Who is Parasite? Who is Host?

CW: Some First Act Plot Spoilers, and broad thematic hints.

There’s something about Mr. Kim, — Mr. Park’s new limousine driver. Park can’t quite put his finger on it. He likes Kim – admires and respects him even — for his ability to approach but never “cross the line.”

I feel much the same way about Parasite, auteur Bong Joon Ho’s latest film.  I can’t quite put my finger on it.  It is simultaneously engaging and fun, yet a cinematic masterpiece. Parasite is perhaps the finest allegorical cinema since Chinatown.  In addressing themes of class hierarchy, Jungian shadow repressions, and questions of human agency against countervailing forces of nature, history and cross-generational inheritance, not a single word, gesture, or image is wasted or irrelevant.

Parasite operates much like Mr. Kim, masterfully testing boundaries,  never “crossing the line” – as far as you can tell — but Parasite will haunt you, insisting you look again.

Who is parasite? Who is Host?
Surviving symbiont matters most.

The jaunty, often hilarious first act seems to place the title’s linguistic target squarely on patriarch Kim Ki-taek, and his family. The Kims are lower-class, semi-basement dwellers, depicted in circumstance and behavior as a pack of rats, or cockroaches; relatable human vermin doing what it takes to survive.

Chaotic, serially unemployed Mr. Kim recounts his many failed business ventures. Planning Son (Ki-Woo) and Daughter (Ki-jung) plot their way out of the societal cellar, pirating stray wi-fi signals, hustling piece-work, generally “playing the game.” Mom (Chung-sook), whose Olympic Hammer-throwing medal couldn’t keep them out of squalor.

The Kims scheme and scuttle in solidarity, family against the world. One family member’s opportunity is every family member’s obligation to chip in and help. A series of marginal ventures keeps food on the table, and holds the family unit together.

The world seems to be winning until the Kims’ fortunes turn, on receipt of an auspicious gift: a “Landscape Type Rock,” or “Scholar’s Rock” that the planning son Ki-Woo notes “Is so metaphorical.” The rock and the metaphor will cling to Ki-Woo until the very end.

Landscaping. The art of planning, drawing lines, erecting facades, shaping what “is” into what you wish others to see. Hiding the ugly parts of your property for better “curb appeal. 

Almost immediately, Ki-woo lucks into an opportunity with potential to lift his entire family out of squalor. Min, a departing high-school friend, offers Ki-woo his position as in-home English tutor to the wealthy Mr. Park’s teen daughter. Getting out of the basement, into the Park’s home (close to the beautiful Park Daughter?) requires consent; a sale; some landscaping.

The Kim family sets itself to grooming Ki-woo’s less than stellar resume. His sister’s Photoshop skills add layers of authenticity, forging impeccable, seemingly valid credentials. And so — on the recommendation of certificates unearned, testimonials unspoken, and degrees unattained — the Parks voluntarily consent to open their secure, architecturally “important,” meticulously landscaped world. Ki-woo crosses a line.

The infestation, the violation, has begun.

The rest of the Kim family soon follows, wheedling their way in by out-competing  incumbent staff, using devious tactics and economic ruthlessness you might have been expecting from the Parks. With each obstacle picked off, it becomes obvious the Kims will do whatever it takes to rise. The Kims, a family of grifters, or entrepreneurs?  Striving to climb higher, to “move on up” as The Jeffersons did on the East Side so long ago, infiltrates the upper class. 

It becomes clearer, with each progressively more elaborate scheme, that this invasion could not happen without the Parks’ complicity. The  Parks  – symbionts in mutual exploitation — are only too willing to accept false pedigrees and exploit labor in exchange for the ease and leisure to focus on maintaining their facade of grace, luxury, and ostensibly “self-made” success.  

