It happens halfway through the movie, past the point of no return. After a night of stolen luxury, a working class family of grifters, the Kims, discover their cramped abode is flooded with rain and sewage water. They are truly up to their necks, and the movie doesn’t ease up from there.
This is Parasite, the latest film from South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho. A scathing satire on the divisions between the working class and the rich elite, Bong ditches the high-speed dystopian trains and giant monsters of his previous movies (Snowpiercer, The Host, Okja) to zero in on a story about aspirational wealth that could happen in the real world.
“The world it portrays is very realistic,” Park So-dam tells Inverse (via his English interpreter).
In Parasite, a poor family of schemers, the Kims, sneak themselves into the lives of the affluent Parks. Posing as English tutors, housekeepers, and drivers, the Kims briefly coast on the Parks’ luxury, until a shocking discovery in the basement threatens to unravel their scheme. Park, along with Choi Woo-shik, stars in the movie as one of the two Kim siblings.
Beyond its obvious class tensions, Park also sees Parasite as a story about the unpredictable nature of life.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next five years,” she says, “and I truly believe everyone’s life has a sense of unknown coming your way. Bong was able to use the basic formula of two four-person families to portray the entire society we are in.”
Most of the film is radiated by beautiful sunshine — the grass really looks greener when it glows in daylight — but at its midpoint, Parasite gets drenched in a storm. Pipes break and sewers overflow into the streets, and right into the Kims’ semi-basement apartment.
“There were tons and tons of water,” says Park. “The team was pouring out to create the rain. The weather wasn’t cold, but because that scene took hours, we stayed wet throughout the day. I remember that being not ideal.”
Says celebrated actor Song Kang-ho, who plays Mr. Kim: “I wanted the segment to end as soon as possible.”
“They created that water using the same material for clay that goes into face masks. So it was actually free self-care.” — Park So-dam
The poop-filled water wasn’t actually dirty, of course. “They created that water using the same material for clay that goes into face masks,” Park says. “So it was actually free self-care. But there was a scene I had to be covered in shit water. Though I knew what the materials were, I had to flinch. It did not look clean.”
There’s a lot of flinching in Parasite, and not just because of a flood of crap. An unrelenting story of deceit and the agony of wounds sustained in class warfare, Parasite is a stunning masterwork that transcends language. Next to climate change, wealth inequality is one of the most universally understood issues of the age, plaguing everyone from Seoul to South Dakota.
Song Kang-ho grasps Bong’s themes on wealth inequality, but he argues the film is also more than that.
“On its surface, the most common interpretation of this film is primarily about socioeconomic inequality. But I felt like this movie is about the underlying conflicts, the struggles that are commonplace in society,” Song says. “It feels like a concentrated version of all of [Bong’s] musings and struggles. To just say this film is about socioeconomic inequality, I feel is diminishing the importance and complexity of the film.”
Amidst a decorated filmography that’s made him an icon in his native South Korea, Song Kang-ho has starred in several of Bong’s films: Memories of a Murder (2003), The Host (2006), Snowpiercer (2013), and now Parasite. In most of those films, Song plays some kind of under-accomplished father figure.
“I don’t view these characters as focusing on the fatherhood aspect, but certainly a failing figure,” Song says. “Yes, the characters are fathers, but the focus is more on the failure. But [their] failure is not as an individual, but a victim of the greater system. Bong likes to shed light on the unfair, paradoxical, systematic discrimination that’s in place.”
On Mr. Park in Parasite, Song feels “this character captures the essence” of Bong’s themes. “The character is at the center of greater social inequality.”
“I did not anticipate this film would initiate such a global discussion.” — Song Kang-ho
Parasite is currently in limited release in the United States, but based on its rave reviews by American critics — it currently boasts a certified 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — it’s is primed to resonate with audiences outside Korea. However, even the actors admit they didn’t think Parasite would strike such a chord with viewers in the west as it already has.
“I did not anticipate this film would initiate such a global discussion,” Song says, “but when we were in the process of filming it, I began to feel like there was this grand theme that could be relatable across borders.”
Adds Park, “When I read the synopsis, there was a lot of points I felt a lot of people would relate to. The only thing I’m looking forward to right now is the movie coming out so I can look up how American audiences feel, different or the same, from audiences in other sides of the world.”
Parasite is potentially one the most captivating, intelligent movies that also features exploding toilets. The film masks a master director’s timely thesis on the urgent doom of the 21st century with dark humor — and poop water.
“When I was shooting the scene with the toilet spitting sewage,” Park remembers, “I didn’t flinch. But when I went back to look at the take, I saw from a different point of view, I flinched more. I felt dirtier looking at that.”
Parasite is in theaters now.