When Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite made Oscar history as the first non-English language film to win Best Picture, it felt like a victory for the cinephiles who made the film a critical darling and a surprise arthouse hit. After a long theatrical run that built extensive word of mouth, Parasite is streaming exclusively on Hulu. Which means it’s going out to millions of viewers who will be able to join the conversation about Parasite’s masterful ending — the definition of a movie conclusion that can’t be summed up as a “happy ending” or a “sad ending.” Instead, it’s a lonely ending.
[Ed. note: Significant spoilers ahead for Parasite, and for the movies Moonlight and Drive.]
In Parasite’s climax, the Kim family — father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, daughter Ki-jeong, and son Ki-woo — attend a house party for the young son of their employers, the Park family. The event quickly goes south, breaking down into a vivid representation of class warfare. The shots that follow release the audience from the film’s consistently mounting tension, but leave some characters dead, and others to mourn. In the aftermath, Ki-woo recovers, deals with his grief, and copes with the authorities who are still searching for answers about what happened that day.
The audience knows what Ki-woo soon finds out. Ki-taek fled the party for the only logical place he could go — the hidden bunker in the Park family house. From there, he uses Morse code to send a letter to his son, though he never knows whether Ki-woo has seen it. In the film’s final scene, Ki-woo responds to his father in a letter that plays out more as fantasy than reality. It’s his dreamy declaration of the capitalistic dream — he imagines himself going to school, making a lot of money, and buying the Park house so he can free his father.
Parasite’s last scene acts like a breakup with the audience. The events throughout the film construct a relationship with the audience: we learn about the characters over time, and build an empathy for them, an emotionally intimate connection. When Ki-woo looks up from his letter at the end, and tells his absent father, “So long,” his pang of loneliness resonates perfectly with the viewers, who are being released from his company in the same way.
The likely outcome of the story: Ki-woo never attains his goal, and his father lives out the rest of his days in that bunker. It’s a picture-perfect last scene to close out a gut-wrenching, masterful piece of cinema. Parasite’s ending works seamlessly with the events endured by its cast and the audience. When Ki-woo’s reads his letter to his father, it’s clear what’s coming: the end of the relationship the film has built, and a final farewell to a story that’s been resolved thematically, but still left open-ended.
There are other movies with goodbyes as poignant as the one Bong crafts in Parasite. In Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive, Ryan Gosling plays the role of the mysterious Driver, an expert getaway driver doubling as a stuntman by day. He gets caught up in the trouble surrounding his neighbor Irene, her son Benicio, and her husband, who owes the mob $40,000 he can’t pay. Out of sympathy to Irene, Driver offers to help, but after the situation is resolved, he isn’t in a position to stay with her and continue building their relationship. The final scene depicts him driving into the night, with the faintest hint of tears welling up in his eyes. The Driver is neither good nor bad, neutral nor noteworthy; he’s just passing through. Refn offers a romantically tinged scene of unrequited love. The movie isn’t about the crimes committed, it’s about the fleeting connection between Driver and Irene, and what they might have had together. The film’s final scene is about letting that possibility go, leaving both of them lonely, and conveying their loneliness on to the audience as well.
2016’s Best Picture Oscar-winner, Berry Jenkins’ Moonlight, positions its last scene in a similar way. The story leading up to it does the emotional heavy lifting, so the last scene is just a reminder that brings it all back home. The film chronicles three phases in the life of its central character, Chiron, from being a shy, withdrawn child mentored by a sympathetic drug dealer to becoming a dealer himself, complete with a tough, street-smart exterior. Moonlight’s last scene is as dreamy as Drive’s. A flashback shows Chiron as a kid on the beach, draped in moonlight. He turns and faces the camera, a flicker in his eye. He’s built up a persona that’s let him survive abuse, toxic masculinity, and trauma, and he’s led an emotionally repressed life, but the film culminates with him re-connecting with his first love. And the final moments are a reminder that Chiron’s youth and innocence haven’t been lost, just hidden, and waiting for a safe moment to emerge. It’s bittersweet, but still lonely, because it’s a moment where the door closes on the film’s world, just as that world was starting to open up into something warm and comforting.
It’s usually assumed that a film’s ending has to follow the emotional binary of happy or sad. But not every ending fits in such neat little packages. And limiting our conversation about endings to one side or the other dampens the emotional complexity of our cinematic experiences. Parasite’s ending, much like Drive’s or Moonlight’s, conjures up the essential loneliness that their characters are enduring, and leaves the audience to sit with those feelings. And in the process, they express the emotional power of loneliness itself. Especially now, amid social distancing and the coronavirus pandemic, many people are struggling with those feelings. Films like Parasite feel cathartic in the moment because they’re a reminder that even when we feel most alone, we’re sharing that feeling with other people. Even the loneliest people aren’t experiencing something unique — in their isolation, they’re connecting with other people feeling the same thing.
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