Sitting on the toilet
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Parasite: What Makes This Korean Film So Incredible

A year ago, the South Korean film Parasite released in the United States and made a huge splash. Called brilliant, flawless, and beyond reproach, it truly was the movie to beat. Now, a year later, does Parasite still stand up - and what does this mean for South Korean cinema?
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A year ago, I made my husband (read: asked nicely) drive 45 minutes one way when snow was expected so we could see Bong Joon-ho’s film, Parasite, in theaters. While it may have eventually gotten a widespread US cinema release, that theater was the only one near us that was showing it at the time.

We were two of just a handful of people in the theater that Saturday night. A mother and daughter sat two rows behind and to our left. An awkward couple sat way in the back, and a few stragglers dotted the theater. Otherwise, it was just us.

I left the film surprised (this was supposed to be a comedy?) and fascinated. I didn’t necessarily appreciate what I had watched at first, but I knew it was amazing – and I needed to learn more.

About Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s Most Popular Movie Yet

Bong Joon-ho isn’t a stranger to film making. While he may not be a household name in the US, he has done numerous films in Korea and is widely regarded as one of the best filmmakers of our time.

The only film you might know of his, unless you’re into Korean cinema, is Snowpiercer (2013), a sci-fi action film staring Chris Evans (yes, Captain America), Tilda Swinton, and Ed Harris, among others.

CJ Entertainment via GIPHY

Snowpiercer had generally positive reviews, but it was certainly a… weird experience. Parasite has a similar vibe – it was weird, and an experience, but it was positive.

Parasite cost just under $11.5 million USD (or 20.5 billion won), and made well over $264 million in box offices, making it a huge financial success for Bong, as well as the studio that produced and distributed it.

Parasite was also met with serious critical reception. The movie won 4 awards at the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film).

It was the first non-English language film to ever win Best Picture, the first South Korean film to even be nominated, and the first non-English film to win Best Original Screenplay since 2003 (in 2003, Talk to Her, produced in Spain, took home that award).

Academy Awards via GIPHY

It also spawned the incredibly awkward interview where someone on the red carpet honestly and truly asked Bong Joon-ho why he made the movie in Korean. This tweet sums it up pretty well:

If you think this is an isolated incident, you’d be wrong. Here is another interview at an event with someone asks what the best part about being famous in America is. Sir… are you aware that there is more out there than just American cinema?

But that really brings up a valid question. A year ago, Parasite blew people away, achieved incredible critical acclaim, and swept award shows. What made this movie so fantastic? Why hasn’t a Korean film done this before? If you’re sleeping on Korean cinema, what else are you missing out on?

Parasite, the Movie

I don’t know that this needs to be said, but if you haven’t seen Parasite, I’m sorry, but I’m about to spoil some stuff. You should absolutely watch it, either before or after this article – bookmark me and come back if you have to. Even knowing everything I’m about to talk about, you’ll still appreciate the movie on a first watch. It’s on Hulu to stream for subscribers right now, or you can pick up a copy literally anywhere movies are sold. I saw a blu-ray last week at Target.

The movie opens with the Kim family living in their half-basement apartment, as it’s called in Korea. Half-basement apartments, according to a Vanity Fair interview with Bong, are fairly common – the windows allow you just enough light to give you hope, apparently.

Without having to say or do anything, Bong is presenting you the reality of their life – the Kim family is lower-than-low. In a society that values status and class above almost anything else, the Kim’s half-basement apartment, with high-sitting windows open to let a breeze, and fumigation, in shows they are sub-par. Less than. Lower than the dirt people walk on.

Sound harsh? Well, it is – but that’s the class system that Bong is looking to highlight and criticize.

You see, that’s really what this whole plot boils down to. It is a criticism of the class system in Korea that works to keep the poor, poor, and the rich, well… rich.

The two ‘kids’ in the family, daughter Ki-jung and son Ki-woo, are seen trying in vain to get access to a stolen wifi connection to use their phones in the basement. They end up on the toilet, the highest place in the whole apartment, to get some sort of signal. You’ll see this toilet again.

CJ Entertainment via GIPHY

Ki-woo goes out with Min-hyuk one night, a friend he went to school with. Min-hyuk criticizes Ki-woo for only working part-time odd jobs, and then gives him an offer: take over as the tutor for a rich girl from the Park family. Min-hyuk is going abroad to study, so the family needs another tutor, and his recommendation will matter a lot. With the recommendation, and the gift of scholar’s rock that promises wealth, Min-hyuk has done his job (in the movie as a plot point, and as Ki-woo’s friend).

