With the 94th Academy Awards in our rearview mirrors, it seems as good a time as any to harken back to prior cinematic masterpieces rightfully recognized by the Oscars. One film in particular stands out as not only igniting my love for cinema and Korean culture, but also demonstrating to me first-hand what a brilliant movie can do.
And that honor would go to the masterful “Parasite” (2019) directed by Bong Joon-Ho. At once tackling imperative societal flaws, while also presenting a masterclass in cinematic style and elan, it is no overstatement that “Parasite” is as close to flawless as it gets. It is a film I believe more people should watch, even though its Oscar win pulled it rightfully out from under the Western subaltern cinema stratum. As such, this review/analysis will be broken into four parts, one for those who have yet to watch the movie (part 1), for those who have already seen it and attempted to grapple with its deep and multifaceted meaning (part 2), a greater reflection on the purpose of art in the 21st century (part 3), and a concluding coda (epilogue).
“Parasite” is a film that utterly defies a genre distinction appearing to effortlessly evade a single classification. The premise is an impoverished South Korean family (the Kims) infiltrating a rich family (the Parks) by taking over many of the service jobs in their household such as a tutor, driver, and housekeeper. The false identities the Kims are forced to take on results in a building precarious tension until a sudden, unexpected, viscerally jarring twist occurs, throwing the entire storyline into an unpredictable turn. Combining horror, social commentary, and Bildungsroman seamlessly, the film represents the pinnacle of concise and pertinent storytelling.
Part 2 (spoilers begin here):
Though I was born in South Korea, I was adopted at six months of age and since then have been living in New York, worlds away from the setting portrayed in “Parasite” — or so I thought. Because despite the evidently different way of life, the themes and characters portrayed within feel as close as family. Indeed, as any successful work of art does, the film breaches cultural boundaries to reach its audience on a variety of levels.
After watching the film for the first time, I went hunting online for possible interpretations to assist in my understanding of its complex themes. In the end I came to reflect most deeply on three motifs: stairs, windows, and the purpose of art.
It soon became clear in my engagement with the movie, and especially with critics’ cinematic appraisal, that staircases would play an integral role in grappling with the film’s themes. Indeed, it asks pertinent questions of class and hierarchy. There is a sense that as the characters in the movie ascend staircases, they rise up the social ladder, and as they descend into the depths and gutters of society, their social class falls.
There is also an important “vertical hierarchy” (a term coined by film critic Thomas Flight) in the film, with those residing up top representing the elite rich, and those below, the labor force on which much of the upper class’ money is built. The Parks live on top of a hill for good reason, and the Kim’s semi-basement allows them a fleeting glance at privilege but still presents a sobering reminder that they are ensconced in the ways of the lower class. For more on this theme, see Thomas Flight’s brilliant video essay on YouTube covering “The Visual Architecture of Parasite.”
For the movie as a whole, then, this vertical fashion manifests itself in how the movie reaches viewers. On the surface level, one is struck by the flowing, beautiful cinematography, reminiscent of a slow ballad in film. One step deeper is the story of a vie for money, power, and capital in a society working against you. But at its deepest, “Parasite” probes disturbing questions on the compartmentalization of society.
One important literary device, often used to understand more deeply the role safety plays in a story, is that of shelters for characters. In “Parasite,” many characters are sheltered. The Parks reside in an oasis of privilege, sheltered from the imperfections of the society residing below. But at the same time, the Kims reside in a secluded place, utterly unaware of the privilege people have above, sheltered in their own way from the corruption endemic in those at the top.
Come the end of the film, when Geun-Sae is found in the basement, and later on when Kim Ki-Taek must sequester himself away in the underground bunker to hide from the police, viewers receive a visceral glance at the pernicious place shelters can occupy in society. They serve to hide corruption, greed, and depravity (as with Geun-Sae), while also pushing those with whom we have developed a deep empathy into the ruins of a hierarchy set against them from the start.
“Parasite” posits shelters as dual-edged swords, at once tackling important questions of protection and blissful ignorance in society, while also probing crucial issues of leaving true corruption and depression out of the sight of most.
In the many video essays and the like (see most especially those by Thomas Flight, Nerdwriter, and Spikima Movies) with which I engaged after viewing “Parasite,” another motif that emerged often was that of windows. While not as discussed as much as staircases, windows still grant an important perspective on the movie, especially in regard to the cinematography, class distinctions, and my understanding of the movie as a whole.
