The Kims are struggling. The father had a business but it failed and he hasn't bounced back; the family is shown haggling with a pizza delivery company representative for whom they’ve been folding boxes over how much they’ll be docked for doing a bad job. They live in a basement apartment in a sunken district of the big city, with their windows at street-level; rain and drunks peeing are a constant nuisance. We hear mentioned that the son and daughter, though bright and good-looking, have little hope of advancement.
Though Parasite is set in Seoul, this isn’t a hard predicament for Americans to understand. There’s some South Korean spin we might miss — here’s a good Times essay on that, another from the Atlantic, and a fascinating blog post specifically on the boom-bust “Taiwanese cake” business at which the father failed. But we can get the gist, for a reason the director Bong Joon Ho has explained succinctly: “Essentially we all live in the same country, called Capitalism.”
At first it looks like a funny rags to riches story. (Whee, everyone likes those! Remember Trading Places?) The son, Ki-woo, has a privileged friend who gives him a break: He’s off to college but wants someone he can trust to take over his tutoring gig with the rich Park family because he’s in love with his student, their daughter, but can’t date her until he gets his degree — a gesture of self-abnegation and devotion that resonates with the film’s coda. He trusts Ki-woo more with her than the college boys he knows to be pigs. (Halfway through the film I wondered what this kid was up to at school.)
But to get the gig, Ki-woo has to pretend to be credentialed. His sister Ki-jung forges papers for him. Ki-woo’s not only hired, he’s able to get Ki-jung in the door, at first as an art tutor. But Ki-jung turns out to be brilliant at working the well-off Parks, appealing by turns with decorum and brazenness to what she knows to be — as the poor always have some idea of the soft spots of the rich — their slightly shaky self-esteem. The mother, Yeon-kyo, and the father, Dong-ik, seem frightened of doing the wrong thing — or more properly, of their servants doing the wrong thing, since they themselves do very little; in the mother this manifests as fussiness, while the father is OCD over subordinates “crossing the line,” a mantra that gains significance over the course of the movie.
Ki-jung talks herself into a richer assignment as an art therapist to the Park’s slightly disturbed (or is he just artistic? The Parks aren’t sure) little boy. Then she gets the father a gig with the family, by a subterfuge that’s similarly bald-faced but also harmful to another employee — as she and her father then do to get her mother a place with the Parks. Dirty pool — but you might feel, as a fellow citizen of global capital, that it’s been a long time since Horatio Alger did it all with luck, pluck, and virtue, and if someone’s going to get those breaks it should be this movie family that we’ve known for a few minutes.
The Kims are socking it away, and everything seems good. Then one night they’re alone watching the Parks’ house, getting drunk when the doorbell rings...
I really want to avoid revealing much about what happens next, even though it’s the biggest part of the film. I will say that up till this point the film is thematically in Billy Wilder territory, but tonally it’s more disturbing. Jack Lemmon on the make this is not. The Kims are sympathetic but not likable. They have no higher imperative than survival. Success only raises the stakes. They’re not giddy when things work out — they’re pleased, they enjoy the perks, but they’ve still got to keep up the grift, and defend it from all challenges at whatever cost.
In the first part we get some sense of the physical levels of the Kims’ and Parks’ society: While the former are in an urban hollow, the latter are in the literal heights. (This French poster for the film portrays that nicely.) Over time the levels become clearer and more important, and there is a spectacular set piece during a violent rainstorm that shows the urgent necessity of not getting stuck at the bottom. The final cataclysm is like the eruption of something bigger than the Kims’ struggle — but the damage is contained; for most of the characters, life goes on. (The less spoiler-averse may appreciate this parenthetical: The rampage of the lowliest underground creature upon being freed is inchoate and terrible, but the father’s impulsive revenge is like a cross between Billy Budd and Bigger Thomas — a response to an offense that reaches the very core of his being.)
But the coda — hearkening, as I said, to a gesture of honor early in the film — is a real coup de cinema: the dream of a victim of the system gaming that system at a Count of Monte Cristo level to fulfill his oath. I think it’s what the movie, and perhaps also its making, are about.