PARASITE (2019, Director Bong Joon-ho)

In his influential discussion of the soul-crushing “slow violence” that gradually maims the lives of the poor worldwide, Rob Nixon emphasizes two key elements that contribute to this phenomenon. First is the global system of neoliberal capitalism, which consistently contrives to divert resources away from the poor and into the hands of the rich, whether one is talking about nations or individuals. The second is climate change and the gradual destruction of the natural environment, which ultimately erodes the quality of life for everyone, but from which the poor suffer disproportionately, while the rich (in the short term) actually increase their standards of living by pursuing practices that damage the environment for the poor. Because both of these processes are so gradual, they tend to go almost unnoticed in mainstream media, which typically focuses on spectacular events that make for more dramatic presentations. “Slow” events such as climate change and neoliberalism are difficult to represent in a compelling way; thus, Nixon argues that it is the responsibility of “writers, filmmakers, and digital activists” to help “counter the layered invisibility that results from insidious threats, from temporal protractedness, and from the fact that the afflicted are people whose quality of life—and often whose very existence—is of indifferent interest to the corporate media” (16). Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 film Parasite is an exemplary answer to Nixon’s appeal because of the way it calls attention to the suffering of its impoverished characters both at the hands of neoliberal capitalism and as a result of deteriorating environmental conditions under which they must live, even in a relatively wealthy nation such as South Korea.

Parasite is a particularly valuable contribution to this conversation because it is such a high-profile film. Not only was it an international commercial success, but it broke new ground by becoming both the first Asian film to win the Palme d’Or at France’s Cannes Film Festival and the first foreign language film to win the American Academy Award for Best Picture—arguably the world’s two most prestigious film awards. These awards were well deserved, and the global success of the film can be attributed largely to the quality of the film itself, as well as to the established international reputation of its director. However, the film also profited from its global relevance. While the film grows directly out of certain hard realities in its contemporary South Korea, it also addresses issues of precarity and inequality (both economic and environmental) that pertain to twenty-first-century societies worldwide.

Upstairs, Downstairs: Capitalism and Class Consciousness in Parasite

The most obvious topic addressed by Parasite concerns the class-based contrast between two families in Seoul, South Korea: the wealthy Park family and the impoverished Kim family, whose family names are the two most common in South Korea, suggesting that they might play almost allegorical roles in the film as prototypical Koreans. The film’s opening segment introduces us to the Kims: father Kim Ki-taek (Son Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), teenage daughter Kim Ki-jung (aka “Jessica,” played by Park So-dam[1]), and teenage son Kim Ki-woo (aka “Kevin,” played by Choi Woo-shik). The Kims all live together in a cramped, squalid, semi-basement apartment. Struggling to pay their bills, the Kims habitually try to intercept free wi-fi signals from their neighbors, while meanwhile picking up occasional income from informal jobs such as folding pizza boxes for a local pizza parlor, the existence of which serves as one of the film’s many reminders of the extensive involvement of South Korea in global capitalist culture. Ultimately, though, the Kims experience an improvement in their circumstances when the entire family becomes employed in the service of the wealthy Parks, thanks to a series of deceptions in which they replace the Parks’ original employees one by one.

The Parks, meanwhile, are a wealthy middle-class family, slightly younger than the Kims, living a life of luxury thanks to the high income of the father, Park Dong-ik (aka “Nathan,” played by Lee Sun-kyun), a tech executive. The family also includes the mother, Choi Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), fifteen-year-old daughter Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), and nine-year-old son Park Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). The Parks live in a posh modernist-minimalist house that had been designed and constructed by its previous owner, an architect. Actually, the scenes in this house were all shot on sets specially constructed for the film (augmented by a significant amount of virtual imagery), but the house plays a crucial role in the film. Among other things, the house signifies both the wealth of the Parks and the fact that this wealth comes from something very modern, such as the tech sector, serving as a reminder of the important role of Korean tech products in the global economy of late capitalism. Indeed, Park apparently serves as an executive at a busy tech company called “Another Brick,” the English name of which (as well as the apparent allusion to Pink Floyd) clearly indicates the firm’s participation in a global tech economy in which English serves as the lingua franca[2].

