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David, David, David…we aren’t poor. We’re just broke.” – Dave Chappelle from Sticks and Stones

I’m thinking, what’s keeping me from killing this guy and takin’ his shit?” – Todd Snider from In the Beginning

As Joon-ho Bong’s much buzzed about film Parasite opens, we meet the family of Kim Ki-taek (Bong’s frequent star and “everyman” actor, the fantastic Kang-ho Song) who live in squalor in a subbasement space with one window peering out onto an alley. That view gets frequent activity as local drunks piss in the street in full view of the family. With their phones turned off from lack of payment, his children, daughter Kim Ki-jung (So-dam Park) and her brother Kim Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) climb onto counters and hold their cell phones up to odd corners of the room to try and land a free Wi-Fi signal as their mother, Kim Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) folds together pizza boxes which appears to be the only source of income. While there’s an easiness and camaraderie found in the home, there’s no doubt that these people are barely scraping by financially. But, at least they have each other.

In evenings and on weekends, I drive for Amazon Flex. If you’re not familiar with this form of “gig economy,” allow me to explain; I drive my 2005 Honda Element that has 239,000+ miles on it 45 minutes away to Richmond, California where I use my personal cell phone to scan in items from Amazon to deliver “locally.” Locally is in quotes because I could be delivering in Berkeley or Oakland which is nearby or even farther away in towns and cities I’ve never even heard of. On this particular day, I’m delivering in Tiburon which is a wealthy area in Marin County, just North of the Golden Gate Bridge. Tiburon in Spanish means “shark.” On this very same day, I’m thinking of Parasite as well as the financial burden myself and many people in America carry. I pull into a huge warehouse, scan in 59 items of various sizes and addresses into the app on my phone and I set off in my battered car, hoping the check engine light that’s been on for a few weeks is just joking around. It does come and go.

Kim Ki-woo is the family member who could’ve been a contender. He’s boyishly handsome, intelligent and well spoken. After a representative from the pizza place the family folds boxes and delivers fliers for threatens to withhold payment due to some poorly folded boxes, Kim Ki-woo smooth talks her out of it and also plants a seed to get some other employees fired thus creating more opportunity for him and his family. Ki-woo is well liked and after his friend, a well-off college student who’s taking a semester abroad, takes him out for drinks, Ki-woo comes away agreeing to take over the lucrative position of tutor for a high school aged daughter of an extremely wealthy family.

My Honda Element eases out of the warehouse and the cheap orange safety vest I have to wear is itching my neck. Amazon Flex does a pretty solid job of putting together a simple delivery route once all the packages are scanned and my mind wanders to what would happen should my car break down while loaded full of other peoples stuff. Yet, soon I’m crossing the Richmond Bridge (after paying a $5 toll) on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon. This job helps me to make ends meet and this particular block of time will get me $90 not counting gas, bridge toll and wear and tear on my car. It comes out to around $15 an hour if I don’t get lost or have any issues with the app. I always get lost and the Flex app is a “work in progress.”

My cracked windshield looks at the SF Bay, a still from “Parasite,” a Tiburon house with the Bay for it’s backyard

Per instructions, Ki-woo has a created phony backstory about his credentials as an outstanding college student. His Sister Kim Ki-jung is a clever artist and she’s quickly forges some official looking college documents that will assure Ki-woo gets in the door of the wealthy family of Park Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee). The family lives in a gorgeous modern home designed by a famous architect who also lived there. Somewhat mirroring Ki-taek’s family, this is a foursome with wife, son and daughter who are all allowed their own time to do as they wish through Park Dong-ik’s successes. Whereas Ki-taek’s family is always crammed together in the same room and the same cinematic frame, Dong-ik’s family merely occupy much larger spaces and frames. The wealthy family employs a driver and a housekeeper and soon Ki-woo smooth talks his way into the tutoring gig that frankly, anyone could do but the wealth and affectations of the Park family require a passing of wealthy society tests.

Tiburon is a simply gorgeous area but much of it is nestled into low mountain roads that overlook the San Francisco Bay. The houses there are packed in and most roads are hilly and extremely winding, sometimes dropping down into one lane which means someone coming or going may have to brake and pull over to allow passing. While lovely and scenic, these kind of roads just beat on one’s vehicle. I round a curve that seems to be pointing at a 90-degree angle uphill and nearly pass an address at which I drop off one tiny soft-packed Amazon envelope. Previously, much of the Amazon Flex deliveries I was doing were for Whole Foods or Amazon Fresh and these would have the availability for customers to tip me. For some reason over the past few months, those distribution centers have been used much less and now I just get paid for a block of time no matter where it is and how crazy the terrain is. I never know where I’ll be delivering until I get to the warehouse, they don’t tell you your route ahead of time.

