Who is the antagonist? This question popped into my head after I finished Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite and as I read some snippets from Bong himself. He consistently refers to the film as a tragedy, and, as I wondered who the antagonist was, I remembered that in Greek tragedy, the fall of the hero always stems from a flaw within themselves. Then the answer clicked. The antagonists are the Kims.
So, the Kims are a poor family of four, struggling to make a living in Seoul and conning their way into life’s niceties. In the opening scene, we see them clamor up to the corner of their bathroom (where their toilet is elevated above the rest of the room) to steal wifi after their upstairs neighbors put a password on theirs. The son, Dong Ik, gets an offer from a friend to cover for him as an English tutor to a daughter of a wealthy family. Dong Ik uses his position to get one for his sister as an art teacher/therapist for the younger child, a position driving the patriarch for his father, and the position of housekeeper for his mother. The first two positions are simply open and require nothing more than convincing the mother of the house to give them a shot, but the house already has a driver and a housekeeper. And that is where the con takes another level.
Ki Jung leaves her underwear in the car when the driver drives her home, creating the impression, when the patriarch finds them, that the driver was having sex with women in his car. He gets let go, replaced by Ki Taek, Dong Ik’s father. To get rid of the housekeeper requires more planning, since she had been with the house from the house’s previous owner. They end up having to take extreme measures which include convincing the mother of the house that the housekeeper has tuberculosis and triggering the housekeeper’s life-threatening allergy to peach fuzz. The Kims are not good people. They’re deceptive, cruel, and dishonest.
The Parks, on the other hand, are a mixture of detached, thoughtless, and unfeeling. They’re not really good people either. They dismiss the driver without asking him about the underwear, fully believing the worst of him based on a single piece of evidence while discounting all the time they have spent with him. They cast off the housekeeper without even asking her if she actually as tuberculosis.
The key is that both groups are their own destructive forces. It’s hard to get into how that manifests late in the film (essentially past the halfway point) without digging into spoilers, so I’ll speak in generalities. It’s the Kim’s duplicitousness that gets them into the situation that undoes them. It’s their lies that keep them from finding solutions that will actually work. On the other side is the Parks whose thoughtlessness and lack of feeling brought in the destructive force into their homes to begin with. There are no heroes or villains in this story, only flawed people who can’t grow.
The movie is filled with imagery as well. From the scholar’s rock that Dong Ik carries around, meant as a symbol for wealth, to the constant vertical motion of the characters. There’s a large sequence where a torrential downpour hits the city and the Kims, after having been trapped in the Park’s house because of their presumption that the richer family would be out of town all night, run down the hills of Seoul to their half-underground dwelling that’s been filled with water, the toilet spewing a black substance because of the messed up pressure. The Kims left their window open that allowed the water in. Would they have left it open if they hadn’t spent the night at the Parks’ residence? The rain isn’t the fault of either the Parks or the Kims, but it affects both families very differently. Atop their hill in their mansion, the Parks simply watch it from their window, appreciating the aesthetics. The Kims get wiped out and end up abandoning their home to sleep on the floor of a local gym along with the others who were displaced.
It’s an interesting and highly entertaining look into the class differences present in South Korea. It’s alternatively extremely funny, horrifying, and even touching. It can be all three in seconds, and it ends up working because the tone never really jumps. It’s evenly and expertly filmed with an eye towards black comedy and tragedy mixed into one package.