South Korean director Bong Jong-Ho’s films are unpredictable cinematic adventures that masterfully mix humor, suspense, mystery, and horror. His latest, Parasite, is arguably his best yet. And with six Oscar nominations (making history as the first-ever Korean nominee for best picture), record-breaking box office returns, and a growing list of accolades, Parasite is also a global cultural phenomenon.
What in Parasite resonates so deeply? Arguably it’s the film’s gritty, unsettling depiction of human nature. The title perfectly encapsulates the plot—characters leeching on to others to survive. Yet the parasite Bong wants to reveal is not found only in foreign objects or places; it’s also alive in every human soul.
Parasite of Desire
All of Bong Joon-Ho’s films explore societal tensions present not just in South Korea, but throughout the world. While many of his previous works took place in sci-fi or fantastical settings (Okja, Snowpiercer), Parasite is a more domestic drama, focusing on two families (each with four members) living in opposite worlds in Seoul. As the impoverished, blue-collar Kim family slowly infiltrates the home of the wealthy Park family—the film descends into humorous chaos and eventual disaster.
The Kim family’s dire straits—and their “parasite” ways—are underscored in the film’s opening scene, as the foursome are seen in a dingy basement apartment flooded with toxic clouds of fumigation gas coming from the street. The family’s luck begins to change as a friend of the eldest son, Ki-Woo (Woo-sik Choi), gives the family a suseok, a traditional Korean stone. The suseok seems to bring the family the happiness, fortune, and wealth they’ve long desired. Yet in a pivotal scene the heavy stone rises to the surface of their flooded home, revealing it was fake all along.
The moment coincides with the Kim family’s elaborate fraud—a scheme to feed their desires for upward mobility—beginning to fall apart. Even amid the devastation of losing their home, there’s a moment when Ki-Woo clutches the suseok and says, “It keeps clinging to me.” The stone is a symbol of the parasitic desires that latch onto our souls.
The film shows how our desires are often most dangerous when they begin to come true. We slowly realize the fulfilled desires don’t actually feed the soul. They suck it dry. Near the end of the film it is the suseok, appropriately, that knocks out Ki-Woo in a bloody pool, echoing what Proverbs 27:20 reveals of human nature: “Sheol [death] and Abaddon [destruction] are never satisfied, and never satisfied are the eyes of man.”
Madness of Comparison
Parasitic desires often stem from comparison—a reality Bong portrays tangibly through a vivid contrast between the Kim and Park residences. The film’s Oscar nomination for best production design is well deserved; the houses in the film are characters in themselves.
As we are introduced to the Kim family, every shot moves downward to capture their hardship. Their semi-basement dwelling forces the family to always look upward to the streets, almost cementing their place in the economic ladder. The Park residence, by contrast, is a grand house literally on a hill. To enter the residence one must hike up a flight of stairs. The Parks’ view is not a strained gaze upward onto a dirty urban street, but a leisurely view outward—through huge glass windows overlooking pastoral green space.
The Kim family’s covetousness is familiar to us in part because we’re daily bombarded with such contrasts through the comparison-fueled posturing of social media. It’s fitting that the opening scene shows the Kim siblings on their phones, desperately searching for a good signal. Their addiction to digital experience—like ours—feeds the insatiable appetite of the parasite of desire.
Yet in one of the film’s big twists, Bong confronts us with the madness and destruction of comparison. The “who’s better off than whom” comparison game is futile and cyclical. And if to be high on the ladder means others must be kicked below, is the ascent really worth it?
If to be high on the ladder means others must be literally kicked below, is the ascent really worth it?
Finally, it’s far from obvious in Parasite that rich and poor correlate to degrees of happiness. In the end, what seem to be stark contrasts between “us” and “them” are revealed to be artificial boundaries. We are more alike than we are different—not in our outward posturing, but certainly in our inward plight.
Equality of Depravity
One of the ways Parasite gets under your skin is by refusing to offer audiences clear protagonists and antagonists. The film (rated R for language, violence, and sexual content) confronts us with the harsh reality—made clear throughout the Bible—that all human beings, even “heroes,” have a profound propensity to evil. As Mike Cosper puts it, “It’s easier to grasp that we’re either sinners or saints than to acknowledge that we’re a mix of both.”
The Kim family believes the top of the ladder affords a more honorable and moral life. As Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), mother of the Kim clan, notes of the Park family, “[They’re] nice because they’re rich.” But as the movie ends, we realize neither family achieved the honor they pursued. Whether on top or on bottom (literally in the film, which accents the motif of upstairs and downstairs status), the parasites of desire—wanting more, better, or different—are still lurking, ravenous as ever. Achievements and status, it turns out, do not solve the central problem—the central parasite—of our sinful nature. And the more we ascend, the more we spiral into sin.
Achievements and status do not solve the central problem, the central parasite, of our sinful nature.
Depravity is universal, as Parasite understands. It’s a bleak message, but one that sets up the glorious hope of the gospel. For just as depravity touches all rungs on the ladder, so too does the salvation offered to us in Christ. Regardless of our status in the worldly sense, we are equally guilty in God’s eyes. No amount of riches, houses, or hired help can hide our sin from him. But the flip side is also true: no matter how low we fall on the ladders of life, we are never outside the reach of God’s saving grace.