Given their level of poverty, it is easy to parse the Kims as working-class—in comparison with the wealthy upper-middle-class Parks. However, they are far from being proletarians with a strong working-class consciousness. In fact, it is clear from the film that the Kims do not regard themselves as working class. While Mr. Kim has, at one time or another, worked as a driver and as a valet as stop-gap measures, the Kims have fallen on hard times due to the failure of a series of businesses owned by Mr. Kim, including a “chicken place” and a “Taiwan cake shop,” sending them spiraling into poverty. At the same time, capitalism has not just made the Kims poor: it has made them ashamed of being poor, adding insult to injury. Kim regards himself as a middle-class businessman who has simply fallen on hard times, his failure indicating the precarious nature of capitalism. The fact that he has suffered downward mobility, while Park experienced upward mobility, serves as a reminder that capitalism works both ways. It also reminds us that Kim thinks of himself as being in essentially the same class as Park: the difference in their net worths comes about, not because one was lucky enough to be born in a higher class than the other, but because the competitive ethos of capitalism requires that there must be both winners and losers (and many more of the latter).

The plot of Parasite is centrally driven by the series of deceptions through which the Kims cause all of the domestic employees of the Parks to be fired one after another, a string that begins when Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), a college student who has been serving as Da-hye’s English tutor, decides to go abroad to study, offering the recommend Ki-woo as his replacement. But even this voluntary replacement involves considerable deception. For one thing, in addition to Min’s recommendation, Ki-woo must get Ki-jung to forge an enrollment certificate for him using her considerable photoshopping skills (the existence of which can be taken as another sign that the Kims are really middle class, though their poverty has forced her to discontinue her art classes)[3]. In addition, Min has recommended Ki-woo as a place-holder because he plans to undertake a courtship of Da-hye once she gets a bit older. Ki-woo, though, betrays Min and immediately begins his own flirtation with Da-hye after becoming her tutor. Meanwhile, he also arranges for Ki-jung to be hired (again with some falsified qualifications) to perform “art therapy” on young Da-song.

Park is supposedly a genius, though his wife is described in the film (by Min) as “simple.” In any case, the Parks are no match for the Kims, who quickly insinuate themselves in the Park household, via a series of increasingly elaborate ruses. It is easy for Ki-woo and Ki-jung to be hired as tutors because the Parks want so badly for their children to get a leg up in the competitive world that is contemporary South Korean society. Replacing the driver and the housekeeper requires a bit more ingenuity. When Park has the driver Yoon (Park Keun-rok) drive Ki-jung home after an art lesson, she contrives to stash a pair of her panties in the back seat, with the plan of convincing Park that Yoon has been having sex in the back seat of the car. The next step will then be to contrive to convince the germophobic Yeon-gyo that the housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang ((Lee Jung-eun) might have tuberculosis so that she is dismissed from the household and replaced by Chung-sook.

These strategies are very telling. The plot against Moon-gwang indicates the Kims’ understanding of Yeon-gyo’s fear of disease, which can also be parsed as a fear of uncleanliness in general, a fear that is perhaps also reflected in the almost sterile atmosphere of the house, which is impressive and beautiful, but looks almost institutional, rather than like a family home. This fear of the unclean is strong enough to unseat Moon-gwang, even though she has been in the house even longer than the Parks, having worked for Namgoong, the architect who originally designed the house as his own residence. That the earlier undermining of Yoon plays on a similar impulse can be seen in the way Yeon-gyo, after Dong-ik brings the panties to her to complain about Yoon, handles those panties like they might be carrying some sort of disease, quickly donning a rubber glove with which to handle them. Dong-ik, however, seems less concerned about disease and more concerned that Yoon has invaded his territory, crossing a class boundary between boss and employee that should not be crossed. Boys will be boys, concludes Park, and it would not have been so bad if Yoon had had sex in the front seat, but to have invaded the back seat, realm of the boss, is unacceptable. “Does dripping his sperm on my seat turn him on?” asks Nathan. Then the Parks’ imaginations run wild, as Nathan suggests that Yoon’s partner might have left her panties behind because she was on drugs.

