Spoilers ahead. If you have not seen Parasite — go watch the film first!

As we entered the 2020 awards season, Bong Joon-Ho’s 2019 international dark comedy Parasite took the world by storm. To the director’s own surprise, Parasite snagged not just the Oscars’ Best Picture award but three awards in addition to that — Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film. A quick Google search for “Parasite awards” will show that the film won 180 accolades out of 299 nominations. Bong’s storytelling is hauntingly sensational, but what makes that so?

Parasite paints a landscape art-piece that depicts social class warfare and how the lives of all people are intricately woven into one another. If we paid attention in our high school or college biology courses, then the film’s title should already give us an inkling into what the film is about. As a college student, I took a course on parasitology and in that class we were shown how complex and varied the lives of parasites are. These organisms live and thrive off of another host organism and invariably cause harm to said host. Parasitism is not a choice the organism decides to make but is an adaptation it must continue in, in order to survive.

Parasite follows the impoverished Kim family who live in a banjiha (semi-basement) and work jobs that hardly pay. Ki-woo, the son, stumbles on an opportunity to tutor the daughter of the wealthy Park family, Da-hye. Seeing that it pays well, Ki-woo takes the job. As he begins tutoring Da-hye at the Park’s lush house upon a hill, Ki-woo discovers further opportunities to implant his family members as employees for the Parks.

Much like a heist movie, the film starts to feel fun. The audience witnesses the witty Kim family figure out ways to force other employees out of the Park family home by framing them and having them fired. Eventually the entire Kim family is fully integrated into, and living off of, the Park family’s payroll. Everything seems fine up to this point.

But as the story unfolds, the audience learns that Moon-gwang, who was the former and fired housekeeper, has been hiding her husband in a secret underground bunker that had been built into the property’s basement. Moon-gwang explains that her husband, Geun-sae, has been living down there as a means to escape loan sharks. Quickly, a series of altercations emerge and expose the Kim family as the frauds that they truly are.

Brilliantly, Bong has brought his audience to believe that the Kims have been parasites living off of the blood of the Parks. What we learn instead is that the relationship between the two families was more symbiotic than it was parasitic—it was transactional. The true parasitic relationship is revealed to be with Moon-gwang and her husband, who bleed and suffer at the hands of the Kim family. The suffering continues after a feud breaks out and ends with Chung-sook (the Kim family mother) kicking Moon-gwang down the bunker steps, leaving her with a fatal concussion. Her husband, tied up to pipes, is forced to watch his wife slowly die from her injuries. The Kim family receives another call to the house and is told that, due to a severe rainstorm, the Park family is now heading back home early. They rush to clean up the mess they have made.

The parasitic river always runs downhill, and in this film, the audience experiences this not only in the action that occurs but also the imagery that Bong utilizes. Behind a large wall of glass and from the warmth of their living room, the Park family enjoys the rain falling onto their large lawn. While the Parks rest, the Kim family sneaks out of the house, back down to their banjiha. After running through the storm, they arrive only to find their entire apartment flooded by the same rainfall that the Parks were enjoying up the hill. The Kims retire for the night at a relief center for everyone who has been displaced by the flooding.

What happens the next day could be likened to the work of the beloved Flannery O’Connor. Known for her shocking and grotesque stories, O’Connor uses violence as the agent of grace by which her characters’ and the audience’s eyes are finally opened. “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear,” O’Connor once said. Elsewhere, she is quoted saying, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”

In one of her more popular short stories, Greenleaf, O’Connor tells of a southern farm owner who is gored to death by a bull. O’Connor describes her character’s death this way: “She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.” Her sight has been restored.

The day following the rainstorm, the Parks decide to throw a birthday party for their son, Da-song. Friends and family of the Parks all show up to enjoy the festivities. The Kims are also in attendance; however, the flood from the prior night left them exhausted and defeated. Facing the reality of their situation, they carry a burden of dejection and move around the party slowly.

Ki-woo heads down to the basement where he is bludgeoned by a vengeful Geun-sae. He leaves Ki-woo bleeding on the ground and, as he walks out to the lawn where the party is happening, he reaches for a knife. He finds Ki-jeong (Ki-woo’s sister) and stabs her, sending the entire party into a panicked frenzy. The snowballing effect continues, killing off several central characters in a series of stabbings back-and-forth. The scene is pure chaos and madness.

Bong Joon-Ho employs the O’Connor-esque device of shocking the characters and audience with a grotesque and violent ending. We are left speechless.

The film ends with Ki-woo somehow surviving the bludgeoning. Since the incident at the party, the house was sold to a German family. Ki-woo learns that his father, wanted for murder, is alive, living down in the same bunker. Every night, the father flickers messages in Morse code with the light switches in the basement. Ki-woo writes and deciphers the message.

We are now transported to an alternate vision, a potential future, where Ki-woo has acquired a well-paying job that allows him to purchase the Park property. After moving in with his mother, we see Mr. Park emerging from the basement and embrace his son. The film cuts back to the banjiha where Ki-woo is just writing his father a letter vowing to earn enough money to purchase the home one day. The film ends and credits roll.

While O’Connor’s stories often end shortly after the acts of violence and death, Bong Joon-Ho opted to tell us a little more. His concluding vision moves us to long for a better day. The violence shatters the false lens that both the Parks and the Kims were looking through. Death was the mechanism by which their eyes were opened to the reality of the world. Bong does not tell us what happens to the surviving members of the Park family, though we might assume they are at the very least still well-off financially. It is doubtful, however, that they will be living the same unencumbered lives they had been earlier in the film. They may not like it, but they now have an image of the impoverished community burned into their memories. The Kim family similarly saw how their momentary rise to prosperity came at the cost of another family.

In a 2014 Mockingbird piece, Will McDavid wrote that “O’Connor’s work was…meant to be universal through its regionalism. We’re meant to identify our foibles with those of the racists and snobs and hopelessly turned-inward denizens of her South.” Like with O’Connor, Bong Joon-Ho’s regionalism isn’t meant to be removed from its “violent grace.” We also are meant to identify our own weaknesses and blindness with those of the rich, powerful, and privileged.

What Parasite demonstrates is that the first step in any meaningful change is a violent death—metaphorical, spiritual, or otherwise. The only way up is down. We are the parasites for which death is the only way out. Fortunately, the water that drowns us is the very same water that resurrects us. In Matthew’s Gospel, we learn that in order for us to be rich, Christ became poor to the point of death. He played by our own rules and systems. The violence of Christ’s death on a cross is the grace that finally kills us, and the mystery of his resurrection brings us new life.