The Parable of Parasite

Joe George

Parasite—surprise winner of this year’s Best Picture Oscar—is a movie about position.

Thematically, Parasite is about economic position. It follows the Kims, a South Korean family of four barely making ends meet. They find a path to economic security when teenage son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) gets a job tutoring the daughter of the affluent Park family. Through deception and subterfuge, each of the Kims gain employment in the Park household. Sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) becomes the art tutor for the Parks’ son, while mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) is hired as a housekeeper and father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) serves as the chauffeur.

At the same time, Parasite is about literal positions, specifically the vertical spaces in which the characters live and move. Director Bong Joon-ho uses his camera to communicate the relationships between the characters. The Kims live in a cramped basement flat, where they watch the feet of people passing by their tiny windows. When Ki-woo departs the apartment to interview with the Parks, the camera takes the perspective of Chung-sook and Ki-taek as they watch their son ascend the stairs. Ki-woo reaches the Park house by climbing a series of hills until he reaches their mansion at the summit. The upper classes live in higher locales and the lower classes dwell below.

Finally, Parasite is about the positions people want and the strategies they’ll use to get them. The Kims obtain their jobs not only by hiding the fact that they’re related and by faking their credentials; they also depose the people already working for the Parks. Ki-jung frames the family’s current driver for sexual misconduct, while the entire family colludes to convince the hypochondriac wife and mother of the Park family (Cho Yeo-Jeong) that her longtime housekeeper (Lee Jeong-eun) has contracted tuberculosis.

We understand why the Kims resort to these measures. The film often reminds us that the family lives in poverty and cannot find another way out. Ki-taek and Chung-sook have held several jobs, but the businesses always fold, leaving them destitute once again. The Kims have to leech wi-fi from nearby restaurants just to search for low-paying work folding pizza boxes. Deception seems like the only weapon available for the Kims to stave off poverty.

In his book Jesus and the Disinherited, theologian Howard Thurman acknowledges that lying is an effective strategy for the oppressed, observing that deception is “perhaps the oldest of all the techniques by which the weak have protected themselves against the strong.” At the same time, Thurman insists that Christianity is fundamentally the religion of people “who stand with their backs against the wall,” and thus Jesus’ teachings have immediate relevance for the oppressed. That relevance includes Jesus’ restrictions against deception, his command that anything beyond yes or no “comes from the evil one.

Even as he recognizes that honesty leaves the oppressed vulnerable to abuse, Thurman contends that “something more significant takes place” when the weak reject lies. Sincerity strips away “the edge . . . from the sense of prerogative and from the status upon which the impregnability of [the powerful’s] position rests.” In other words, sincerity refuses the pretenses of social, economic, and political differences and emphasizes the humanity of both oppressor and oppressed. “Instead of relation between the weak and the strong there is merely a relationship between human beings,” Thurman writes. “The awareness of this fact marks the supreme moment of human dignity.”

Parasite is a movie about position.

Parasite underscores this point by showing us what happens when deception is used as a tool against oppression. (Spoilers ahead.) After the Kims secure their desired positions, they discover that others have been living even lower than them. In the basement bomb shelter below the Park home lives the former housekeeper’s husband (Park Myeong-hoon). Deep in debt to gangsters and unable to afford protection, he has been hidden there by his wife, who secretly cares for him. But with the Kims now taking her place as housekeeper, she can no longer meet him. The desperate actions of the desperate Kims have made this other family desperate, which sets off the film’s outrageously destructive finale.

In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman’s call for sincerity disrupts systems of inequality by refusing to accept unequal value systems, recognizing instead the dignity of all people created by God. Jesus does the same in a parable recorded in Matthew 25. The parable describes Jesus as a king judging the nations. He invites into this kingdom those who fed him when he was hungry, who welcomed him when he was a stranger, who visited him when he was in prison. When the rejected protest, asking when they saw him hungry or rejected or imprisoned, Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

The kingdom metaphor and economic language Jesus uses make the parable an act of sincerity, in Thurman’s sense of the word. It reveals that even “the least of these”—those called worthless by oppressive systems—are in fact humans created by God. Any structure that conceals that fact is a lie.

Parasite illustrates the horror of living such a lie. The Kims’ deception may have temporarily improved their status, but it did nothing to alter the system in which they live. There is still an upper position and a lower position, and there are always people on lower rungs. The most the Kims do for the least of these is hold them down, as they have been held down, reinforcing an earthly kingdom that keeps both families drowning in the lower depths.

Topics: Movies