The Parks’ suspicions concerning the unsavory habits of the poor are also figured in the film in the way they consistently regard the poor as having a bad smell, thus accepting a time-honored class-based stereotype. Thus, once the Kims are installed in the Park household (posing as a random group, rather than as a family), their cover is almost blown when Da-song announces that they all smell “the same.” He’s just a child, but the Parks are the kind of people to be attuned to things like the smells of others, so his observation is not to be dismissed lightly. For one thing, he’s probably correct, given that the Kims all live together in very close quarters, do their laundry together, and so on. Mr. Kim wonders if they need to adopt a strategy of doing  their laundry separately, with different laundry soaps, but Ki-jung rightly perceives that the problem is the dank environment of the semi-basement in which they live—giving them the distinctive smell of poverty.

This smell will continue to be an issue. Dong-ik, for example, is pleased with Ki-taek’s driving, but finds that the new driver’s unpleasant smell is a problem. When Da-song decides to camp out on the lawn in a driving rain, the Parks decide to sleep on the living room couch to keep an eye on him, not knowing that Ki-taek and the Kim children are hiding beneath the coffee table next to the couch. Ki-taek thus overhears when Park begins to complain to his wife about Ki-taek’s smell. “It smells like “when you boil an old rag,” he complains, noting that one sometimes smells that smell on the subway. Yeon-gyo responds by noting that she hasn’t ridden the subway in ages, with the clear implication that riding the subway is beneath people like the Parks. Her husband agrees, noting that “people who ride the subway have a special smell,” such people not, of course, including the Parks.

As Park begins to become more and more amorous, he suggests to Yeon-gyo that having sex on the couch would be like having sex in the back seat of the car. At this point, it appears that he might be referring to earlier encounters in their younger years. However, it soon becomes clear that he is actually entertaining fantasies of the lurid sexual exploits of Yoon in the back seat of Park’s present car. Park’s disgust with the sordid nature of the panties found in the car has seemed to border on abjection, but (as Julia Kristeva has taught us) genuine abjection can involve a complex combination of disgust and fascination. Thus, as the Parks begin to have sex, Nathan suggests to his wife that he would get “really fucking hard” if she wore those cheap panties he found in the car. She makes no move to don the panties (that might involve too many germs), but she gets into the fantasy as well, suggesting that he should buy her some drugs. Both Dong-ik and Yeon-gyo are clearly turned on by imagining themselves living the nasty and unrestrained sex lives of the poor.

Meanwhile, by this time, the film has also introduced a third family, in the form of the Parks’ Moon-gwang and her husband Oh Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon), who has been in the Park basement for over four years, hiding out down there when Namgoong moved to Paris and the house was left temporarily unoccupied except by Moon-gwang as a caretaker. When Moon-gwang is fired, Geun-sae is left stranded in the basement with no one to bring food to him. (And to make matters worse, the secret door that hides the opening to the basement gets jammed, trapping him downstairs.) When the Parks go away on their camping trip, Moon-gwang sneaks back to the Park house to feed her husband, encountering the Kims there. Realizing that the Kims now know her secret, Moon-gwang appeals to Chung-sook’s discretion on the basis of working-class solidarity, referring to herself and Chung-sook as “two fellow workers.” Scoffing at the notion, Chung-sook threatens to call the police, but Moon-gwang begs her not to because they are “fellow members of the needy.” “I’m not needy!” responds Chung-sook, encapsulating the refusal of the Kim family to acknowledge their true position in Korean society. Amy Taubin notes that the events of this film demonstrate that “working-class solidarity counts for nothing when poverty makes people desperate and capitalism inflames the desire for riches” (30). But this observation doesn’t go quite far enough. To themselves, the Kims are not poor or even working class. They are, in their own eyes, simply middle-class people who are temporarily down on their luck. They feel no solidarity with the poor partly because to do so would be to admit that they, too, belong to that category, something that capitalist ideological indoctrination has taught them to find shameful.

As a self-identified middle-class family, the Kims seem to have thoroughly accepted the competitive worldview of capitalism, which might explain why Moon-gwang’s appeal to working-class solidarity falls on such deaf ears. However, that Ki-woo so quickly betrays his middle-class friend Min by setting his sights on Da-hye shows a similar lack of solidarity with others. This case, though, bears closer scrutiny: Min might be getting just what he reserves, given that he is also using Ki-woo while treating him rather disrespectfully. He never says why he believes that it will be safe to leave Da-hye in Ki-woo’s hands, but (within the context of the film) the implication is clear: because of his family’s poverty and his own inability successfully to pursue a college education, Ki-woo is simply not regarded by Min as someone who might seriously hope to win the hand of someone like Da-hye.