Ki-woo’s intelligence and charisma endear him to Park Yeon-kyo, the matriarch of the household and soon he’s crafted another innocuous lie about a woman he knows who would be an excellent tutor for her son, an artistic but precocious boy who it’s alluded to has had some kind of psychological trauma. The tutor is his sister, Kim Ki-jung and soon she too has successfully pulled the wool over Yeon-kyo’s eyes with some Internet cribbed lines about art therapy and psychoanalysis, her “specialty.” Again, these are flat our lies but harmless ones, meant to help two bright young people earn money.

I also deliver locally for Shipt and Instacart which is pretty cool. It’s an app I can check where people  can order groceries and goods from places like Target, Smart and Final and Safeway. It’s the day after my drive through Tiburon (128 miles, including driving to the warehouse) and I see an order from Safeway for over 65 items that will pay me $48, not including tips. I accept the block and roll over to Safeway.

Ki-woo and Ki-jung are acting as if they don’t know one another at work and each starts to wiggle their way into the family. The family driver is enlisted to give Ki-jung a ride home on a rainy night and, as the most devilish of the family, she concocts a sneaky plan that will get the driver fired and replaced by, who other than her father. While the move Ki-jung makes is indeed creepy and fairly mean, it’s important to note that it’s done to help her family and done on the back of another poor, working class person who is now out of a job. The films name is a play on how parasites will attack a host in order to survive and is just one of Joon-ho Bong’s brilliant, satiric touches that echo throughout the film as parasites will also attack one another.

As I get to Safeway I begin to shop for strangers who honestly seemed to have written their shopping list from an Internet article listing “worst foods you can buy for you and your family.” I drop 2 cans of Spam (it’s turkey Spam, but still) into the cart and am soon trying to grab the families selected Lunchables for the week (there’s 9-10 different ones). Turkey bologna, Gatorade, Kraft singles, sugar soaked kids yogurt, and bread rich in high-fructose corn syrup join the cart as well as two single serve ice creams which have zero chance of making it home intact even though the note they provided asks that I “add them last” so as they don’t melt. I do as requested and use my Shipt card to pay nearly $500.00 for a cart full of crap. The next week I’m paid $34.00 to deliver a bag of M&M’s and a bag of Halloween candy to a wealthy family in a wealthy neighborhood 15 miles from their nearest Target. No tip from either family, by the way.

My pal, “retired” film critic James Rocchi used to live near me and had a great line as to why he moved where he said (and, I’m paraphrasing here) “in San Francisco you either own the restaurant or are a waiter at the restaurant.” It was true nearly 2 decades ago and more true now. But it seems to be true everywhere which is why film – particularly foreign film – can help us see and grasp the world around us a little better and maybe see some breadcrumbs that can stick together and perhaps bind us.

Parasite is a brilliant film and one of the best films of the year, and not just best foreign films. It’s heartfelt and funny. Mean spirited and sad. It’s about poor, struggling people trying to survive life day to day while attending to the trivialities of the wealthy. It’s about them feeding off each other just to survive. But there’s still a sense of hope running through the film until, there isn’t. Some of my favorite parts are when Dong-ik and his family start to notice a bad smell permeating their clean existence. At first, poor Ki-taek and his family think it’s the laundry soap they use, but it soon becomes clear it’s not just that. It’s the raised chin, pinched nose and downturned thumb of the wealthy catching a whiff of desperation emanating off the poor that, ironically, is a smell they themselves have helped to create.

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– Don R. Lewis (@ThatDonLewis)

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Don R. Lewis is a filmmaker and writer from Northern California. He was a film critic for Film Threat before becoming Editor-in-Chief of Hammer to Nail in 2014. He holds a BA in screenwriting from California State Northridge and is an MA candidate in Cinema Studies at San Francisco State.

  • Sandy Handsher

    Don, I love the way you weave the personl into the plot of the film and get your point across without revealing too much of the movie. So much more makes the film a masterpiece. The cinematography focuses on angles– the looking up out the window of the subterranean apartment at the drunk pissers, the way the housekeeper looks like an insect (parasite) as she uses her whole body, back on one side / hands and feet on the other side of the pocket door to open it. The rich people are parasites too. The husband doesn’t love but needs. The wife is naive, empty headed and supported. You get your point across about the proximity of the class structure in the film and that in the Bay Area. Great review. Sandy

    December 4, 2019
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