It started with a rock.
A special rock. A lucky rock. A so-called “scholar’s rock,” valued for its rugged, regal shape. It was a gift to Kim Ki-woo, a university-age (though not university-bound) guy who doesn’t have much use for a rock, but sure could use a little luck. He and his family live in a scrubby semi-basement in South Korea, four members of the country’s countless working poor.
Not that the Kims work, exactly. Not now. Not since Papa Kim’s businesses all went belly-up and jobs have been so hard to find. The four have been folding pizza boxes to make a little cash. And when the bug fumigators saunter by, Papa Kim insists on keeping the window open, to cut down on the semi-basement’s stinkbug population.
Kim Ki-woo’s friend, who gives him the rock, says the chunk of stone is supposed to shower wealth on whoever possesses it.
“This is so metaphorical,” Ki-Woo says. But then again, he says that about a lot of things.
Still, there may be something to that stony metaphor: When the friend brings the rock, he also brings a lead on a job. He’s been serving as an English tutor for Park Da-hye, the daughter of a powerful—and rich—CEO. It’s been a good gig, but the friend is leaving to study overseas. And he doesn’t want to turn Da-hye (whom he’s sweet on) over to some slavering college guy—even though being in college is, technically, a prerequisite for the job. Would Ki-Woo like to apply? He knows English, after all. All he needs is a forged paper or two. And Ki-woo’s sister, who has a great eye for art and subterfuge, can handle that.
Ki-woo agrees and has his talented sis (whom, her proud papa says, should really get a major from Oxford in forgery) whip up the necessary papers. Ki-woo doesn’t feel guilty at all. After all, he’s bound to get into university next year. “I just printed out the document a bit early.”
The interview goes quite well. And Ki-woo finds Da-hye, a sophomore in high school, quite cute. Da-hye’s mother gives him his first wad of money, dubs him with the English name Kevin and mentions that their young boy, Da-song, could sure use another art tutor. The kid’s been through plenty, but none stay longer than a month or so.
Kevin stews on that bit of information for, oh, about five seconds, when an idea pops into his head.
“Someone just came to mind,” he tells Mrs. Park. A friend of a cousin, he thinks. She’s studied in the United States—at prestigious Illinois State University, in fact. But she might be back in the country. But, Kevin thinks, his sister just might pull it off with this fabulously wealthy, incredibly naïve mom. Why, if they play their cards right, maybe the whole Kim family could wind up working for the Parks. And who knows what might happen after that?
Yep, that rock may be special after all.
Many of the main players in Parasite are strangely sympathetic but deeply flawed. You’ll not find a real role model here. Still, it’s pretty obvious that the wealthy Parks and the hardscrabble Kims both love their families—though the ways love presents itself can be quite different.
We hear a bit about the “lucky” rock. We also hear a passing reference to a local church (the “Love of God” church) that placed an important pizza order. Someone believes he sees a ghost.
Mr. and Mrs. Park have sex on a couch. Frontal nudity is barely avoided in this explicit scene, but it’s very clear what’s going on. The couple moans and enters into pretty frank dialogue.
College-age Kevin and high-schooler Da-hye carry on a relationship. We see the romantic tension during their first lesson (when Kevin takes her wrist to feel her racing pulse). Later, during a tutoring session, they kiss. They share a lengthy smooch somewhat later, and Kevin says that he hopes to ask her to officially date him once she enters college. Kevin’s family jokes that they could soon be Da-hye’s in-laws. Da-hye gets jealous and possessive.
Someone removes a pair of panties to frame a chauffeur. We hear a great deal of conversation surrounding those panties, including some obscene comments.
Papa Kim squeezes his wife’s backside. A woman gives her husband a backrub. A man asks Mr. Park whether he loves his wife on a couple of occasions, and that same man gently touches Mrs. Park’s hand.
[Spoiler Warning] Several people are stabbed. Some of them die, and we see a great deal of blood. Someone is kicked down a flight of stairs and gets knocked unconscious. People are tied up and gagged. A person smashes another person’s head with a rock. A man pounds his head against something until it’s bleeding heavily. Someone is deathly allergic to peaches (a fact that’s exploited, much to the allergic person’s deep consternation). Someone else is prone to having epileptic-like seizures and fainting spells.
We har nearly 25 f-words, three s-words and a smattering of other profanities, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—,” “p-ss” and “pr–k.” God’s name is misused four times, once with the word “d–n,” while Jesus’ name is abused once.
The Kims get drunk on whiskey one evening, breaking glasses and bottles as the night wears on. They also drink beer together as a family. Kevin (then still known as Ki-woo) does some shots with his friend. While having sex, Mrs. Park begs for Mr. Park to buy her drugs.
Kevin’s sister smokes. We hear references to meth and cocaine.
A huge rainstorm proves to be a minor inconvenience for the Parks, who live high on a hill. To the poor citizens of this South Korean city, though, it’s devastating. Many people who live in basement and semi-basement apartments are completely flooded out, and much of the flood water (we learn) is sewage. Some dark brown water spurts and shoots from a toilet; sometimes the lid is open, sometimes closed, but it’s seriously messy and gross.
The Parks often comment on how their servants smell. They’re appalled by the stench of poverty, apparently, particularly Mr. Park, who says that his chauffeur smells like a cooked turnip. The Parks’ revulsion at that smell, along with the insecurity that precipitates from it, runs throughout the movie.
People frequently urinate in front of the Kims’ home. At one point, Kevin tries to stop the man from doing so, and that leads to a weird liquid fight involving both water and urine.
The Kims—all of them—lie in order to further their station. They desperately try to hop on other people’s WiFi network. Da-song, the Park’s young boy, is supposed to have some indeterminate mental challenges. His sister thinks he’s lying.
Parasite has been the surprise of the 2019 cinematic awards season. This low-budget, South Korean mystery/thriller/comedy/tragedy has been scooping up all sorts of honors. In advance of the Academy Awards, it seems poised not just to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but potentially to be nominated in the Best Picture category as well.
And it is, certainly, a clever film, filled with sting-like schemes, moments of humor, cogent cultural satire and a couple of surprises.
It also contains a lot of really troubling behavior.
That is, of course, cooked into the story. You’re not necessarily supposed to like a lot of the people we meet—so the fact that we like so many of them in spite of themselves is a tribute to filmmaker Bong Joon Ho. The rich can treat the poor like non-humans. The poor can treat the rich with their own kind of contempt. Whatever warmth and hope we find here is buried under seriously troubling behavior. The film’s sex, violence and language would be enough to earn Parasite its R-rating, certainly. But even if it was as clean enough to slap on Disney+, the characters themselves, and their often self-destructive attitudes, would be enough to give many pause.
I understand Parasite’s appeal. But sometimes the film, like the truly “metaphorical” stink bugs that we see early on, can crawl in the corners and smell something awful.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.