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Parasite, Ending Explained - Stairway to Nowhere

What really happened at the end of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite—and what’s the deeper meaning? Why must things go down that way? In this video, we take on Bong’s “surefire-kill” ending, how the movie tells a story of class divides, and what it says about our world today.

TRANSCRIPT

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite almost seems to end on an optimistic note. The down-on-their-luck Kim family feel like they’ve won the lottery after they score four lucrative service jobs with the rich Park Family, by pretending they’re very loosely associated professionals. But when the fall-out of their plotting leads to tragedy, the father Ki-taek stabs his boss, Mr. Park, and goes into hiding from the police in the secret bunker below The Parks’ own house.

Then we get the faux-happy ending: Protagonist Ki-woo describes his fantasy to become rich enough to buy the house, liberating his father through the elixir of wealth. The accompanying images let us envision this future as if it’s already come to pass. But then we get a final shot of Ki-woo back in his family’s semi-basement apartment—just high enough to see his dream of living in the sunlight and be tortured by this aspiration that’s forever out of reach.

Ki-woo: “On the day we move in, Mom and I will be in the yard. Because the sunshine is so nice there.” - Parasite (2019)

The director called Parasite’s ending the “surefire kill” shot. By this, he means the practice of shooting somebody one final time to be absolutely sure they’re dead. He told Vulture, “Maybe if the movie ended where they hug and fades out, the audience can imagine, ‘Oh, it’s impossible to buy that house,’ but the camera goes down to that half-basement… we all know that this kid isn’t going to be able to buy that house. I just felt that frankness was right for the film, even though it’s sad.” So here’s our Take on what Parasite’s surefire-kill-ending says about our world today.

Ki-woo: “It’s so metaphorical.” - Parasite (2019)

Bong said that Parasite is his “stairway movie”—a genre exemplified by British period pieces like the 1970s show Upstairs, Downstairs and in more recent years, Gosford Park and Downton Abbey. Parasite uses vertical space symbolically to visualize class divides.

This practice follows in the tradition of a number iconic stories—like Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis, where the titans of industry rule the city from atop their high-rises, their kids frolicking around the Eden-like “Eternal Gardens,” while the laboring masses are stuck underneath the city sweating with the machines. 2015’s dystopian High Rise (based on the 1975 JG Ballard novel) features class warfare between the higher-ups and the lower floors, in a building that’s presented as a microcosm of society.

H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine imagines a future where the classes have presumably evolved into two separate species. Most recently, Jordan Peele’s Us warned that the subterranean underclass is coming to exact its revenge. Parasite poignantly captures the insurmountable gulf between these higher and lower worlds.

Mr. Park comments that he likes employees who know not to “cross the line.” Even if he acts friendly, they must always know their place and remember they’re not his equals. Yet this is a rule that only goes one way, and only to benefit The Parks. Their family crosses the line by imposing on The Kims whenever they feel like it. They call when they’re just minutes away and expect their housekeeper (The Kims’ mother Chung-sook) to have a specific dinner ready when they walk in.

According to the director, What they really want… is they [draw] a line over their sophisticated world and they don’t let anyone cross it. They want to push everyone outside of that line and they want to remain safe behind it”. The “trauma” that Ki-jung unearths through her fake art therapy is that Da-sung once saw a “ghost”—who was actually the poor man living in his family’s basement.

Mrs. Park: “They say a ghost in the house brings wealth.” - Parasite (2019)

The deeper meaning here is that elites like The Parks expect the poor to be invisible “ghosts,” and find it upsetting to confront that they exist. But while Da-sung’s trauma is played as a joke, it also gets at how our pathologically unequal society is a genuinely disturbing, impossible-to-justify thing to pass down to future generations.

The deeper implication of this “line” Mr. Park draws is that anyone on the wrong side of that line doesn’t count. This idea features strongly in HBO’s Succession, too. Even at the beginning of Parasite, Ki-woo’s friend only recommends him as his replacement tutor for Da-hye, because he doesn’t see his less-fortunate friend as a threat.

Ki-woo: “Why ask a loser like me?”

Min-hyuk: “Why do you think? Just the thought makes me sick. Those disgusting frat boys slavering over Da-hye?” - Parasite (2019)

Ki-woo then does start a romantic affair with Da-hye, perhaps on some level to prove that he shouldn’t have been so quickly discounted. Deep down, though, he knows that he can never truly pass as one of these above-ground people with their effortless entitlement and confidence that they belong.

Ki-woo: “In this setting, do I fit in? - Parasite (2019)

The Parks observe that The Kims have a certain smell in common. At first, The Kims assume their smell is a giveaway that they’re related, all sharing a household. But Ki-jung correctly pinpoints that the smell isn’t specific to their family—it’s the odor of poverty.

Ki-jung: “It’s the semi-basement smell. We need to leave this home to lose the smell.” - Parasite (2019)

And after a flood engulfs everything they own in sewage water, the idea that they could ever wash themselves clean of this aroma The Parks find so offensive is killed for good. For all The Kims’ striving, that distance between their semi-basement and The Parks’ house is too great to cross. A 2018 OECD study found that since the 1990s, “social mobility has stalled, meaning that fewer people at the bottom have moved up while the richest have largely kept their fortunes.”