Min’s mistake is to assume that Ki-woo would also understand that Da-hye is above his station, not realizing that the Kims regard themselves as middle class. It is clear, for example, that the Kims regard themselves as occupying a higher social position than do Moon-gwang and Geun-sae, though the latter also have some claim to be middle-class as well. Geun-sae, after all, is hiding in that basement not because he is an unemployed and homeless worker but because he is a failed businessman, leaving him in so much debt that he has borrowed from loan sharks, from whom he has been hiding all these years. Indeed, Geun-sae, like Ki-taek, had tried running his own “Taiwanese castella shop,” a shop featuring a kind of sponge cake that had been all the rage in Korea for a time in the 2010s, suggesting that both Geun-sae and Ki-taek had attempted to get rich quick by cashing in on a hot trend. Unfortunately, questions arose (including a televised exposé) about the use of substandard ingredients in these cakes in order to maximize profits, and the trend quickly collapsed, apparently talking down both Ki-taek and Geun-sae with it.

The parallels between these two families are extensive, including the fact that both have been forced to take refuge in basements of sorts, though Geun-sae and Moon-gwang have at this point fallen farther than the Kims, apparently because of their involvement with the loan sharks. However, far from feeling solidarity with the other couple, the Kims try to feel better about their situation by feeling superior to the others. Thus, Ki-taek, looking around at Geun-sae’s squalid basement, asks, “How can you live like this?” Later, this question will take on a special irony when Ki-taek himself ends up hiding out in that same basement. But it is already ironic because Ki-taek and his family have already taken refuge in a basement as well. Geun-sae does not appear to know about the living conditions of the Kims, but his reply establishes this irony for viewers: “Well, lots of people live underground, especially if you count semi-basements.”

As it turns out, the two basement habitats that figure in Parasite are of considerable symbolic significance. For one thing, the fact that the Kims live in a semi-basement, while Geun-sae lives completely underground indicates the way in which he has literally fallen lower within the capitalist system than have they.But these basements carry more specific resonances as well. The semi-basement in which the Kims live is of a type that is quite common in Seoul, where such abodes are locally known as banjiha. A symbol of both housing shortages and economic disparities in the city, such semi-basements were occupied by roughly 200,000 people at the time of the release of Parasite, which brough greater media attention to their existence. Heavy rains in August of 2022 flooded many banjiha in the city, as happens in the film with the Kims’ apartment. In the real 2022 floodings, though, several people were drowned, causing authorities to vow to begin phasing out these semi-basement dwellings (McCurry).  

If the Kims’ semi-basement apartment is a clear signifier of poverty, then the basement in which Geun-sae has taken refuge is, oddly enough, a symbol of wealth, though this symbolism is not clear from the rundown appearance of the basement. Indeed, one function of this basement in Parasite is to suggest the beginnings of a veer into the genre of horror, where such a secret, seedy, underground lair would be very much at home[4]. Indeed, the discovery of Geun-sae in this basement will eventually lead to horror at Da-song’s birthday party. However, as Moon-gwang explains in the film, the houses of the rich in South Korea often have such secret “bunkers,” which are intended to provide refuge in case of financial reversals or attacks from North Korea (the possibility of which always lingers in the minds of South Koreans). Thus, these basements become a sign of privilege, indicating the way in which the rich have access to protections that are simply not available to the poor. Indeed, Moon-gwang goes on to note that Namgoong had been a bit embarrassed about having such privilege, so he did not inform the Parks of its existence when he sold the house to them, thus setting the stage for Geun-sae to be able to hide out there without the Parks’ knowledge.

