Major spoilers ahead for Parasite.
Bong Joon-ho’s masterful film Parasite is a wicked and brutal satire about wealth disparity. The film’s setup has a poor family, the Kims, infiltrating the lives of a wealthy family, the Parks, by becoming their new employees. Kim Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) is legitimately a tutor for the Parks’ daughter Da-hye (Jung Ziso), but he uses his standing to then usher in his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park), who poses as an art tutor for the Parks’ young son, Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung). The Kim kids then frame the Parks’ driver for being a creep, which allows them to bring in their own father, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Sang), for the job. Finally, the family gets rid of the Parks’ housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee), by making her seem sickly due to a peach allergy, which paves the way for the Kims’ mother, Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), to get the gig. The Parks don’t learn that the Kims are related, and everything seems to be going fine until they learn that Moon-gwang has been hiding her husband, Geun-se (Myeong-hoon Park), in the Parks’ basement.
This all leads to a twisted resolution where Geun-se escapes the basement, gives a head injury to Ki-woo and kills Ki-jung, and is killed by Ki-taek, who also kills the Park family’s patriarch Park Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee) after he recoils at Geun-se’s “poor man’s smell.” Ki-taek then flees the scene. No one knows where Ki-taek went, but Ki-woo discovers that a light in the Parks’ house, where they have since moved out and another family has moved in, is flickering in Morse code. He deciphers the code and discovers that Ki-taek is alive and now living in the basement. We then see a sequence where Ki-woo plans to make enough money to buy the house and free his father. However, the scenes of Ki-woo buying the house follow are just in Ki-woo’s head. We’re brought back into reality by the closing shots of the film, not of Ki-woo in the house freeing his father as part of a victorious montage. The movie ends with Ki-woo back in his own basement, just as imprisoned as his father but by economic circumstances rather than legal ones.
But that’s what makes the ending such a gut-punch: it’s about a fantasy. We know that Ki-woo will never earn enough money to buy the house because Parasite shows that economic mobility is dead. The Kims aren’t a “lazy” family who are simply avoiding hard work. They may be conniving and duplicitous, but they don’t expect others to do their jobs for them, which is more than can be said for the Parks. The Kims’ station in life is set, and it’s only through duplicity that they can even come close to the wealth that the Parks possess. For their part, the movie asks if the Parks—wealthy idiots who are dependent on a lower class—aren’t the real “parasites”, who give nothing back and don’t really care about anyone other than themselves. When the slums get flooded and people who have lost what little they had are sleeping in a gym, the Parks are more concerned with a Cowboys-and-Indians-themed birthday party for Da-song.
The bleakness of the ending is that the only way to free Ki-taek is impossible. Granted, he could just turn himself in, but then he’d just be in another prison or he’d get the death penalty, so he may as well stay in the basement. The prison of wealth is what entraps the Kims in the first place. Yes, they are “parasites” in a sense since they feed off the wealthy Park family, but the lavishness of the Parks’ wealth was never going to come to the Kims. The idea of wealth becomes both a fantasy and a prison for the Kim family, something they’ll chase but never achieve. They’re stuck where they are—Ki-taek in a basement and Ki-woo only able to look at the house from a distance.
These days, there’s a lot of talk about “income inequality”, which is an oddly hopeful phrase because it implies that we can just rebalance the scales somehow through economic programs and government intervention. Parasite is far more pessimistic, arguing that economic immobility is the new normal, and that those who are born poor will die poor and those who are rich will die rich. The fantasy of upward economic mobility is Ki-woo’s fantasy. If it was as simple as just getting rich and buying that house, why would he have been living in a slum in the first place? It’s a nice thought that he could become rich and buy the house to free his father and they’d all live happily ever after, but that’s never going to happen. We’re all trapped where we are.