The study also found, “it could take at least five generations or 150 years for the child of a poor family to reach the average income.” Lead actor Choi Woo-shik told Vulture, “It would take 564 years for Ki-woo to actually save up the money in order to buy that house.”

An obvious pattern in the high-low class warfare films we named is the conflict between rich and poor. But from the very start, Parasite makes us aware that society actually has many tiers. It’s not so black-and-white as purely up or down—there are endless shades of class.

It’s highly symbolic that The Kim family’s home—is a semi-basement. As Bong says, “The meaning of that structure is it’s half overground, half underground. They still have access to the overground, but they never know when they can fall even further below.” So this in-between existence means living in an exhausting state of both aspiration and anxiety.

What Bong does to truly revolutionize this “stairway” genre is to add another vertical floor below The Kims. As Bong says, “they finally encounter a couple that actually lives in a complete basement, without windows.”—the former housekeeper they ousted, Moon-gwang, and her husband, Geun-sae, who’s been living in The Parks’ secret underground bunker.

The revelation of this third class below our underdog heroes exposes that the real fight going on every day in our society isn’t between rich and poor. it’s between poor and poorer, between the have-nots and have-nothings, the broke and the broken—between the semi-basement and the deep dark basement without windows.

Chung-sook: “So, sis… Don’t f-king call me sis, you filthy b-tch!” - Parasite (2019)

E.M Forster’s 1910 novel Howard’s End puts a name to this fate the lower classes have to fear: “the abyss.” The narrator writes of a financially struggling character, “He was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in and counted no more.”

Margaret Schlegel: “So often I feel we live chattering away at the edge of a great abyss. I don’t want to close my eyes to it, or comfortably pretend it isn’t there, but I don’t want to live in it…” - Howard’s End, 1x2

Confronted with this couple who’ve suffered as a result of their rise, The Kims have to face not only guilt but also their own terror of sinking and becoming those worse-off people in the abyss and that’s exactly what happens what Ki-taek ends up replacing the crazed man in the basement.

The life-changing deluge that swallows all The Kims’ worldly possessions overnight exposes how—when you don’t have money—it only takes one big tough break to wipe out all of your progress. Meanwhile, the same storm is merely a minor inconvenience for The Parks—they have to call off a camping trip (even though in their eyes this is a huge suffering).

Mrs. Park: “My god, what a disaster. The river overflowed and everyone was packing their tents.” - Parasite (2019)

Why Ki-jung?

So why does Ki-jung end up being the character who dies? At Da-song’s birthday party, Geun-sae emerges from the basement, grabs a knife, and—in a disorganized attempt to avenge his wife, who’s died of a head injury after Chung-sook kicked her down the stairs—ends up stabbing Ki-jung. But the real reason the movie gives her this tragic death is probably because she’s The Kim who’s most at home in this rich environment—the one who effortlessly fits in.

Ki-woo: “You fit in here. This rich house suits you. Not like us.” - Parasite (2019)

She’s immediately convincing to Mrs. Park. Even though she’s making up total BS as a fake “art therapist,” she’s genuinely able to tame The Park’s wild, creative son just by following her instincts.

Ki-jung: “I googled ‘art therapy’ and ad-libbed the rest. Then suddenly she’s weeping.” - Parasite (2019)

In fact, the reason she’s attacked is that she’s at the center of the birthday ceremony, holding a cake that celebrates her pupil’s progress. In some ways, she’s the family member with the most potential. So ultimately by killing Ki-jung, the movie sends the message that it’s not enough to fit in or to have the merit to succeed. It’s as if the story punishes her for coming too close to belonging.

During the flood, Ki-taek rescues his wife’s medal—reminding us, once again, that where this family has ended up is in no way a reflection of their value. After all, with their street smarts, resourcefulness, and creative ingenuity, they strike us as far more impressive than the gullible, judgmental, spoiled, and naive members of the upper-class Park Family. They’re underground simply because, in our society, you don’t get to move.

The other reason that Ki-jung gets attacked is that she’s standing right in front of Da-Song, so the blocking makes it look as if she’s inadvertently shielding the rich boy. And this is symbolic, too—in this world it’s always the people like The Kims who are hit heaviest by real tragedy, while The Parks feel only tiny echoes of those traumas.

Why Mr. Park? (And Who’s The Parasite?)

Another question viewers might have near the end of Parasite is: why does Mr. Kim kill Mr. Park?

As Ki-taek helplessly watches his daughter die, while Mr. Park orders him to drive the shocked Da-song to the emergency room, he turns on his boss, implying that Mr. Park, the top of this toxic social hierarchy, is truly the one to blame for Ki-jung’s death.

To fully answer this question of why he kills Mr. Park, it helps to look closer at the movie’s title. Who is the true parasite that the movie is referring to? The obvious, surface meaning of the title is that our protagonist Ki-woo and his family are the parasites in the story.

