I was struck by a particular sequence in the movie the first time I saw it (on the TV, I have to confess) two or three years ago. WolfmanOz’s commentaries on movies brought that sequence to mind again. If you haven’t seen Parasite, it is probably best not to read this post, which is certainly a spoiler. I apologise for the quality of the video clips, which come from screen captures.
I know nothing of pre-Christian Korean religious practice or folk lore, but a cursory search yielded a whole Pantheon, represented, for example, like so.
It’s easy enough to see which ones are dangerous, and the convention that is used. It may be that all of the elements of Parasite can be accounted for in terms of Korean mythology. Nonetheless, major elements of the movie strike me as being specifically Christian.
The two main families of the story are the Kims – father Ki Taek, mother Chung Sook, daughter Ki Jung and son Ki Woo – and the Parks – father Dong Ik, mother Yeon Kyo, daughter Da Hye, and young son Da Song. The Kims are scroungers living in the lower reaches of the city in a sub-basement with windows at street level. The Parks are wealthy, living on the heights in a house designed by a famous architect. A successful contemporary of the Kim children is going overseas, and recommends the son to take over his tutoring of the Park’s daughter. This friend brings to Ki Woo from his grandfather a scholar’s stone, for no obvious reason. It’s a grace. Scholar’s stones, or landscape stones, are microcosms of mountainous landscapes; a kind of bonsai mountain.
Daughter Ki Jung’s talent for fraud begins to shine through as she expertly forges qualifications for Ki Woo, who, unlike his contemporary, is not attending university. Ki Jung is subsequently represented by Ki Woo as an art therapist for the Park’s son, Da Song. She immediately exerts iron control over both the son and the mother, showing an enviable ability to bend others to her will. This young woman is CEO, or at least, Vice-President (Human Resources), material. Mrs Park, obsessed with all things American, calls Ki Woo Kevin, and Ki Jung, Jessica.
By similarly polished deceit and manipulation, the Parks’ driver is replaced by Kim the Elder. The housekeeper, Moon Gwong, was inherited by the Parks from the original owner, the architect himself, so she is a tough proposition. In elaborate choreographed interactions, the Kims manoeuvre Mrs Park into dismissing her without notice. She is then replaced, of course, by Mrs Kim.
The whole family is now employed by the Parks, who then leave for a camping holiday to mark son Da Song’s birthday. The Kims are sprawled over the living room furniture enjoying the Park’s food and booze, as the rain begins to come down more and more heavily. Then Moon Gwong rings the doorbell and begs to be let in for something she has forgotten. Beneath the basement, hidden behind shelves and a blast door, is a deeper basement bomb shelter, and living down there is Moon Gwong’s husband, Geun Se, who has been emerging at night to get food ever since the Parks moved in.
The couple discover the family relationship of the Kims, and after some slapstick, they are restrained by the Kims in the shelter, when Mrs Park calls to announce they will be home in a few minutes. Only Chung Sook is supposed to be in the house. More slapstick. At this point, as father, son and daughter scatter into hiding, Mrs Kim serves dinner to Mrs Park, and Bong Joon Ho begins to reveal his purpose.
The three are trapped until the Park parents fall asleep on the sofa, when they escape from the house and into this startling sequence.
The colour keys in this are critical. As the descent begins, the dominant colour is green, most noticeable in the place where it changes – the road tunnel. As the Kims descend we see the green stripes on the walls and green characters on the footpath lights. The first bright burst of red is from the taillights of a car turning at the end of the tunnel as they shuffle towards it. From that point, the colour key is red. It seemed to me on first viewing, and does still, that this sequence is a descent into the Inferno; paradoxically, in the context of a flood, yet nonetheless obviously. Notice the son’s momentary reluctance to be swept down by the flood.
All of the reviews and commentaries that I have seen insist that the movie is built around class divisions and tensions. The division is deeper than that. It is the division between the earth-dwellers – the Parks – and the denizens of the underworld. The flawed earth-dwellers, snobbish, supercilious, gullible, live in the green world of the Parks’ garden, whose lawn and trees are the background to most of what happens in the Park home.
In Bong Joon Ho’s universe, it seems, the underworld is populated with demons, ghosts, the restless dead and lost souls, all of whom interact with the overworld and its people. When the Kims arrive at their flooded sub-basement, the correspondence of the underworlds is reinforced by intercutting the scenes as they recover what they can, with scenes from the underworld of the Park home, where Moon and her husband are bound, and the wife is dying from injuries sustained when she was kicked down the stairs by Mrs Kim.
Through this appalling chaos run themes of conscience and repentance, focussed on the mysterious scholar’s stone, which is what Ki Woo rushes into the sub-basement to rescue, and which rises through the floodwater to meet him.
Up to this point, the Kim family has expressed its optimism through its “plans,” as seen during the descent, and where the “plan” is often a plot or scheme. The refugees from the flood sleep in a gymnasium, and the son asks the father what the plan is. Ki Taek’s answer reveals a resignation of despair; Ki Woo’s reveals a resignation of optimism and the significance of the stone.
For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 1 Corinthians 10:4
The Rock clings, follows, nags the conscience and, when necessary, leads, even into the valley of the shadow of death.
Despite two attempts, Ki Woo cannot be killed, or even permanently injured, with the stone. Note the spreading pools of blood and what looks for all the world like water on the floor from which Geun Se picks up the stone the second time.
Mio caro bene!
Non ho più affanni e pene
no ho più pene al cor.
nel seno mio già sento,
che sol vi alberga amor.
I no longer know suffering and pain,
I no longer have grief in my heart,
Seeing you happy,
I feel that in my heart
Now only love abides.
Handel Rodelinda Mio Caro Bene
The flies settle on Geun Se’s body as soon as he stops moving. The final trigger for Ki Taek’s rage is Mr Park’s disgust at Geun Se’s smell. This theme runs through the movie. The Kims’ scheme is almost brought undone when the son, Da Song, announces that all four smell the same. Back in the sub-basement, Ki Jung points out that their common scent comes not from common soaps or deodorants, but from where they live. As the Kim family waits under the table to escape the Park home, Mr Park muses on Ki Taek’s smell. It’s a bit like boiling a rag, and is sometimes smelled on the subway. The flies know, though, the smell of the dead.
Bong Joon Ho’s underworld is an eclectic Purgatory; one in which destinations are yet to be decided; to which redemption may come; from which resurrection is possible. It is the spiritual basement of the world. Looked at another way, this is the most sophisticated zombie movie ever made.
Ki Woo and Chung Sook survive the carnage, and return to their familiar underworld. Ki Taek retreats to that other underworld beneath the basement of what was the home of the Park family.
This final scene is filled with the most extraordinary joy. I think everyone feels it, and the credits close on this sense of spiritual elevation, whatever unsolved puzzles Bong leaves them with. The Good News is like that.