"Parasite": Rise and fall, rinse and repeat
On the surprising connections between Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.
I’m going to let you in on a secret: Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 movie Parasite is about Capitalism.
All right, that’s as much a secret as is the location of the nose on your face. Here is the real reveal: What Parasite is about, and what it is saying about what it is about, is uninteresting to the point of deathly dull in comparison with how the movie goes about examining its subject. The How is vastly more important and more interesting than the What. This fact is, incidentally, another piece of evidence buttressing age-old adages about the destination being secondary to the journey.
What a waste it would be to stop short of true depth with regards to Parasite by identifying a few themes or cinematic comments that are critical of capitalism and ticking the film off as “critiqued”. I think we can go deeper than that, but I don’t want to simply open the box and tip out its contents; I want to suggest some other ways of viewing this film and hint at questions still to be asked.
So let’s start at the bottom and work our way up.
A NOT-SO-DIVINE TRAGEDY
We come into Parasite in much the same way Dante wakes at the beginning of his epic journey, in a “forest dark” before his descent into Hell and ascent to Heaven. Ki-woo, our guide through this story, sits in his family’s half-sunk basement apartment, a gloomy, semi-lit space equidistant from the light of above and the Hell of below.
He is obviously not in his mid-thirties, as the Dante of the poem would have been, but he is – as is every member of his dysfunctional family – at something of a “midway upon the journey of [his] life”. There is an education behind him, schooling finished, this young man tossed into the waters of life and expected to swim, or at least paddle to stay afloat. He has not yet achieved anything of value, nor does he seem to have that thing so lauded throughout the film by all except his father: a plan. Ki-woo is neither above nor below, old nor young, successful nor at the absolute bottom of life’s barrel. (The sad occupant of that position is the drunk who even this destitute and crude family scorn for pissing in public like an animal.)
Absent a map of where he ought to go in life, Ki-woo has “gone from the straight path”, as lost as that poor soul Dante who will have to descend into the depths before rising to the heights he yearns for. The top of this great mountain is radiant with daylight, “vested with that planet’s beam, who leads all wanderers”. Ki-woo has glimpsed such guiding and enticing light in the home of the wealthy family he is to play parasite to. The sun shines in full force as he climbs the drive of their home and enters it for the first time, and there is even a pivotal plot-point around a light within the house that sends messages.
Dante is faced with three wild beasts who prevent his progress, a barrier just as menacing as the economic and social poverty keeping Ki-woo from rising above where he now wanders aimlessly. Both travellers need a guide: Dante has Virgil to begin with, and Ki-woo’s story is aided by his successful, charming friend, Min-hyuk, who grants him access to the elevated world of privilege by asking Ki-woo to tutor the daughter of the wealthy Park family.
So far, so analogous. We have the set-up for a heroic journey of the Joseph Campbell variety, a modern retelling of a spiritual journey literalised as the struggle through the abyss of Hell (lower class destitution) and challenges of Purgatory (social mobility via hard work) towards the enlightenment of Heaven (upper class luxury and freedom from burden).
This is the rug that Bong Joon-ho pulls violently from under our feet. The movie he gives us is a perverse inversion of the ascent to greatness; it is a mirror version of The Divine Comedy that is much more of a depraved tragedy. Rather than a rise to greatness, this all leads to a subterranean prison cell. And we are the richer for this clever reversal.
WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche suggests that the greatest reward requires the greatest suffering: “Whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death’”. John Keats’ unforgettably posed this proposition as a question: “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”
This is precisely why Dante is not able to hop-skip-and-jump his way effortlessly to the top of the mountain but must follow his guide, Virgil, down into the belly of Hell to witness true suffering, before clawing his way up the back of the beast. The Kim family, on the other hand, hope to skip past all of that and cheat their way as painlessly and quickly as they can to the top of their socio-economic mountain.