The use of the Kims’ semi-basement as spatial signifier of the verticality of South Korean society is supplemented in the film by other visual representations as well. Most tellingly, the film features a superb sequence in which Ki-taek and the Kim children, having fled the Park home amid that rainstorm, are shown descending a series of downward sloping roadways and long stairways, indicating the way in which they are returning from the lofty heights of the world of the Parks to the lowly realm to which they themselves have been relegated. Meanwhile, to emphasize this symbolism, as they descend these stairs, the setting around them becomes more and more impoverished looking. The use of such visual representations of class verticality in film is quite common, with the futuristic Blade Runner (1982), which also punctuates the verticality with rain, being a particularly well-known example. Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019), meanwhile, is an example contemporary with Parasite. However, Bong here seems to have been influenced directly by Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), which uses the motif to particularly good effect (Syamsu).

The Environmental Cost of Poverty

Timothy Morton has argued that some phenomena (among which he counts both capitalism and climate change) are so large and complex that it is almost impossible to describe them or even to get a firm cognitive grasp on them. Such phenomena he refers to as “hyperobjects,” and his work helps to explain why it has been so difficult to develop effective representations of things like climate change and neoliberalism. Citing Nixon’s concept of slow violence, Morton notes that, if we cannot immediately see the results of pollution and other forms of environmental damage (much in the way that we cannot see waste after it has been flushed down the toilet), then we have trouble believing that it is real. But that waste has to go somewhere, and other forms of waste go somewhere as well. Morton suggests that we are typically able to ignore that fact because it goes into places occupied by the less fortunate: it is “eventually shunted into some less powerful group’s backyard. The Native American tribe must deal with the radioactive waste. The African American family must deal with the toxic chemical runoff. The Nigerian village must deal with the oil slick” (125).

In addition, it is also the case that the impact of processes such as climate change can take years or even decades to become visible, making their representation even more difficult. It thus perhaps comes as no surprise that highly influential forms such as global cinema have had so much trouble producing films that effectively represent climate change. Thus, Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) attempts to deal with the non-spectacular nature of climate change by turning it into a spectacle, complete with an individualist hero who strives to save the day (and his own son). Alternatively, Adam McKay’s Netflix film Don’t Look Up (2021) substitutes a more understandable and representable object (in the form of a huge, planet-killing asteroid) for the hyperobject of climate change as a lethal threat to the people of earth. In this case, adventure is replaced by comedy, rather than spectacle, but neither of these substitutions is able to do justice to climate change, even with a great deal of money and Hollywood talent behind both of them.

Bong has shown a career-long interest in this very issue of representation. As Yoo notes, almost all of Bong’s films “are interrogations of the unequal damage to poor communities from environmental toxicity, the class differences that are crucial factors in responses to various environmental risks, and the need to consider political sovereignty and economic equality together to achieve environmental equity” (46). For example, Snowpiercer (2013) takes on climate change using the recognizable Hollywood form of the postapocalyptic narrative—showing a world in which human civilization has been largely destroyed as the result of extreme weather events that occur as the result of an attempt to reverse global warming that gets out of hand. Yet, as Joshua Schulze effectively argues, Bong here uses this American Hollywood framework to explore “very anti-American ideas” (26). In particular, Bong produces not only a critique of the American class system, but also a “scathing critique of the American filmmaking model” (27). Thus, Bong moves away from the typical wide-open spaces of the Hollywood postapocalyptic narrative into the claustrophobic confines of a single train that contains all of the human survivors of the film’s climate-change apocalypse.

Parasite takes a more mundane approach, moving away from the Hollywood model of the postapocalyptic action film and exploring environmental issues on a more domestic level. Here, he employs a model that is not at all typical of Hollywood as he attempts to make climate change and environmental injustice relatable and understandable by looking at small, localized impacts and by combining its treatment of environmental issues with its critique of neoliberal capitalism. For example, one of the major points made by Parasite is that the ultra-sanitary world of people like the Parks can be so clean, not because it is simply free of filth, but because its filth is ported elsewhere, into the world of people like the Kims. Parasite, by showing us both of these worlds, does an unusually good job of representing, not only the unhealthy conditions in which the Kims live, but also of indicating that the conditions in which the Parks live are a major cause of the suffering of the Kims.