CJ Entertainment via GIPHY

Now, with a handful of forged college documents, done by Ki-jung at an internet cafe, and a pressed suit, Ki-woo nails his interview, and he has an in.

Now, Ki-woo has a real job with the wealthy Park family, that really pays quite well, especially compared to what the family was used to. But that’s not enough… oh no.

A Family Affair

The Kim family decides that if the Park family can bankroll one family member, why not more? Ki-woo easily lies, and the family brings Ki-jung on as an art tutor for their younger son, a rambunctious little boy who is truly spoiled.

Then, Ki-jung sets up the family’s driver, making it appear that he is using the family’s car to pick up women and do drugs. That driver is axed, and in comes Ki-taek, the patriarch of the family, to drive the family around, run errands, and get paid.

The biggest coup happens when the kids, along with the father, work together to literally poison the housekeeper, Moon-gwang. They convince Mrs. Park that she has TB, and despite the fact that Moon-gwang has literally lived in the house longer than anyone else (she was the previous owner’s housekeeper!), she’s put on her butt outside and the final piece of the puzzle of complete: the Kim family matriarch, Chung-sook, is brought on.

Of course, the Park’s don’t know any of them are related. As far as they know and can tell, this is just a group of random people who happen to know each other from various jobs working with different, equally rich Korean families.

Alright, enough recap…

Okay, so you understand the plot, right? Wrong. We’re only a third of the way through the movie. One night while the Park’s are out celebrating the son’s birthday with a camping trip, the Kim family throws their own party in the mansion, drinking and carrying on.

It’s interrupted by the former housekeeper, Moon-gwang, knocking on the door and pleading to be let in. She claims she left something in the basement, can she please just come in and get it?

After forcing her way in and downstairs, the ugly truth is revealed; there is a hidden bunker in the house. Behind a shelf and down a set of concrete steps, there are several rooms. And Geun-sae, Moon-gwang’s husband, who has lived there for many years unnoticed.

Geun-sae, you see, has debts. Many debts. And to keep him, and Moon-gwang, safe, they hid him away… by himself, in the basement, with no sunlight, for years.

The Kim’s immediately threaten to rat out the whole situation, but there is a snag: Moon-gwang recorded the Ki-woo calling Ki-jung big sister. That’s… a big issue, but they can’t very well address it, or the physical altercation that follows. Why?

Because Mrs. Park calls, and the family is to come back early due to the camping trip being rained out. In the scramble, Moon-gwang becomes mortally injured, and the Kim’s shut her – along with her husband – in the basement. They then must rush to clean the enormous mess they made, and hide the evidence of Geun-sae’s existence. All while Chung-soon makes “Ram-Don”, an instant noodle with a high-quality beef added.

CJ Entertainment via GIPHY

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the scene – Mrs. Park is eating a package of dollar noodles with probably $20 worth of high-quality steak thrown in, out of a porcelain bowl. All the while, a dead woman and a hiding man is just underneath her.

Beginning of the End

Heavy flooding comes in with the rain, and it’s a big deal. The Kim’s half-basement apartment is now completely flooded, and the family must wade through literal sewage backed up in their home in order to salvage what they can. Ki-woo takes the Scholar’s Stone that was given to him, the family grabs a variety of random sentimental and practical things, and they spend the night in a shelter.

CJ Entertainment via GIPHY

Each family member, separately, gets a phone call. Can you come and help with this last minute party for our son? Despite the fact the Kim family just watched their entire life float away, and everything is falling apart… they put on their nice clothes, and their biggest smiles, and attend the party as staff.

They have to handle the party, and deal with the unwanted guests in the basement to ensure their continued survival and success with the Park’s. Ki-Woo takes the Scholars Stone and enters the bunker, planning on dealing with Geun-sae once and for all.

He finds Moon-gwang dead, and is ambushed by Geun-sae, who bludgeons him with the Scholar’s Stone and leaves bleeding out in the basement. Seeking revenge, Geun-sae takes a knife from the butcher block and walks out into the sun, and the party.

Geun-sae stabs Ki-jung, and the young Park son, Da-song, suffers a seizure. Earlier in the movie, Mrs. Park reveals that he had suffered one several years ago after seeing a ghost in the kitchen… of a man… who disappeared in the basement. Hmm.

Chung-sook finally impales Geun-sae with a BBQ skewer, ending his life, while the Park girl finds Ki-woo bleeding in the basement and carries him upstairs, crying. The two had been in something of a relationship, with Ki-woo dreaming of asking her out for real when she graduated high school.

Mr. Park screams at Ki-taek to drive Da-song to the hospital, while Ki-taek is standing in the middle of the beautiful lawn, watching his daughter bleed out and his son barely conscious from a head wound.