The aspect ratio of the movie is highly unconventional, horizontally elongated and vertically squashed down to a strip-like viewing box containing the film within. While many film critics would argue that the aspect ratio gives a “window” into the world of “Parasite,” for this movie in particular the metaphor extends much deeper..
Another recurring theme in the movie is that of “crossing the line.” The Kims are expected to not cross the line into the domain of the Parks. For the Kims, when they cross the line into the elite society of the Parks, they inhabit a position of uncertainty and vulnerability; no longer do they have the safety of their sheltered home to which they can retreat. It is here that most of the character growth — and destruction — occurs. Indeed, any crossing the line into other classes’ domains results, as the film shows, in chaos and a piecemeal collapse of any dreams held within.
Yet this foreshortened window into which viewers must peer to fully understand the story of “Parasite” results in the film taking on an ergodic quality. As explained by Damien Walter, and classically used to discuss literary texts, “ergodic” refers to a work of art that “requires a non-trivial effort to navigate.” In other words, in order to fully understand and engage with a book, film, or painting, the viewer must put in effort to reap all the benefits. A prime example of this term is Mark Z. Danielewski’s post-modern classic “House of Leaves” that requires the reader to rotate the book, hold it up to a mirror, and flip around aimlessly in order to decipher the encoded story contained within (other examples include “Ship of Theseus” by Doug Dorst, “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace, “Hopscotch” by Julio Cortázar, and “Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov). Yet this concept rarely crops up in cinema except, I would argue, in “Parasite.”
By squashing the frame down to a small field of view, Bong Joon-Ho is asking viewers to metaphorically crane their necks, to peer deeply into a world not their own. In doing so, they must lunge their entire bodies into the frame and look around to fully take in the story. In the same way that the Kims cross the line to inhibit the world of the Parks, viewers are similarly asked to breach the boundary of the screen in order to fully give over to the story. Indeed, the smaller than normal aspect ratio makes it so that we believe certain aspects are hidden behind the black bars at the top and bottom. And so we must be missing crucial plot points. We must push through and gaze behind to see what is hidden. But by pushing through the boundary, viewers are vulnerable, uncertain, outright scared of the depraved violence and actions portrayed within.
Parasite asks critical questions on the purpose of art, most especially in a modern context. Evidently, Bong cares deeply about socially pertinent works. “Parasite” alone commentates beautifully on class, greed, hierarchy, privilege, family relations, and capitalist modern-day societies at large. Not to mention his other brilliant films (see most especially “Memories of Murder,” “Okja,“ “Snowpiercer,“ and “Mother”).
Ultimately, however, the motif of windows grants viewers a crucial perspective on the power of effective art especially in “Parasite.” As viewers peer into Bong’s haunting world, filled with greed for money, they effectively crash through the window of the cinematic screen. But once they realize that they have entered another word, Bong’s co-opting has already been completed.
Indeed, Bong wants viewers to feel caught off guard, to breach boundaries ignorantly until they can scrape off the glass debris to look around for a fleeting glimpse at their new world. Only at that point can art fully instill its message — when the person experiencing the art has fully given themself over to experiencing the medium. To “break the window” of safety is to truly experience the world presented in cinema.
The power of effective art comes from its ability to catch those experiencing it utterly off guard, and allowing itself to explain its inner workings up close and personal, while commentating critically on the multitudinous social issues at play.
In my watchings of the movie, I have definitely felt a false sense of security. As if the absurd situations and finely orchestrated plots are too farfetched to be real. And that’s exactly when Bong strikes. When viewers believe they are safe, hands on the windowsill, peering into the window into the world encased behind the screen. And once we fall through this window, his true art attacks and leaves our minds spinning with interpretations, our bodies aching with disgust at human depravity, and our eyes tearing up as characters who have begun to feel like family die in our arms.
At the terminus, “Parasite” is sure to stick with anyone long after the hauntingly sung credits song ends, leaving the entire movie a visceral, yet almost apparitional, memory emblazoned in our minds. My reflections on the film (even after probably 10+ viewings) have allowed me to reflect on how art catches viewers off guard — how films such as “Parasite” and, indeed, any other works of masterful cinema can stay in popular culture for so long. It’s because even after too many viewings to count, I feel my weight overburdening the protective window to the world of the Parks and Kims and I allow myself to fall through the shattering glass boundary again and again, even at risk of total laceration, vulnerability, and once more falling swiftly for imperfect characters doomed to fail.