Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old.
First, a quick recap: the razor-sharp class commentary tells the story of the financially struggling Kim family — mom and dad Chung-suk and Ki-taek (Jang Hye-jin and Song Kang-ho) and kids Ki-woo and Ki-jung (Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam) — who one by one infiltrate the domestic staff of the wealthy Park family, eliminating all obstacles in their path, including the Parks’ former housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun).
When the fired Moon-gwang returns to the house one night, she discovers the Kims’ secret and they discover that she has one of her own: her husband, Oh Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon) has been hiding from loan sharks in the house’s basement bunker for years. In the desperate struggle to keep their respective secrets from the Parks, Chung-suk kicks Moon-gwang down the bunker stairs, killing her.
The next day, young Park Da-song’s (Jung Hyeon-jun) backyard birthday party turns into a blood bath when Geun-sae, mad with grief, escapes from the bunker on a quest for vengeance, knocking Ki-woo unconscious in the process. Geun-sae kills Ki-jung, Chung-suk kills Geun-sae, and Ki-taek turns around and kills Park patriarch Dong-ik (Jung Ji-so) as party guests flee in terror.
Ki-woo ultimately recovers from his injuries but is convicted of fraud, along with Chung-suk, while Ki-taek hides from the authorities in the Park family bunker. The film ends with Ki-woo making a plan to become rich and buy the Park house himself so that the surviving Kims can be reunited. But does that dream come true?
The beauty of a film like Parasite is that certain things, like the specifics behind Ki-taek’s decision to stab Dong-ik, are very much open to interpretation (I’ve written an article about one particular way of considering it through the lens of parasitism and host-parasite relationships). That said, there are certain key takeaways heavily emphasized via subtext, all of which can be collectively summarized in the following message: there is no escaping the basement.
Parasite features three families: the Parks, the Kims, and the Ohs — upstairs, downstairs, and sub-basement. All are basically decent people who consistently act in what they consider to be the best interest of their family, but by the end, the Parks have lost a father, the Kims have lost a father (effectively) and a daughter, and both Ohs are dead thanks to a series of events set in motion by the Kims’ desire to better their circumstances.
While nobody makes it out unscathed, it is those who started off with the least who suffer the worst, and those who started off with the most who take the mildest blow in comparison. What the Parks’ money and status give them and them alone is mobility. They have freedoms the other families do not have, and when the dust settles, they alone have the freedom to move out of their house-turned-crime-scene, and move on with their lives. The Kims and the Ohs are stuck — in a bunker, in a semi-basement flat, in their graves.
The go-to fairytale of capitalism is that hard work pays off. Effort and smarts and especially a dash of cunning will take you places — there’s a mystical ladder of achievement, and no matter what rung you start off on, you can climb your way to soaring heights, if you just toil hard enough and smart enough. The ultimate symbol of this beloved myth in Parasite is a scholar’s rock gifted to the Kims early in the film by the same school friend of Ki-woo’s who recommends him for the Park tutoring job that puts the film’s entire plot in motion.
Scholars’ rocks, or viewing stones (suseok in Korean) have been a symbol of status and scholarly achievement for thousands of years. But if you watch Parasite closely, you’ll notice that this particular scholar’s rock is a lie, much like the myth it represents: when Ki-woo rescues it from the flooding apartment, it floats up to the surface exactly the way a stone shouldn’t–unless, of course, it’s not really a stone at all.
Ironically enough, there is a way in which this lie saves Ki-woo’s life. After rescuing the rock from the flood, he ends up bringing it to the Park house the day of Da-song’s party, sneaking down into the basement bunker presumably with the intent to use it as a weapon to finish off Moon-gwang and Geun-sae.
Whether or not he would have been capable of actually bashing their heads in with a rock is unclear, as Moon-gwang has already succumbed to her concussion and Geun-sae quickly gains the upper hand over Ki-woo when they go head to head and he bashes the younger man over the head with the stone not once but twice. There’s not a chance Ki-woo would have survived both blows if the scholar’s rock had been the real deal.
Yet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary he has received, the ending emphasizes that Ki-woo still believes in the myth of upward mobility: his hopeful visions of a successful future include a shot of him lowering the scholar’s rock into a river, where it settles at the bottom, as it should. In his dream, the stone is real, Bong’s masterfully simple way of letting you know the harsh truth that said dream is a fantasy with no hope of coming true.
Why does Ki-woo still buy into the fantasy, then? Perhaps because somehow, in spite of everything, he’s still that naive. Or perhaps, deep down, he’s decided it’s less painful to comfort oneself with impossible fantasies than to face cruel realities. This part of the ending is one that is brilliantly, tragically, and completely open to your interpretation.