Parasite (2019) explained: the poverty trap

An open red door in a shadowy wall.

A down-on-their-luck family take a gamble on fraud in 2019 film Parasite. But rather than lifting them out of poverty, it becomes a nightmarish ride to the bottom.

The Kim family is barely surviving. They share a tiny basement apartment and work for peanuts: life is hard. Then a family friend suggests eldest son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) takes his place as English tutor for the wealthy Park family.

The job involves a simple deception – convincing the Parks that Ki-woo is a college student. But what begins as a white lie snowballs into an elaborate and increasingly dangerous pretence.

Stairs and social inequality

There’s a huge gulf between being poor and being rich. When you’re poor, it’s hard to cross over to the other side. When you’re rich, there are barriers you can put in place to protect yourself from poor people.

These hierarchies are everywhere in Parasite. The Kim’s apartment is below ground level, with a window that looks up at the street. The rest of the world looks down on the Kim family – drunk people even urinate on them.

The rest of the world looks down on the Kim family

The family’s aspiration is a universal one: moving up in life. At the start of the film, they’re at the bottom of society, and literally at the bottom of their town. Infiltrating the Parks’ home is one way to climb the social ladder.

This is most apparent when things go wrong after a run-in with the Parks’ dodgy housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung Eun).

Leaving their mother behind to carry on the deception, the others flee to their original apartment. The journey back involves tumbling and slipping down countless stairways – as though the Park home is up in the heavens, and they’re running back to hell.

When they get there, a flood has destroyed their home and all their belongings. As if to hammer home how much trouble they’re now in, sewage spurts back up and into the apartment: they’re literally in the shit.

Of course, being so poor is its own punishment: having so little to lose means they’re also most likely to lose everything. The flood hammers it home, but in fact the Kims are financially drowning long before this.

The basement as metaphor

Throughout the film, Ki-woo declares several things to be a metaphor (most strikingly, the ornamental boulder that later becomes a weapon). The mother of all metaphors, however, is the basement. It represents secrets, hidden selves, and the way societies often expect the poorest to live “underground” (i.e., out of sight).

The Kim family already live in a basement apartment but, through deception, they temporarily get to enjoy life at the same level as the Parks.

They think the Park house is their lucky break, but events quickly pull them back … into a basement. The secret door they discover is no doorway to Narnia. It’s another kind of jail – one that’s impossible to leave. The metaphor reflects social invisibility, the same way Joker and Candyman do.

This invisibility traps the Kims in poverty, without sympathy or respect from others. But because they’re poor, they’re un-seen in other ways, too. For instance, when they’re hiding just feet away from Mr and Mrs Park.

The Parks don’t even notice Chung-sook’s home-within-their-home either, because they can’t ‘see’ poverty, and have excused themselves from their moral and social duty.

Early in the film, Mrs Park is said to be gullible. In fact, the Parks are so wrapped up in the fantasy of being wealthy, successful people that they can’t imagine anything else.

As for father Ki-taek, there’s just no escape from basement life and mentality. He ends the film in a strikingly similar location to the opening scenes – though of course now things are far worse.

The second film hiding in Parasite

Ki-jung has Photoshop skills, Ki-taek is an experienced driver, Ki-woo is a decent English tutor. They each have abilities, yet the social hierarchy locks them out of success. Experience doesn’t count for much without official paperwork, or the connections that Mrs Park is so mindful of.

The Kims get around this with fraud – by crafting a whole performance. This becomes a ‘film within the film’ (like Hamlet’s play with a play). They each build a role for themselves with detailed backstory. They have costumes. And they rehearse the scenes, with Ki-woo ‘directing’ the other players.

The Parks, meanwhile, are an audience. They believe what they see, and only want the performance, whatever the cost to the players.

The problem with pretence is that most of us can’t keep it up forever: reality finds a way to disrupt the artifice.

The Kims find themselves in the lap of luxury, yet quickly revert to their lazy, messy selves. They think they can hide behind the performance … but the Parks can still smell them.

Similarly, the lie Moon-gwang tucks away in the basement – her husband – inevitably breaks free and comes bursting into the sunlight (see also What Lies Beneath).

Who’s the real parasite?

Parasite: A person who lives at the expense of another, or of society in general.


Whether it’s stairs, basements, or the contrast of the two homes – one squalid, one luxurious – the film continually returns to visuals of social hierarchy.

Everyone has a place in life – but it’s not always of our choosing. And much as we celebrate the self-improvement or self-made myth, climbing out of poverty gets easier (or at least fairer) when we acknowledge the barriers.

It’s hard to commend those who live at others’ expense – but it’s hard to condemn them when the odds are stacked against them.

Meanwhile the very richest members of society gain their privilege in part by exploiting the labour (and sometimes dignity) of those below them.

In the end, it’s a dog-eat-dog world – but sometimes, the underdog bites back.

Parasite (2019), directed by Boon Jong Ho

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Picture credit: Kei Scampa