Mrs. Park insists that she only, ever, hires by trusted recommendation which, she asserts,  guarantees she won’t be scammed.  So, the entire Kim family invades  under equally false pedigrees, preying on the Park’s susceptibility to brand names and status.  Daughter Ki-Jung is hired as a supposedly renowned, US-trained art therapist for Da-song, the Park’s supposedly unmanageable young boy, suffering unrevealed trauma.  Mr. Kim joins as driver for Mr. Park and Shopping Assistant for the beautiful but “simple” Mrs. Park.  Mother, Chung-sook, replaces the incumbent Cook and Housekeeper Moon-gwang — who has been in the house longer than the Park’s themselves; another servant accepted on the recommendation of the home’s former owner, famous and “important” fictional architect Namgoong. Moon-gwang becomes a fulcrum for the movie’s most shocking reversals, containing the idea that we never operate outside the influences of even our hidden, unconscious past. Her depth also further exposes the layers of organic symbiosis between classes, generations, and even nations.

The Parks gladly engage with the lower class, as long as they provide valuable service, and don’t “cross the line.”  This “line” appeared in Bong’s 2013 class-struggle action-thriller, Snowpiercer, where the metaphor of a class hierarchy is contained in a train, didactically noted in heavy-handed, expository dialogue. The upper-class denizens of the forward cars, connected directly to the “Eternal Engine of Progress” warn the rabble in the rear that they must cease trying to rise above their station, maintain their rightful place in the “Natural” social order — must not “cross the line,” by advancing forward to occupy space in which they do not belong.

The microcosmic metaphor for the societal organism in Parasite is the Park’s home.  It is a pleasure to find that in the six years since Snowpiercer, Bong has developed a subtler hand, delivering these themes organically.

There are so many lines! Property distinctions, between my space and your space. The line separating “people” from “vermin”.  The line justifying claims of “lesser” and “superior.”

The Line is the taboo against impinging on another person’s fantasies, injecting realities one would prefer to ignore, pretend don’t exist, or of which the fantasist is blissfully ignorant.  Crossing the line exposes arbitrary delineations and declarations about “how the world is,” creating cognitive dissonance or discomfort. Da-song simply wanted to eat his birthday cake, but Bong Joon Ho will not let them eat cake! 

Parasite will leave you inexplicably hungry to resolve generational and economic cycles as old as time, which Bong strongly intimates we can never escape. Embrace the recursive pattern: generations repeating, unable or refusing to learn, bound up in patterns and cycles much larger than themselves.

Parasite is a brilliantly executed, visually stunning jaunt through a fabricated landscape.  A shape-shifting genre-morph, gliding from Comedy, to Farce, to Horror, which for the casual viewer will never cross the line. But viewers with a discerning nose will sense there is something “off.”

Bong Joon-Ho, and the movie advance and answer the following questions:
 Is a parasite an objective thing, or a stigmatizing label? Who gets to define who is parasite and who is host?
 Can landscaping, camouflage, embellishment and deceit — or even marriage? — grant class mobility?
 Is an upper-class possible without a rapacious, symbiotic relationship with a lower class?
 Can past traumas be ignored and hidden away, or will they haunt a family or nation for generations? In the best tradition of Jungian analysis, can the shadow be repressed or denied forever, without consequence?
 Can one undo trauma — escape one’s wound — by recapitulating the same trauma and shame?
 Are human machinations sufficient to stave off unexpected natural interruptions? Does “planning” work any better than “going with the flow”?
 Is “trickle-down economics” mere euphemism for “shit flows downhill?” Another form of deceptive, linguistic “landscaping,” putting lipstick on a pig?
Trauma is relative. Will empathy overrule competitive zeal, allowing the wealthy to understand their privilege, see past their trauma to appreciate the trauma of those who serve them, and acknowledge who inflicted it?
 Will sons ever understand their fathers, or are they fated to spend a lifetime decrypting coded messages, half-transmitted across the generational divide?
 Can we ever transcend inter-generational systems, organisms, and the inheritances they force upon us, socially and genetically?

It seems Bong Joon Ho’s answer to all of these questions is a resounding “No!” and in its paradox, Parasite reveals itself to be the most nihilistically pragmatic movie since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Only fun!

But don’t worry! You’ll probably like the movie, and won’t sense it crossing any lines — other than forcing you to read subtitles (often a bridge too far for American audiences in search of lust- and avarice-tickling, junk-food entertainment). This is a deep movie deceptively built to also entertain those who do not care to consider the wizard behind the curtain.