It’s the last straw from Ki-taek, and he stabs Mr. Park before fleeing the scene, leaving his family behind.

Ki-woo wakes up in the hospital in handcuffs. Ki-jung is dead, and Ki-woo, along with his mother, are under arrest. They receive probation after being convicted of fraud, but Ki-taek is still missing.

So… Where is Ki-taek?

The Park family move, unsurprisingly, and Ki-woo is seen after his probation sitting on a hill overlooking the estate when he sees a morse code signal from the outside lights.

It’s Ki-taek, and he escaped in the one place no one would ever find him – the basement bunker, with the dead body.

Ki-woo writes a letter to his father, promising him that he will graduate college, get a great job, and make lots of money. So much money, in fact, he and his mother will buy that house on the hill, and someday his father will be able to leave the bunker and enter the sunlight.

The movie ends with Ki-woo writing these promises in the half-basement apartment the family has always shared, damp with mold. While Ki-woo may have hope and may dream… the movie shows you the hard truth.

Ki-taek is trapped, feeding off of a German expat family that doesn’t know he is there. Ki-woo will never graduate college, will never become rich, and will always live in this half-basement, filled with a false hope.

Why This is Brilliant

First, let’s talk story, before we get into the cinematography of the movie – which is truly mind blowing.

Bong Joon-ho is a unique director in that he has written every single screenplay he’s ever done, and Parasite is truly the masterpiece. It’s the collection of everything he has learned and achieved up until this point, all in a nearly-flawless movie.

Bong doesn’t just write his movies, though. He also storyboards the whole movie. Seriously, you can buy it on Amazon (Parasite: A Graphic Novel in Storyboards by Bong Joon-ho).

If you do a deep dive into how the movie was made, you realize that 90% of the shooting and editing choices were because of Bong’s storyboard work. He chose the angles, the edits, and the cuts. Bong knew exactly how he wanted the movie to play out in his mind, and his ability to convey that with such precision is mindblowing.

It almost feels like Bong took two separate stories and put them together in one. The first story follows the Kim family and their struggle, while the second story follows Moon-gwang and her husband, hiding away and trying to survive. In the middle of the movie – around the 50 minute mark – the two stories converge. The Kim’s discover Moon-gwang’s hidden secret, her husband. Moon-gwang discovers how she was pushed out of her previous life of luxury, and why.

Bong wanted this to be a situation where the movie was telling a story, a potentially realistic one, where there was no clear cut answers. No one was obviously a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ guy, there was no evil villain. Sure, the Park family was wealthy – but they were not unkind. The Kim’s were poor, but they were not cruel. Moon-gwang was intense, but she was not evil. Gaen-sae… well, he was obviously a little off his rocker from living in the bunker for so long, but he was just a man.

At the end, we realize nothing has truly changed. Another wealthy family has moved into the home, another poor person is secretly living in their basement. Ki-woo and his mother in the same half-basement apartment they always lived in, working part-time jobs and struggling. The Park’s moved, but their wealth and lifestyle are still intact.

How This Movie Was Shot is Incredible

The storytelling in Parasite is so powerful not just because of the screenplay, or the attention to detail in Bong’s storyboards, but the way the entire movie is shot and structured.

Everything about the Kim’s living situation is low. Their half-basement apartment, referenced several times. Their views from the living room window, out to the alley. It’s low, it’s poorly lit, and no sunlight comes in anywhere.

Windows in the half basement
CJ Entertainment

The Park’s, on the other hand, live up high. You see Ki-woo walking up a winding, clean road to get to the Park’s home, and their views from the front yard are impressive. Natural light streams in through large picture windows, and it’s all bright colors, clean lines, and perfect housekeeping.

The Park home is truly the physical representation of their higher class and success compared to the Kim’s.

The Park House
CJ Entertainment

In fact, you must descend not one, but two staircases to get to the hidden bunker that Gaen-sae is hiding in. That’s how far apart in the class structure these two families are.

When it comes to special effects, Bong used them sparingly – and carefully. The second home of the Park house was completely false, and it was all digitally added. In an interview, Bong said that putting together the Park home was like a ‘puzzle’, and the interior rooms were all built on sound stages.

Bong did this to help truly convey the status and wealth of the Park family. The long walk up the hill to get to the Park home? Also CG, to get the perfect lighting and neighborhood. Though neighborhoods like this do exist in Korea, this one was all man-made.

ki woo walking up a hill
CJ Entertainment

The scene where the Kim’s home and neighborhood flooded? That was an incredibly difficult scene to pull off – because everything you’re seeing is practical, not special effects. The entire neighborhood was built in a giant water tank so they could flood it, and the crew scoured homes and neighborhoods in Korea that were set to be torn down and rebuilt to pull doors and windows to lend to the old and worn look it has.

sitting on a flooded out toilet smoking
CJ Entertainment

Bong said that the way water flows top to bottom is symbolic of how problems flow from the rich to the poor, though he didn’t truly realize until the movie was made just how central the theme of water was to the movie itself.

