The Korean Parasite is an intriguing film from start to finish. I believe it would be categorized as a black comedy, but like most such movies I experienced it as about 90% drama and 10% comedy. Yes, there are some laughs here and there, and plenty of oddball situations, but in the end it says some serious things in mostly serious ways.
The Kim family is working class. They—father, mother, adult son, and adult daughter—have learned to get by in life any way they can, honestly or dishonestly. Actually mostly dishonestly.
The son happens into a tutor position, working with the teenage daughter in the wealthy Park household. One-by-one, the other three members of the family con their way into positions working for the Parks (never letting on that they are all from the same family, or even that they know each other). If a position one of them seeks happens to already be filled, then they do what they need to do to eliminate the existing jobholder by dropping hints or planting false evidence of wrongdoing until the position opens up and they can maneuver a family member into it.
Due to a bizarre circumstance involving the Parks’ former maid (one of those whom they dishonestly squeezed out of her position), just as the Kims are feeling comfortable with their well-paid gigs, the whole scheme is suddenly at risk of blowing up. Will their desperation to keep what they’ve got lead them into more serious crimes, including possibly even murder?
One of the interesting—and I’d say most important—elements to the story is how different members of the Kim family, at different times and to different degrees, manifest some conscience and specifically some class consciousness.
I think for the most part their attitude is that life isn’t fair, so they’re under no obligation to play fair. But there are moments when they have at least some doubt on that score. For example, after they have deceived the Parks into firing a rival whose job they want, one of them seeks reassurance that it’s really not that damaging to the fired person, that surely he’ll easily get another position and will be none the worse off.
Indeed, when they show any signs of guilt, any uncertainty over whether it’s OK to be treating people the way they do, it’s invariably concerning their behavior toward members of their own class rather than, say, the Parks.
They’re ambivalent in this way when it comes to what to do about the Parks’ former maid and her husband, who have now become a serious inconvenience for them. On the one hand, they are in the way and need to be dealt with as any other impediment would be dealt with. On the other hand, there’s that sense that, as fellow struggling members of the working class, “Shouldn’t we be on the same side”?
In the end, what matters most to the Kims, certainly to the father, is that the rich don’t just abuse working class folks—indeed, at least in direct and obvious ways, working class folks are more apt to abuse each other—but that they do so with an attitude that they are inherently superior. It’s the insult that stings more than the injury, and it’s the insult that calls for retaliation.
I don’t want to say too much about the specifics of the story so as not to give it away, but the film is terrific in setting up situations that make you chuckle while also giving you plenty to think about.
Who are the villains (or the “parasites”) here? Is it the con artist Kims? If so, who are their victims? They’re taking plenty of money from the Parks certainly, but for the most part they’re delivering the services they’re being paid for. Are the victims, then, the people who would be on the Parks’ payroll if the Kims hadn’t dishonestly secured those positions for themselves?
Are the villains the Parks, simply for being rich, for being capitalists? It may well be that the Park father at least has worked hard and taken risks to climb to where he is now. Should he and his family not be allowed to enjoy the rewards of his efforts? He can be a little arrogant, but for the most part he seems to treat the people he employs OK, to pay them reasonably well, and to not cheat them.
Maybe it’s just the system as a whole that’s villainous in some sense. It’s a system where, when people live by their wits, work hard, prove themselves resourceful, cut ethical corners as needed, etc., some—especially those that had a head start to begin with—achieve great material success and live in mansions like the Parks, while others, even those as highly clever in their scheming and such as the Kims, at best find a way to scrounge around and survive, where every bit of progress they make is tentative and precarious and puts them in conflict with other working class people.
Maybe some viewers will just think Parasite is a hilarious comedy, but while I appreciated the oddball stuff and certainly found humor in multiple scenes, what stuck with me after I left the theater was the class stuff, the matter of how Mr. Kim and these other characters saw themselves and their place in social reality and how that made them feel.