NOTE: this piece contains spoilers
Comparison is the killer of happiness, but many East-Asian families view happiness as the first step on a slippery slope to complacency, then failure. Parents with this attitude create performance metrics out of other children’s achievements, and the cost-benefit analysis of happiness versus success often omits the costs entirely. Almost every East-Asian child has heard some variant of the following question:
“Why can’t you be more like Min?”
In Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, this question fuels Kim Ki-Woo as he goes to extraordinary lengths to emulate a more accomplished friend and live up to his family’s aspirations. Beneath the film’s layers of dense symbolism and surreal comedy/horror, I found in its protagonist a story about comparative pressure and filial duty that many could probably relate to.
Here is Ki-Woo’s story.
When we are introduced to the son of the Kim family, we find him scanning their semi-basement residence for a free Wi-Fi connection. Their phone service has been cut due to an unpaid bill, and the woman living upstairs recently password-protected the “ip time” connection they previously relied on. Already, the film introduces a vertical stratification of people’s homes to represent their place in society. Applying this metaphor to the Kims’ semi-basement, we can characterize them as poor, but hopeful. The underground half represents their destitution; the aboveground half represents their aspiration.
Given South Korea’s male-dominant work culture (The Economist magazine ranked South Korea 29th on their 2019 “Glass Ceiling” index for OECD countries), we can assume that Ki-Woo shoulders the family’s aspirations for a better future. What thin shoulders he has. When a drunk man starts to urinate by the Kims’ window but is shooed away by Min, the Kim parents praise Ki-Woo’s wealthier, better-educated friend by calling him “impressive” and commenting on his “vigor.” Ki-Jung adds, “not like my brother.” Although this is done lightheartedly, it also touches upon a prevalent issue for children in East-Asian families: being made to feel like a failure in comparison to a more accomplished peer. When we later find out Ki-Woo has failed the university entrance exam four times, we can understand why he refers to himself as a “loser”; however, his struggles are not unlike those of any young man in hyper-competitive South Korea.
The story starts to gain momentum when Min comes inside and sets down his gift—a scholar stone, thought to bring material wealth to the family that owns it. Ki-Woo approves of the gift, calling it “metaphorical” while eyeing it with admiration. He appears to be correct, for Min has also brought a job opportunity. As the two friends sit outside a convenience store in the next scene, Min suggests that Ki-Woo take over his job as an English tutor to Park Da-Hye, a high school girl from a wealthy family. Min is romantically interested in Da-Hye, but he plans on studying abroad. He offers the job to Ki-Woo because he doesn’t consider the self-proclaimed “loser” a threat like he does his collegiate peers.
Notice the production design in this scene. While the background behind Ki-Woo is dimly lit in drab, teal tones, the background behind Min conspicuously features the upward-sloping road out of Ki-Woo’s poor neighborhood, brightly lit in warm, orange tones. The frame cuts between these two images in typical shot, reverse-shot fashion, much as one would expect. The magic, however, occurs when Min officially offers the job, and Ki-Woo asks “Do I have to pretend to be a college student?” In a Vanity Fair piece, director Bong Joon-Ho and Ki-Woo actor Choi Woo-Sik point out that a bus was timed specifically to cross behind Ki-Woo at this exact moment in the film, symbolizing the border between what Bong calls the “normal world” and the “crime world.”
The next shot functions as a transition: instead of cutting from Min to Ki-Woo like earlier, the camera pans left to show Ki-Woo in the same shot. In the “normal world,” the shot, reverse-shot cutting between Ki-Woo and Min seemed to depict the two young men in discretely separate spaces, with this break in spatial continuity perhaps symbolizing a gap in social standing. As the camera pans between them, the gap is closed — in this new “crime world,” Ki-Woo is able to occupy the same space as Min, but only through a lie. Mischievous background music enters the soundscape, marking this moment as a new beginning: Ki-Woo now has a chance to walk up the warmly lit path, up and out of poverty.