As the Kims descend the long road from the Park mansion to their flooded basement, the camera emphasizes shots of cascades of water running downhill with them, until they reach their own humble alleyway, with sewage-contaminated water floating in the street (and in their semi-basement apartment). This sewage serves as perhaps the single most spectacular visual image of the environmental hardships suffered by the poor in the film, including one scene in which Ki-Jung crouches atop the Kims’ toilet while raw sewage spews out of the bowl beneath her and into the apartment. Moreover, shit rolls downhill, as we all know, and all those shots of water running down from the heights of the Park mansion to the depths of the Kim semi-basement call attention to the fact that the luxurious conditions enjoyed by the rich make a direct contribution to the squalor experienced by the poor.

That the hardships suffered by the Kims and by Geun-sae in this film contain a strong environmental component is immediately obvious in the visual contrast between the living conditions of the poor characters in their cramped and dirty-looking basements and the conditions under which the Parks live in their spotless, virtually sterile mansion. Indeed, Parasite is the film in which he puts the clearest emphasis on the fact that the poor suffer disproportionate harm from environmental damage. The film makes it very clear that the price of being poor goes well beyond discomfort and inconvenience for the Kims. Their living conditions are, in fact, downright unhealthy, due to various forms of environmental contamination—a topic with which Bong has shown clear concern since his early monster movie The Host. Here, much in the way that Godzilla (1954) had responded to the American use of nuclear weapons against Japan in World War II, the monster is created by the dumping of dangerous formaldehyde by the American military in the Han River near Seoul, a real-world event the revelation of which caused a scandal in 2000.

In the opening scene of Parasite, we see Mr. Kim making a meager meal of the heal of a loaf of bread, when he spots a “stink bug” on the table in front of him and flicks it away in disgust. “Damn stink bugs,” he grumbles. Moments later, a man comes down the street toward their apartment spraying some sort of fog that is apparently meant to exterminate insects, suggesting that the neighborhood is experiencing a major infestation. The fog comes through the windows of the Kims’ apartment, which sit right at street level. The family starts to close the windows, but Mr. Kim stops them. “Leave it open,” he says. “Free extermination.” Of course, the family will also be inhaling the fog, which Mr. Kim apparently regards as an acceptable tradeoff. Meanwhile, the apartment, in which they are currently (though not very efficiently) folding pizza boxes, becomes filled with the fog, making one wonder how much insecticide might be inside those boxes.

Meanwhile, the Kims’ semi-basement is threatened by other forms of toxicity as well. For example, a drunk habitually staggers about in the alley-like street on which they live, urinating on the sidewalk and providing a continual reminder of just how squalid are the conditions in which the Kims find themselves. (Later, the dangerously unsanitary condition of life in the apartment will become even more graphic when the neighborhood floods and sewage backs up, spewing out of the family toilet and into the apartment.) Meanwhile, soon after the drunk is introduced, Min pays a visit to the Kims in order to recruit Ki-woo to take his place as Da-hye’s tutor, sending the drunk on his way in a move that clearly impresses the Kims, with Mrs. Kim noting the “vigor” of college students. Then, when Min enters the apartment, he removes his shoes in a gesture toward traditional Korean cleanliness. Then he immediately steps in something apparently unclean, looking at his foot in a moment of alarm before continuing on his mission, which involves the delivery of the gift of a “scholar’s rock” (or suseok in Korean), a kind of ornamental stone long popular in Korea, traditionally displayed on the writing tables of Korean scholars. Min explains that such stones are said to bring material wealth to families. “This is so metaphorical!” exclaims Ki-woo, though the exact meaning of the rock is left to viewers to puzzle over. It’s a sort of red herring, really: Bong has said in an interview that the rock was primarily a tease meant to play with the tendencies of Korean filmgoers to look for symbols and metaphors in films (Brzeski). Ki-woo, though, seems to follow Min’s lead and to regard the stone as portentous, as a potential symbol that perhaps he can fulfill his dream of attending college and improving the fortunes of his family and himself. As it turns out, the stone is portentous, but not in the way Ki-woo thinks. (His practical mother, on the other hand, grumbles that food might have been a more useful gift, given their circumstances.)