In contrast to the “hallway movie” that was Snowpiercer (being set entirely along the horizontal plane of a continuously moving train), Bong Joon-ho has described Parasite as his “stairway movie”. It is a film of rising and falling in literal, moral, and societal terms. After the camera holds on the dichotomy between darkness and light, inside and out, above and below as represented by the ground-level window to the Kim family’s home, the very first shot of the film moves smoothly downward to the dilemma that begins our story: Ki-woo is failing to connect to the internet from upstairs.
We are thrown into the abject, belligerent, and coarse dynamic between mother, father, son, and daughter who, in spite of the way they kick and tease and berate one another, seem to be closely bonded. The father solves the problem of the dropped internet connection by telling his children to hold their phones up high. By reaching towards the ceiling (here a filthy, cramped stand-in for the heavens) they will find salvation. This upward reach for something better is the motivating principle behind these characters and this story, and it is established early and efficiently. (In case I haven’t been clear on this point, I will state it plainly here – Bong Joon-ho is nothing short of a cinematic genius.)
Just as Dante has his guides, and other heroes throughout mythology have had their mentors, Ki-woo relies on his friend Min-hyuk to guide him across the threshold of his journey. Ki-woo himself will become the guide to his sister, permitting her entrance to the realm of high society, and she will act as guide to her father, and all of them will do likewise for the mother.
It is during these convoluted machinations that we see our anti-heroes rise and fall, climb and descend over and over. They leave their dimly lit semi-sunken home to ascend the many stairways and hills leading up towards the Park home, brightly lit by the guiding sun. Within the Park house, they climb the stairs to reach the top floor, where their parasitic roles are secured. And they reverse this process every day as they return to their positions in society, always hoping the next day will be the day they remain at the top.
This repetition, the act of going up and down over and over, is our most distinct departure from Dante’s own epic journey, which he makes thoroughly the one time, rather than bit by bit on repeat treks. In this, the Kim family are more like Sisyphus, pushing that damned boulder up the hill each day, only to watch it roll back down to the bottom, where they will begin the next day, pushing it to the top again. What goes up, Parasite reminds us, must come down.
“THAT BOOTSTRAP THEORY DON’T FIT ON ALL OF THOSE FEET” ~ LETLIVE.
I have written elsewhere, in discussing the Hero’s Journey:
“The Road of Trials is often the longest and most difficult part of the quest ... It is on this road and against its trials that our hero transitions from duality to unity, from the Ordinary World to Transcendence, from the person she was to the hero she will be. This will not, indeed cannot, happen without her character being tested and formed by struggle.”
There are plenty of struggles for the Kim family as they infest the Park’s home and attempt to supplant its owners, but these are challenges erupting out of the Kim family’s commitment to making life as easy as possible for themselves. No one could ever criticise their work ethic – as they put in the hours to manipulate those around to achieve their nefarious goals – but their personal ethics are not to be praised. The extent of their effort is the central preoccupation of the first half of the movie, in which we follow their intricate schemes. These are as impressive in their success as they are horrifying for their callousness; the five-minute montage depicting the poisoning of a housekeeper allergic to peaches, a sequence as taught and tightly choreographed as anything from a Mission Impossible movie, is a thrilling example of how depraved their collective genius is.
Just as we are witnessing the upside-down version of Dante’s spiritual travels, we see here a twisted rendition of the Protestant work ethic: If hard work is a way to the divine, a way of serving the Lord and bringing Heaven down to Earth, for the Kim family, hard work is a way to material prosperity, a way of putting oneself first and scrambling one’s way up to the top of the socio-economic pile.
This, then, might just be the most incisive (rather than generic) critiques of a Libertarian flavour of capitalism that promotes the bootstrap theory of working hard to achieve one’s goal, with little or no assessment of the value of that goal. It is rarely questioned by such proponents whether becoming a billionaire is, in and of itself, a worthy quest; praise is simply heaped on anyone who achieves it. And the question of how they achieve it is almost as untouched a matter.
