One of the dictionary meanings of the word “parasite” is “a person who receives support, advantage, or the like, from another or others without giving any useful or proper return, as one who lives on the hospitality of others.” The difference between this dictionary meaning of the word and the way it is expressed in Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ lies in that the entire Kim family living off the very affluent Park family is doing so largely without the knowledge of the Parks. The film has surprised everyone by winning three Oscars at the 2020 Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Foreign Film.

Bong Joon-ho creates a microcosm of the world we live in and narrows it down to the spacious home of the Park family which knows only some of the members of the Kim Family who Mrs Park has employed but neither she nor her husband have the slightest clue about the fact that they belong to the same family and are actually living in the basement of the Parks’ house.

Ki-woo, the good-for-nothing son of this four-member family, gets the job of English tutor to the Park’s teenage daughter Da-hye which he gets through a forged certificate managed by his kid sister Ki-jeong. Chung-sook, their mother, manages to squeeze herself in as the housekeeper after seeing that the earlier housekeeper is kicked out while the Kims get rid of the driver and the father, Ki-taek replaces him.

Ki-taek and Mr. Park have an easy-going rapport though the latter is quite conscious of the tremendous class difference between them. So, he always occupies the backseat of the car and avoids sitting next to his driver. He also tells his wife that the driver never “crosses the line” though he sometimes thinks he will. This underscores how aware Mr. Park is about the sharp class difference between him and his driver.

The Kims lived in a basement in a squalid and dirty neighbourhood before they moved in to live in the Park house. Here too, they continue to live in the basement where a broken-down remnant of an old toilet in which the commode is used by the brother-sister duo as a place to relax, discuss, gossip and argue. The basement is both a metaphor and a reality. It has a physical existence where the Kim family repair to and live, under a flight of unending stairs that later reveal another shocking secret.

The basement and the staircase are also metaphors that keep reminding the Kims and the audience that this is where they belong and this is where they will live and die.

The production design and the camera beautifully set up the shocking ambience of the haves and the have-nots when they apparently occupy two different spaces in the same apartment but actually do not and will never cross from the one to the other. This is a fact of life Bong Joon-Ho effectively harps on again and again. But the Kim family seem quite happy leading a clandestine double-life as parasites and are not apologetic about it at all, nor are they considering opting out.

The basement and the narrow staircase and the heavy furniture that hides another basement and staircase hold a mirror to the larger world beyond this spacious home that imports American toys and even an African wigwam for their the spoilt-brat of a son. Both the kids are spoilt brats and the girl does not seem to have any aim in life except trying to sneak in her ‘boyfriend’ at a family party.

The fun lies in that the Park family does not once doubt the double-game played by the Kim family who freely binge on expensive whiskies when the family is away on a week-end but manage to skim over with their ever-busy and devious brains.

The script is so schizophrenic that post-interval when the mood begins to change with a jet-paced chemistry, the return of the old housekeeper who says she has “forgotten” something behind and has come to take it back, it looks as though you are watching two different films with the same characters. The script and action pick up speed as one discovery tumbles on another in increasing degrees of shock and slowly but surely, you are sucked into the escalation of violence – of the poor by the poor, of the poor by the rich and of the rich by the poor. All that remained off screen till the interval, such as sex and violence, begin to surface, grow and culminate in graphically cinematographed violence.

Two more metaphors used in the film truly reflect the ideology of the film that constantly and intentionally keeps vacillating between questions of what is moral and what is not, between hope and hopelessness and between jealousy and pity. One is the strong presence of “smell” which runs right through the film from the beginning when the basement room of the Kims smells of bugs and dead insects, through Mr. Park and his little son’s observations on the “smell” they can get from Ki-taek and the others that defines “smell” as a class factor that distinguishes the upper class from the poor who cannot kill the original smell even when they use perfumes stolen from the Parks or suggest changing the cake of soap they are using!

The second metaphor is expressed through the rock Ki-woo, the son, discovers one day. The rock resembles a model of a real mountain and Ki-woo keeps clinging to it for life with the hope that he will one day climb the real mountain he believes this one is a replica of and also holds it close as his good luck charm. The same rock has also had its uses in violent action that perhaps suggests that the same object that is a token for hope and happiness can, circumstances demanding, turn into a weapon of violence.

The acting honours may be distributed equally among all the actors with special reference to Mrs. Parks who is innocent, naïve and vulnerable and the actor who plays the role of the former housekeeper’s helpless husband. The music is kept on a low-key because the director allowed the sound design – bizarre, scary, suspenseful, thrilling to dominate the film rather than allow music to swallow up the scenario.

When the massive deluge happens towards the end as the party the Parks have thrown turns into a gruesomely depicted scene of violence, it is the Kim family that is forced to struggle through the waste water coming out of the drains suggesting perhaps, that there is really no escape for them out of the dregs of life never mind the times and the ways they discover to escape. We do not see Mrs. Park any more in the film after the party-killing is over and Ki-taek has also disappeared from the scene. But he is present in the story through his son and his wife who have managed to survive and the director uses a bit of beautiful surrealism to depict a closure filled with the hope of harmony.

The most beautiful feature of Parasite is that it opens up to completely different readings by different people. While some may read it as a scathing critique on capitalism expressed through intelligent satire and black humour, some may see it just as a depiction of the terrible lives and philosophies of people who are as desperate, as poor, as jobless and as lacking in morals as the Kims are. Still others may interpret within it, the lack of values of the poor as against the values the rich can afford to hold on to. Brilliant.

There is an on-going debate on whether Parasite really deserved the three academy awards. There is no answer because we have no clue about the guiding principles and guidelines on which the films are chosen.