That we are not to make too much of Ki-woo’s declaration of the stone as “metaphorical” is also indicated by the slightly later moment in which he is shown some of Da-song’s artwork and immediately proclaims it to be metaphorical, as well, suggesting that such declarations are a habit of his. On the other hand, just as the stone turns out strangely to portend the later moment in which Ki-woo is slugged in the head with the stone by the man in the basement, so too does Da-song’s painting here seem to foreshadow violence. The painting is supposedly a self-portrait, yet it is also an almost exact (though somewhat abstract) representation of Geun-sae during his knife attack on the birthday party, suggesting that Da-song has somehow foreseen the events at the party[5].

That scholar’s stone also plays a central role in an additional moment in Parasite that seems almost supernatural. When the Kims return home to their flooded apartment after fleeing the Park house in the rain, trying to salvage what they can, the heavy stone suddenly (and seemingly miraculously) floats to the surface of the waist-high water. Ki-woo seems to regard this event as a positive omen, noting later to his father that the rock seems to be following him. And follow him it does, as the same rock will ultimately be used by Geun-sae to bash Ki-woo’s head in. The rock can thus be taken as a sign, but only an ironic one.

This seemingly magical floating stone and Da-song’s seemingly prophetic painting can be taken as examples of Bong playing games with his audience, but these motifs can also be taken as moments when the film strains toward magic, toward a world that has not been fully disenchanted by the routinized operations of modern capitalism, in the mode predicted long ago by Max Weber. One might even say the same about the Park basement, which most clearly (especially in retrospect) points to horror, but which might also point to fantasy in the mode of all those stories involving secret portals to other worlds, as in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. But the stone is used in an attempt to murder Ki-woo, the painting predicts multiple actual murders, and the basement turns out to be more dungeon than portal to adventure. This world is utterly bereft of magic, and any seeming suggestions to the contrary are just illusions.

The notion of routinization is also pertinent to the motif of planning that is prominent in Parasite. Success in the highly synchronized world of global capitalism requires a great deal of planning, of course, so that all the many moving parts can be made to work together. One of the major points made by Parasite, though, concerns the way in which the capitalist system makes it difficult for those without considerable resources to be able to plan for the future: unexpected events beyond their control can always disrupt even the best of plans. During his first encounter with Geun-sae, himself always a planner (as is required for any success in the highly synchronized world of modern capitalism), Ki-taek asks what the man’s plan is going forward, but Guen-sae merely responds that he has grown to like it in the basement. He has obviously opted out of participation in capitalist competition and has accepted his final defeat. Not long afterward, as the Kims flee the Park house during the rainstorm, Ki-jung frantically asks what’s their plan now. Ki-woo answers by wondering, “What would Min do in this situation?” to which Ki-jung angrily responds, “Min wouldn’t be in this situation!” Ki-taek, though, assures them that he has a plan. Later, after discovering their apartment flooded and most of their meager possessions destroyed, they take refuge in a makeshift shelter that has been set up in a gymnasium for the flood victims. Here, now as beaten as Geun-sae, Ki-taek sadly and cynically suggests that plans are pointless for people like them. The only plan that never fails, he declares, is no plan at all. The Parks, protected by their wealth, can plan their lives, at least to an extent. The poor, though, are at the mercy of the seemingly capricious natural elements and the inevitable fluctuations of the capitalist economic system.

In this case, it is weather that has finally brought Ki-taek to his knees, providing a subtle reminder of the vulnerability of the poor to extreme weather events. The Parks, however, are relatively protected from such events Thus, as Ki-taek drives Yeon-gyo home from the supermarket, where she has been shopping for food for Da-song’s birthday party later that day, she marvels that the weather is so perfect for the party and even notes that the storm had been a blessing because it removed pollution, leaving the sky blue and the air clean and fresh for the party. The camera then slowly moves from a focus on Yeon-gyo in the back seat to the face of Ki-taek in the front. It takes little imagination to depict the rising fury that he feels as this rich woman cheerfully laughs in the back about the blessings brought by the storm that had ruined his home. The same weather that brings death and destruction to poor neighborhoods simply clears the air of rich neighborhoods of the pollution produced by their own businesses.

