Why Parasite is the First Climate Movie to Win Best Picture

By Dharna Noor on at

Parasite, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, is remarkable. It’s the first film in a language other than English to win the Best Picture award. It features exactly zero white people. It deals explicitly with the cruelties working class people face at the hands of South Korean neoliberalism. It’s equally hilarious and horrifying. And it also painfully and honestly depicts the climate crisis, a first for a Best Picture winner.

Parasite obviously isn’t the first movie to show the consequences of climate change, but unlike disaster stories like the Day After Tomorrow or documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth, it’s not a Climate Movie. Instead, the climate crisis lurks somewhere in the background until it ushers in catastrophe, much like it does in real life. Just as the climate crisis has become woven into our lived experiences, so it is with the characters of Parasite. Be warned there are some mild spoilers ahead.

The film follows two families: The Kims, working-class and struggling but savvy, scam their way into working for the out-of touch and comically wealthy Park family. The Parks live in a giant Frank Lloyd Wright-esque mansion on a hill, which gives the Kims a taste of what extreme wealth is like. But at the end of the work day, they return home to their shitty basement apartment in Seoul.

The discrepancies between the two homes are starkly obvious to begin with, but a rainstorm really hammers in the point. The Parks are mildly inconvenienced – they’re forced to cut a camping trip short – but the Kims’ entire home is destroyed. Sewage water overwhelms the city’s pipes and streams into their apartment, and they’re forced to take refuge in an overcrowded gymnasium emergency shelter. There, the Kims’ son Ki-woo asks his father, Ki-taek, what his plan is to get the family out of their predicament. His father scoffs at him.

“If you make a plan, life never works out that way,” Ki-taek says. “Look around us. Did these people think, ‘Let’s all spend the night in a gym?’ But look now, everyone’s sleeping on the floor, us included.”

The metaphor is painfully obvious. The Kims are forced to deal with a literal shitstorm, whereas the Parks’ mansion is safely upstream. But though the scene seems like a caricature, it’s all too true to life. South Korea is seeing more heavy rain as a result of the climate crisis. In 2018, floods killed at least 76 people and destroyed more than 800 buildings, mostly in low-lying areas like the one where the Kims live. In fact, Seoul’s dingy basement apartments are so unsafe and vulnerable to flooding that it was once illegal to rent them out.

That’s actually what truly makes Parasite a marvel. Climate change is the defining issue of our time, and that makes the movie the perfect choice for Best Picture (in addition, of course, to all the other superlatives). But the way it treats the climate crisis is what truly sets it apart. In older Climate Movies like the Day After Tomorrow, disaster is all-consuming and apocalyptic. Parasite shows the crisis for what it is – not one all-consuming cataclysmic event, but many events happening concurrently. It’s bushfires in Australia, locusts swarms in Africa, and glaciers melting in Antarctica.

It isn’t about climate change in the way that 2010 Best Picture winner the Hurt Locker was about the Iraq War, or 1978 winner Deer Hunter was about the Vietnam War.

Really, Parasite is a movie about social class and stratification with climate change lurking in the background, exacerbating the inequalities that exist. This isn’t Joon-Ho’s first movie to use that setup. He directed Snowpiercer, a sci-fi action movie set on a train in a world where human’s attempt to stop climate change backfired. The film put class and inequality front and centre with the frozen world outside and how humans ended up on a train merely a backdrop. 

That’s how the real world works, too, because climate disaster never arrives in a vacuum. Instead, it overlays itself on existing social orders and exacerbates the worst of them. From floods to fires to extreme heat, climate consequences for all aspects of life – housing, public health – are worse for poorer people, even though poorer people are least responsible for the crisis. This is true within cities, as Parasite shows, but it’s also true at the global scale.

It’s that focus that makes Parasite such a powerful movie for our current political climate. Though scientists have known about the climate crisis for decades, we’re only now beginning to see a widespread understanding that it’s an emergency. That emergency, as climate leaders from United Nations scientists to youth organisers to legislators are making clearer than ever, will require a fundamental restructuring of society – one where the Parks aren’t so much safer than the Kims.