With a new haircut and doctored diploma, Ki-Woo informs his family he has a plan: he seeks to attend Yonsei University next year and legitimize his currently fake diploma. As he walks out of the semi-basement, we see the lingering looks of his parents from a downward angled shot—emphasizing his upward ascent toward the Parks’ house. In the next shot, some time has clearly passed, and Ki-Woo finds himself walking up a hill and into a much wealthier looking neighborhood. Just as he skipped the legimitate path to get this job, the film skips over the road he walked to reach the house. After showering praise on Min, Yon-Kyo (madame of the Park household) sits in on Ki-Woo’s tutoring session to test him. Ki-Woo, instead of correcting Da-Hye’s answer to number 24 (“the answer to 24? I don’t care”), focuses on her hesitation and lack of confidence. He passes the naive Yon-Kyo’s test, and he becomes legitimized as “Kevin,” an English tutor worthy of replacing Min.
We soon find that his “plan” has pivoted away from Yonsei and toward bringing his family members into this impostor scheme—thus allowing him to help his family as soon as possible. He exploits Yon-Kyo’s blind trust in anglicized names and suggests that she meet with “Jessica,” the America-schooled art therapist that is actually a fake identity for his sister Ki-Jung. Later, when father, son, and sister are plotting to get rid of the Parks’ housekeeper Mun-Kwang, Ki-Woo demonstrates his craftiness again with an elaborate plan to exploit her peach allergy and convince Yon-Kyo that the housekeeper has tuberculosis. In the middle of the montage, we can even see Ki-Woo coaching his father’s delivery of the lines, which he clearly has written himself. By the end of this sequence, he has fully supplanted Min by capturing Da-Hye’s heart, and he has gotten his entire family hired by the Parks.
When the family celebrates this success, we can see that things have improved. After their Pizza Generation victory, they were eating canned food; with money from the Parks, they are grilling beef, which is notoriously expensive in Korea. Cans of Sapporo have mostly replaced the cheap FiLite beers they drank previously. They also exhibit a newfound confidence — perhaps even arrogance. When they notice another drunkard urinating by their window, Ki-Woo immediately stands up with an aggression not seen before. He stomps outside, sprays water on the man, and yells,“get a fucking grip,” just like Min did.
He fails. Min stopped the urinator with just words, but Ki-Woo seems to lack the necessary, moral high ground to tell him off. When the man retaliates by attempting to urinate on Ki-Woo, Ki-Tek (Ki-Woo’s father) joins the fray and the three men are suddenly engaged in a free-for-all water fight, which Ki-Jung calls “a deluge.” Not only does this line cleverly foreshadow the flood to come, but the fight’s instigation demonstrates an incompleteness to the Kims’ social ascension. They may have obtained money, but perhaps the dishonesty in their methods failed to procure them the moral authority that usually accompanies hard-earned success. Ki-Woo may be faking it, but he isn’t quite making it.
Still, their hubris grows. As they sit in the Parks’ living room while the family is away on a camping trip, Ki-Woo reveals that he will ask Da-Hye out when she graduates from high school, directly commandeering Min’s original plans. They briefly concern themselves with the fate of the people whose jobs they stole, but Ki-Jung asserts that they should only be worrying about themselves. Lightning crashes in this moment, joining a sequence of coincidences that Ki-Woo consistently notes as “metaphorical.” First, the scholar stone came with a tutoring job. Second, they hatched the plan to get Ki-Tek hired as a driver while they mooched food from a driver’s cafeteria. Ki-Woo points out this third coincidence, and as the lightning strike clears his conscience, we get the sense that he views these metaphors as signs of encouragement — perhaps from a higher power. The Kims start to claim that the house is pretty much already theirs, not realizing that the house they’re really in is a house of cards.
One thing leads to another: the previous housekeeper and her husband have discovered their secret, and their entire con can be exposed. As Ki-Tek, Ki-Jung, and Ki-Woo trek back to the semi-basement upon narrowly escaping the Parks’ unexpected return, Bong Joon-Ho chooses to use a series of shots to show the actual route of their treacherous downhill journey. Their rise was quick and easy; their fall is long and hard. Ki-Woo wonders, “What would Min do in this situation?” and Ki-Jung reminds him that Min would never be in their situation—he would never need lies to make a decent living. As if this wake-up call is not jarring enough, they return to find their home flooding with sewage water. The real deluge has come to remind them of their place.
