The Ending of 'Parasite' Is a Sobering Revelation of Class Inequality
This article contains major spoilers for the end of Parasite.
It's not until halfway through Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho's Parasite that it reveals what kind of movie it actually is. As soon as the Kim family, who have deftly insinuated themselves into the everyday lives of the filthy-rich Parks, discover that, one, the Parks' mansion has a labyrinthine bunker underneath it and, two, someone has been hiding in it, everything goes haywire very quickly.
To recap: After the Kims discover that the Parks' ousted housekeeper has been keeping her husband, Geun-sae, in the secret bunker for years to hide from debt collectors, the Kims narrowly escape being outed when the Parks come back early during a rainy night. The Kims head back home only to find that their dingy sub-basement apartment in a poor slum neighborhood on the not-so-fancy end of town has completely flooded. When the Parks invite them back for an impromptu garden party the next day, Geun-sae, driven mad from years of isolation and watching his wife die after she was kicked down the bunker stairs, attacks the Kims, bashing their son's head in with a rock totem outside the bunker door and fatally stabbing their daughter in the middle of the party. Mr. Park commands Mr. Kim to drive his family to the hospital, but when he recoils from Geun-sae's "poor smell," Mr. Kim furiously stabs him to death before running away. At the end, it's revealed that he slipped back into the house and into the basement bunker during the chaos, and has been hiding there from the police ever since while his wife and son face criminal charges for fraud (for which they serve no jail time).
When his son, Ki-woo, realizes that it's his father down there, trying to communicate to him nightly by tapping out a letter in Morse code using the same stairway lights that Geun-sae used to "communicate" with Mr. Park, he makes a plan: He'll finally go to school, he'll get rich himself, and in a few years' time he'll buy the house when it goes up for sale, moving himself and his mother into its cavernous halls. As the final montage plays out, we see him, sporting a tailored suit and chic new haircut, walk into the Park mansion's giant living room, past the kitchen, gazing out the window at his mother in the backyard. His father, finally freed from sneaking around inside another person's home in order to survive, steps up out of the basement and walks towards his family.
And then, we cut back to Ki-woo, at home in the Kim family's sub-basement in the poor sector of town, revealing that the entire montage had been a fantasy in the letter that Ki-woo had been writing in response to his father's, knowing that he'll never be able to read it. It's a wonderful, achingly sad moment that brings the whole film back to where it began, and settles it in the unfairness of the real world.
I interviewed director Bong Joon Ho about Parasite, and when we discussed the ending, I asked if that little twist of the knife had always been in the script, or if he'd ever considered allowing the Kim family a happier ending.
"The ending, particularly for the young son, does feel cruel," Bong said. "It's quite sad, because he announces that he will purchase this house, but in reality he's still in that basement home on a snowy night. But I did think that it was necessary to be honest: If I just end this film on an optimistic note, if I'm too easy about it, then I thought that would actually even make the audience even angrier."
When I compared the ending to the sobering finale of Bong's previous film Okja -- in which young Mija rescues her enormous super-pig friend and a tiny piglet from the slaughterhouse, well aware that all the other pigs will die -- Bong said, "Of course. The girl and super-pig finally returned home safely, but they already experienced the horrible things in the system. In some way, maybe something remains. They are back home but something is different. It's not as if she's making a sad face. But you know that she will never be the same."
Bong's movies, especially his latest few, including Parasite, Okja, and his post-apocalyptic bullet-train adventure Snowpiercer, examine the intricacies and inequalities of class through a very damning lens. The end of Parasite, teasing the audience with a neat, happy, literally sunshine and rainbows conclusion to a tale that previously got darker and darker with every scene, is a masterful emotional manipulation (in a good way). Maybe you can beat the system, but living in a fantasy is so much easier.