Ki-woo and daughter Ki-jeong, make ends meet wherever they can. They fold pizza boxes for a pizza delivery company and mooch Wi-Fi from their neighborhoods. Nevertheless, they’re close. They laugh at each other — the love, despite their conditions, is there. When Ki-woo’s friend, who is traveling for study abroad, leaves the family with a large rock that is supposed to bring good fortune and suggests Ki-woo take over his job as an English tutor for the Park family, the Kim family suddenly sees an opportunity they can’t resist.
The Park family is absurdly rich. Their house is modern and exquisite, their fridge is full of food and glass water bottles, and their bathrooms have freestanding tubs. The Kims begin to slowly infiltrate the Park house as individual workers with no familial relationships — talk about the ultimate con job. Ki-jeong becomes an art teacher/therapist, Ki-taek takes over as a driver and Chung-sook is hired to replace Moon-gwang, the housekeeper. But the process involved is ruthless. Ki-jeong plants her underwear in the car of the previous driver, which Mr. Park and Mrs. Park discover and are disgusted by — and secretly turned on by, but that comes later — and the Kim family takes advantage of Moon-gwang’s life-threatening allergy to peaches and frame it as tuberculosis. It’s a vicious climb to the top, and the Kim family barely acknowledges the people they’ve gotten fired.
How the viewer should feel about the Kim family kicking the previous workers off of the totem pole of success is not entirely black and white. It’s certainly something that brings out the individual viewer’s own ideology. Should the Kims only worry about themselves and remove everyone else from the equation? But the Kim family’s deception of the Parks is the best part of “Parasite” — it’s impossible to feel badly for Mr. and Mrs. Park and their children because of their blindness to the world around them. The Kims have plenty of good times in the Park house. They gorge themselves, get drunk and take long baths. But when Moon-gwang returns and discovers that the Kims are a family, is the viewer worried for the Kim family? It’s that moment when “Parasite” twists and turns. Like a nice afternoon, the film is approachable — the Kim family is funny, and their con job is funnier — but now the storm is here, and rather than realizing their common enemy is the wealthy Park family, the fighting between the workers begins.
It’s incredibly dark and almost a gut punch to watch as the conflict builds: Moon-gwang reveals her husband lives underneath the Park’s house, hiding from debt collectors and leeching off of the Park family. It’s shows a deeper level of the disparity of wealth between the workers and the Park family. Desperate to keep their jobs, the Kim family does everything to quiet Moon-gwang and her husband and prevent them from disclosing the Kims to the Parks, which eventually leads to the extremely upsetting death of Moon-gwang. She’s on the ground of the basement, bleeding out, moaning as her husband watches in terror, tied to a nearby pipe. And “Parasite” only gets dirtier from there. A storm causes the Kim’s apartment to flood, but it’s not only rainwater. Everything — trash, sewage — flow through their apartment. They try their best to rescue what they can, but the night leaves them gross and defeated. Mrs. Park notices this the next day and reacts to how disgusting Ki-taek smells as he drives her to do her shopping for a party.
“Parasite” shows class conflict not just in status and resources, but behavior. When Mr. and Mrs. Park have sex on the living room couch — unaware of the Kim family hiding underneath the coffee table — they fantasize about the woman who left her underwear in the former driver’s car, roleplaying as seedy and perverse. But in the morning, they take showers, wrap themselves in soft robes and talk about throwing a party for their son. They talk pleasantly about the rain from the storm. The Parks are completely removed from the impact of everything. They don’t think about the Kims as having their own lives, but as parts of their house, workers who are there to serve — both physically and psychologically.
During the Park family‘s son’s party, all hell breaks loose, and Moon-gwang’s husband, who was trapped in the basement by the Kims, breaks free from the basement. It’s a release of all of the chaos that’s been hiding underneath the surface, and it’s a horror to watch. And while “Parasite” ends where it began — the basement apartment, the Kims (or what’s survived of them) impoverished — it’s impossible to view the parallel scenes as similar. The calmness of the beginning, the idea that “Parasite” is purely humor with a tinge of darkness, is unhinged by its horrifying twist. The anxiety of the Kim family being caught and the consequences of their actions haunts even the good times of “Parasite.”