The considered response, however, is that the work ought be directed at something that is valued by the community around (or customer base, if the first term is too kumbaya for the capitalist in question) and not solely of value to the individual. This might be an intersection (tentative and not necessarily happy about the contact) between a communitarian ideal for living and a capitalist mode of work, something like “Work hard within the system to benefit as many as possible.” This is a mindset found in Dante’s Divine Comedy, written at least in part for the spiritual and moral improvement of its reader, so that Dante’s great struggle might benefit others. It is also a value found in Parasite, surprisingly enough for a movie that can seem on its surface so cynical.
Ultimately, the downfall of the Kim family can be traced back to a single, radically simple flaw: They care only for themselves and completely dismiss the needs of their community outside of their parasitically co-dependent family unit. If they had only agreed to help the impoverished housekeeper and her husband by agreeing to the very little they request, everything about the particular and harrowing end they come to would have been avoided. No doubt some other comeuppance would have sent them crashing back down the mountain they hoped to conquer, but they might instead have had the time and opportunity to learn some better way of being. If they had just broadened the scope of their concern even a little, they might have succeeded.
There are sharp critiques of capitalism here, certainly, but they do not amount to anything simplistic, anything that might be slapped on a bumper sticker to send the message that capitalism is evil and let’s throw the whole thing out. The message – if there is one, though I see Parasite as asking questions rather than giving out answers – is that the devil is in the details. It is not enough merely to climb to the top – we would do well to ask ourselves why we are climbing this mountain and what good reaching its peak will accomplish, not only for ourselves but for others too.
THE REAL START OF THE FILM
Bong Joon-ho has said of the midway point in Parasite, a scene that falls exactly 71 pages into a 142-page script, that it is “the real start of the film”. The first half is an elaborate set-up, engaging enough that we don’t recognise it as a mere prelude to the real action. I think it could even be argued that the entire film is, in some sense, the set-up or first act to a movie we never see – one that is implied by Parasite’s ending and therefore takes place only in the imagination of the viewer, after the credits have rolled.
Ki-woo’s father ends this movie in a Hell submerged much deeper than the semi-basement he starts the story in, from where Ki-woo writes to his father-in-hiding. The letter, which we hear in voice-over, promises to free his father from the subterranean cell beneath the Park’s home. He plans (against his father’s earlier insistence that the only plan that never fails is “no plan at all ... because life cannot be planned”) to “make a lot of money” so that when he gets rich he can buy the house – “Then all you have to do is walk up the stairs.”
Ki-woo is now at the beginning of a narrative embedded in countless grand stories, a mythic tale far older than Dante’s epic poem. He is setting out on the heroic quest to free his father from the belly of the cave he most fears to enter himself. This is a literal endeavour in Ki-woo’s case, but it is manifesting a deeper metaphoric mission to confront that which has been controlling his life.
In Ki-woo’s case, this thing controlling him is the selfishness at the heart of his struggle for wealth. We have watched him steal and lie to amass a fortune for the ultimate goal of little more than appeasing his own greed. Now he seeks the same kind of material wealth but for the more noble goal of liberating his (admittedly guilty-of-murder) father.
Ki-woo is finally on a path that stands a good chance of leading to his becoming a better person. His is now a story that might end well. This means, of course, that Parasite is itself the lead-up to the “real start of the film”.
But even if you don’t buy that idea, what isn’t in doubt is that the movie ends with a question: Will Ki-woo ever buy that house and free his father? And just as the journey is more interesting than the destination, and the why more important than the what, questions are ultimately more revealing and more sustaining than any answers Parasite might have given instead. Aren’t they?
• Parasite, Bong Joon-ho (2019)
• The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (1472)
• “White America’s Beautiful Black Market”, from The Blackest Beautiful, Letlive. (2013)
• “The Divine Comedy: The road of trials”, in Art Of Conversation, Matthew Morgan (2019)
• “How ‘Parasite’ delivered one of the best twists in cinema”, in Business Insider, Gina Echevarria and Nathaniel Lee (2020)