What’s So Scary About ‘Parasite’? Late-Stage Capitalism

In Bong Joon-ho’s award-winning film, fear is coming from inside the class system. And we know who's being terrified by it the most.

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Parasite
Song Kang-ho in a scene from "Parasite." Photo: Neon/CJ Entertainment.

Forget Halloween: Parasite is the spookiest movie of the season.

The scariest aspect of Bong Joon-ho’s award-winning film is how it lingers after the first viewing. This genre-defying film is all at once suspenseful, biting and hilarious. Its canny social critique is both of the moment and timeless. Bong reminds us that perhaps nothing is quite as frightening as late-stage capitalism.

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Parasite, which earlier this year became the first Korean film ever to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (with the first unanimous vote since 2013), centers on the Kim family, who are seen constructing pizza boxes in their semi-basement dwelling. Their quarters are cramped; they can’t pay for WiFi; someone is habitually relieving themselves just outside their window. Then their oldest son gets an opportunity to work as a tutor in the home of a wealthy family; he changes his name to Kevin as he works with the Park family’s oldest daughter. This is a familiar narrative for director Bong, who himself worked as a tutor during college. As he explained in an interview with GQ last month, “I really felt like I was spying on this rich family.”

The Kims launch a plan to get each family member hired into the Parks’ household. They falsify their accomplishments; they create certifications through photo editing; they lie their way into the Parks’ chic digs. Though initially successful in the film’s comedic opening third, soon the Kims’ enterprise turns deadly dangerous. Any further revelations might contain spoilers, so I’ll leave it at this: Parasite deploys the most shocking use of peaches in cinema since 2017’s Call Me By Your Name.

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The visuals throughout Parasite especially impress: they’re more often sleek than sinister. Kyung-pyo Hong’s cinematography is stunning, especially as paired with Bong’s direction. The film is packed with potent images, from glimpses of the Parks’ idyllic backyard to lingering shots of the Kims’ cramped bathroom. Indeed, the houses of the Kim and Park families serve as contrasting symbols of haves and have-nots. Production designer Lee Ha Jun does a virtuoso job creating an architecturally distinct house for the Park family, including stairs for moments of suspense. Stairs also, of course, serve as a metaphor for class and power, at times literally separating the families. (“You can say that I’m a lover of stairs,” Bong recently noted in an interview, citing the 1960 Korean drama The Housemaid and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho as inspirations.) The screenplay, penned by Bong and Han Jin-won, only heightens the differences between the Kim and Park families through razor-sharp wit.

Bong certainly has a lot more to say about class, and class consciousness, throughout the film. Parasite’s characters, for example, are all ambitious, flawed and endearing. The film is related to Boots Riley’s 2018 Sorry to Bother You, which explicitly rejects a capitalist future. Both movies present a bleakly hopeful future through class solidarity while defying genres and expectations; both are simultaneously funny as well as frightening.

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Parasite also shares some similarities with Jordan Peele’s Us. Though the parallels aren’t as direct, both movies examine two families in drastically different material circumstances. Both interweave humor with the violence that sometimes results when privilege meets disadvantage. This is 2019, after all: protests are erupting worldwide over corruption, state violence and, in the words of Chilean protestor María Borgoño, being “subjugated by the rich.” What Parasite and these other films tell us is that the zeitgeist’s current bogeyman doesn’t have to be a supernatural monster, a slasher brandishing a knife, or even a ghost-ridden house. This time, the fear is coming from inside the class system. And we know who is being terrified by it the most.