Has Parasite Changed Hollywood?

Here’s the big question: has the movie Parasite, and the incredible success it brought, changed Hollywood at all?

In a nutshell… probably not, but maybe. Parasite won a ton of awards, and it came at a time when the US was just starting to discover South Korea as a film and music center. After all, BTS – a Korean boy band consisting of seven members – is getting airtime on all major radio stations, and have sold-out concerts. I know, I bought tickets to one a few years ago when they played in New Jersey – and ended up having to resell them due to unfortunate circumstances. I made $500/ticket on my resale.

via GIPHY

It’s hard to say because just months after Parasite really made it big, Hollywood basically shut down. Due to the pandemic, we’re seeing movie theaters closing, production being delayed, and new content just… not being made.

Does this mean that Parasite won’t have a bigger impact to come? I don’t think so – and I truly believe that US audiences are more ready now than ever before to consume international media. I think in the comings years we can all expect to see the average US viewer more interested in foreign films. No, not just the weird art school kids who swear by French cinema, but the average person. Your neighbor, your mother, your sister.

What Else is Great in Korean Cinema?

So you enjoyed Parasite, and you’re curious what else Korean cinema has to offer? Let’s start with, almost nothing will top Parasite. Reviewers have described this film as perfect, flawless, without reproach… it’s truly one of the great films of our generation.

However, Korean cinema has a ton to offer! Don’t just watch Parasite and be done with the whole country of movies.

I’m going to start with my top two personal favorites, one being a love story – Castaway on the Moon (2009). A man tried to end his life and ended up stranded on a small island just outside a big city. A woman who locks herself away in her room, afraid of the outside world, has a view of his new life on the island. Can these two overcome incredible odds, and mental illness, to find each other?

Big Match (2014) is an action/comedy about a professional fighter who must go to great lengths to get his brother back after being kidnapped. Think that doesn’t sound very funny? I was in tears when he was singing karaoke. It’s got incredible action scenes and some really wonderful light-hearted bits.

Oldboy (2003) was described by the South China Morning Post as if The Count of Monte Cristo met Death Wish, and I think that’s truly a great comparison. It’s based on a Japanese manga, and follows a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years. Once he’s finally free, he is seeking revenge – and gets more than he bargained for.

If the title sounds familiar, it might be because it had a 2013 English remake staring Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Brolin. But stick to the South Korean classic, it’s much better.

Okay, before I start talking about The Man From Nowhere (2010), I will readily admit it’s sort of a ripoff of Leon: The Professional. But don’t let that stop you from watching it! A handsome man who is a former special forces officer must revert back to his violent ways when the neighbor’s little girl gets kidnapped. He will stop at nothing to rescue her.

The action is great, the story is compelling… it’s wonderful. The main character, Won Bin, has a little bit of John Wick style in him when he suits up, as you can see in the trailer below.

Extreme Job (2019) is another part comedy, part action, that is totally worth watching. It was a huge box office success in Korea, and follows a group of detectives that are offered one last chance to save their job after a seriously big mistake. The captain and his team decide to purchase a restaurant to stake out an international gang… and end up with a huge success. It’s part action, part slapstick over-the-top comedy, and all sorts of fun.

Finally, I’ll leave you with The Host (2006), a Bong Joon-ho directed piece. At the time of release, it was one of the highest-grossing South Korean films of all time, and won numerous awards. This might be Bong’s closest work to Parasite, and follows the effects of a scientist who dumped formaldehyde down a drain that ran off into the Han River. Sightings of strange monsters have become more and more common, until six years later, a giant monster appears and attacks.

It’s exciting. It’s action-packed. It’s a little bit silly, which makes it a lot of fun to watch. It’s a wonderful example of Bong’s work, and is widely available to stream – you can even get it from YouTube!

A special note, as well: does the main character look familiar? He should! Song Kang-ho stars in this Bong Joon-ho movie, just as he played Ki-taek in Parasite. He also was in Snowpiercer as Namgoong Minsoo.

Bong Joon-ho so highly respects and values Song Kang-ho that, if Song hadn’t accepted, Bong wouldn’t have made the film at all. Song accepted the role without even knowing what the movie truly was, saying his trust and faith in Bong was high enough that he would star in anything the director made. Amazing.