After grabbing what they can, the Kims lie in a cramped gymnasium alongside hundreds of other flood victims. As Ki-Tek shares some fatalistic advice about plans always going awry, Ki-Woo apologizes—for “everything.” His words carry immense weight: he feels responsible for the mess they’re in, and he probably feels ashamed that he is not the successful son that his parents hoped he would be. As Ki-Woo promises to take care of everything, it is telling that he is hugging the scholar stone, which seemed to magically float up to find him as they tried to salvage items from their flooding home. Ki-Tek treats his son’s “it keeps clinging to me” response as nonsense, but to the viewer, these words seem to indicate that Ki-Woo still believes in the power of the stone—and of coincidence—to solve their problems.
The next morning, at Da-Song’s birthday party, Ki-Woo marvels at the assortment of cool and attractive friends that Yon-Kyo has called together last-minute. As he gazes out at them through the glass window, the gap he thought he closed seems wider than ever. He asks Da-Hye whether he fits in at this setting, and Da-Hye nods vigorously; yet, he knows that even if he can fool Da-Hye, he cannot fool himself. With the scholar stone in hand, he goes down to the basement.
While the original script depicts Ki-Woo walking all the way to Mun-Kwang with the stone in hand, intending to kill her with it, the events are altered slightly for the film. When he nears the bunker, the stone rolls out of his hand, loudly revealing his presence and directly disproving his belief that the stone is “clinging” to him. He seems to have a change of heart: rather than pick up the stone, he walks up to Mun-Kwang’s fallen figure with empty hands and asks if she is okay. Nonetheless, a vengeful Kun-Sae (Mun-Kwang’s husband) places a noose around his neck, and in the ensuing struggle, knocks Ki-Woo out by smashing his head with the scholar stone—twice. What goes around comes around, and the stone that he believed would “take care of everything” has now rendered him unable to do anything.
When Ki-Woo wakes up from his coma, his sister is dead and his father is missing. They are sentenced to a probation for their crimes, and a little while later, we see a detective tailing Ki-Woo as he puts up Pizza Generation posters around his neighborhood. When the trail goes cold and the detectives finally give up, Ki-Woo confirms his suspicions that Ki-Tek is hiding in the secret bunker after seeing the house’s “motion sensor” lights flash in Morse Code. It is a letter from his father. In response, Ki-Woo tells his father that he has a new, long-term plan: he will make a lot of money and buy the mansion, allowing his father to reunite with his remaining family. In the midst of this sequence, we even see Ki-Woo putting down the scholar stone in a stream, where it fades out of significance and seems to fit right in with all of the other rocks. It seems that Ki-Woo has symbolically moved on from his reliance on external forces. Once his plan is carried out, Ki-Woo says, all his father needs to do is walk up the stairs.
But we know better than that. Walking up the stairs in this film is more than just a physical feat—it represents a true ascension into a higher social strata, which is anything but easy. In the film’s last shot, the idyllic image of Ki-Tek reuniting with his wife and son in radiant sunlight fades to imagination, and the camera tilts downward into the semi-basement to look directly at Ki-Woo as he finishes his monologue. He has no way of telling his father these intentions, and we all know he will never make enough money to buy that house. Bong Joon-Ho has stated that he added this last shot as a “sure-fire kill”—like a hitman shooting the target one last time in the head to make sure he’s really dead. In this case, the murdered target is “hope.”
Within the complex dynamics of Parasite, Ki-Woo’s attempted emulation of a more successful friend forms the backbone of its rise-and-fall narrative. It is a story that demonstrates the extraordinary lengths to which a young man will go to live up to his family’s aspirations. These efforts prove futile. As Ki-Tek says, they live in a society where a job posting for a security guard can attract hundreds of desperate college graduates. Somewhere in the mixture of cut-throat capitalism, comparative pressure, and filial duty lies the true parasite for Ki-Woo. His story ends as the final shot fades, but the same influences in his life will persist in the lives of others. Everywhere, there are young men like him struggling so that, one day, their parents can simply walk up the stairs.