When they’re enjoying The Parks’ house while the family is away, Chung-sook explicitly compares her husband to a cockroach. And that’s literally what happens not long after Chung-sook makes this comparison. As the film introduces more “parasites,” a picture emerges of a society composed of many hangers-on competing for the minuscule leftovers and garbage of people like The Parks.

Over time, though, we start to feel (as Ki-taek does) that this narrative is all wrong. What if the real bloodsucker isn’t any of these lower-class characters, but the successful Mr. Park? After all, a parasite is defined as an organism that “benefits by deriving nutrients at the other’s expense” or (in more figurative usage) “a person who habitually relies on or exploits others and gives nothing in return.”

But while all these people are supposedly leeching off of Park, they take only what he has more of than he needs—some food and money, representing a tiny fraction of what he has. Meanwhile, The Parks take their workers’ lifeblood, their time, their dignity….

Mr. Park: “But that smell crosses the line.” - Parasite (2019)

The great lie that the upper classes have pulled off is to position themselves as generous benefactors, sharing their bounty with the less fortunate—when in fact they are the ones taking from the poor.

The movie uses Da-Song’s obsession with Native Americans as a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for the way that The Kim family colonizes a house that already has people living there… The play Mr. Park plots out even involves the fake Indians attacking Jessica and that’s exactly what the oppressed “native” person of the house, Geun-sae, does for real.

But The Parks—the true oppressors—flippantly make sport of the Native Americans’ tragic history for their spoiled child, just as they turn their social inferiors’ pain into a farce. Near the end at the party, when Ki-taek seems less than enthusiastic about the offensive Indian play (and says something a little too intimate for his boss’ “line”, Mr. Park bluntly puts him in his place.

Mr. Park: “Mr. Kim. You’re getting paid extra. Think of this as part of your work, okay?” - Parasite (2019)

Ki-taek comes to realize that this money his boss expects him to be grateful for will never truly be enough to change anything. Thus Ki-taek chooses to attack this toxic hierarchy by going for its head … But there are endless other rich families like The Parks to take over this house next. Though the players change, the play remains the same.

There’s another parasite in this film, too. Vulture’s E. Alex Jung writes that the “emotional parasite” of the film… is hope—“the thing that keeps us going but sucks our marrow dry.” The scholar stone which The Kims receive as a gift near the beginning, setting this whole story in motion, is supposed to bring them material wealth. This symbol of better fortune comes via Ki-woo’s wealthier friend, who offers him the opportunity to tutor the rich girl. According to Bong, the stone essentially represents Ki-woo’s desire for more—his ambition.

Near the end of Parasite, when Ki-woo is deciding what to do about the couple in the basement, he’s clutching the stone. But he says the stone is clinging to him—it’s his terrible, cutthroat ambition—his determination to protect his new rise in station—which leads him down to the basement with the intention to do something terrible. But then the stone betrays him, falling out of his hands, and he ends up getting beaten with it, almost dying and sustaining a brain injury… So he is truly the victim of his hope. As the rock becomes a bloody weapon, it also emphasizes that moving up from the bottom often means to replace someone else—in this zero-sum game.

Ki-taek: “The driver before me.”

Ki-woo: “Yeah, Yoon.”

Ki-taek: “He must be working somewhere else now, right?”

Ki-woo: “Sure, he must be.” - Parasite (2019)

While the stone does bring The Kims the good material fortune it promises, ultimately this fortune curses them. At the start, The Kim family have a moving closeness—their family’s communication, mutual respect, and tight bond are lacking in The Parks, who are isolated from each other in their big house with so much space between them—and distanced, too, by their lack of understanding and awareness of reality. The cost for The Kims’ new wealth is all the much greater human treasures they had in the beginning - Ki-jung’s life, Ki-taek’s freedom, Ki-woo’s mental health, and most of all, their togetherness.

In the end, though, Ki-woo’s hope still isn’t beaten out of him…and we’re left to imagine that he’ll continue to torture himself with futile dreams. When you have no money, you have no power to decide your future—so to plan, or to hope, is to be disappointed…The only logical response, Ki-taek slowly comes to realize, is to stop caring.

Ki-taek: “With no plan, nothing can go wrong. And if something spins out of control, it doesn’t matter.” - Parasite (2019)

Notably, Geun-sae, down in the full-basement, has no aspirations to change his situation. He worships his unknowing benefactor, Mr. Park, like a God, as if this social order is exactly how things ought to be. When Ki-taek stabs Mr. Park, it’s a last rebellion against his total powerlessness to change this hierarchy… But when he takes his place in the underground bunker, we can only assume that the total lack of sunlight will eventually break him, and like his predecessor, he will give up all hope.

The pain of this film is captured in its opening and closing scenes of that aspirational semi-basement. To Ki-woo, it feels like everything to hold onto that window, to keep striving… Yet in the end, it’s this striving that breaks his family. Because the cruelest lie in our society is that, if you just work hard enough, you’ll get to walk up the stairs. In reality, if change does come, you could just as easily be descending them.

Ki-taek: “Each time I go upstairs, I take my life in my hands.” - Parasite (2019)