Then, in this same scene, the imperious Yeon-gyo adds insult to insult when she suddenly catches a whiff of Ki-taek and makes a disgusted sour face as she places her finger beneath her nose to try to block the odor of poverty coming from her driver, which is probably especially strong after his night in the shelter. Of course, she also has her bare foot propped on the back of the front seat next to Ki-taek, practically in his face, but apparently she is so clean her affluent feet have no odor. She then opens the window beside her to try to let in some of that fresh air cleansed by the storm. Ki-taek very clearly notices, turning his head to sniff at his own underarm. The point is clear: after all the environmental contamination that the poor Kims have dealt with in the film, the worst pollution the wealthy Yeon-gyo has to deal with on this day is the body odor of her beleaguered employee.

Globalization and the American Influence

A key subtext of Parasite looks beyond unfortunate individuals like the Kims and Geun-sae to suggest that entire countries can be at the mercy of larger global forces such as climate change or neoliberal capitalism, which—in this film as well as elsewhere in Bong’s work—is particularly represented by a consideration of the impact of America and American culture on South Korea. As Bong himself said after Parasite won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, “This film is about the rich and poor and about capitalism—and the U.S. is the heart of capitalism” (cited in Bean). Meanwhile, though most in the West probably tend to think of South Korea as one of global capitalism’s success stories, Korea hasn’t always fared well at the hands of capitalist globalization. For example, looking back on the Asian financial crisis of 1997 from the perspective of ten years later, radical sociologist Walden Bello argues that, as the result of the crisis and the subsequent intervention by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Korea took a hard turn into neoliberalism, leading to a radical increase in the privatization of resources, radical growth among major Korean corporations, and a sharp rise in foreign ownership of those corporations. It also led to a great deal of hardship for the South Korean people. As Bello notes,

The IMF has touted Korea as a “success story.” However, Koreans hate the Fund and point to the high social costs of the so-called success. According to South Korean government figures, the proportion of the population living below the “minimum livelihood income” — a measure of the poverty rate — rose from 3.1 per cent in 1996 to 8.2 per cent in 2000 to 11.6 per cent in early 2006. The Gini coefficient that measures inequality jumped from 0.27 to 0.34. Social solidarity is unraveling, with emigration, family desertion, and divorce rising alarmingly, along with the skyrocketing suicide rate.” (Bello)[6]

In Parasite, the impact on Korea of global capitalism is largely figured via a representation of the impact of America. Indeed, American influences appear in Parasite almost from the very beginning of the film in the form of that pizza parlor for which the Kims fold boxes—probably a sign of an American influence on South Korean cuisine—though the status of pizza as a global food is really more a sign of globalization than Americanization. Meanwhile, the fact that the Parks are so committed to ensuring that Da-hye learns English well suggests their own awareness of the dominance of English as the lingua franca of international capitalism, a situation that in some ways goes all the way back to the British empire, but one that is primarily due to the global dominance of the United States since World War II, a dominance that particular came to bear on Korea beginning with the Korean War (1950­–1953) and the consequent partitioning of the country.

The Parks, meanwhile, have extensive American connections, suggesting that Koreans with their level of wealth might frequently have such connections. As Ki-woo walks into the house on his first visit there, he observes a display of framed family photos on a wall. The display also includes the first page of a magazine article (in English) featuring Dong-ik, with the headline “Nathan Park Hits Central Park,” and detailing the “Augmented Module Map” developed by Park that allows virtual tours of New York City, suggesting that much of the work of Park’s tech company is for American clients. Next to this article is a framed certificate (in English) of an award for “Emerging New Technology” given to Park and Another Brick, again apparently by an American organization.

There are also signs of the Parks’ admiration for American culture and American ways in their everyday language. For example, both Dong-ik and Yeon-gyo occasionally lapse into English in the middle of conversations in Korean, while the whole Park family prefers to refer to Ki-woo and Ki-jung as “Kevin” and “Jessica.” We can also see such small signs of American influence in the way Dong-ik and Da-song conduct their playful conversations over walkie-talkies in Korean, but end each transmission with an emphatic English “over,” in the American fashion.

When Ki-woo decides to recommend Ki-jung as Da-song’s art teacher, he touts her formal art training by claiming that she studied “applied arts” at “Illinois State University,” suggesting that he has deduced that the Parks might be impressed by someone who had been educated in America[7]. He’s apparently right, because the Illinois reference clearly piques Yeon-gyo’s interest, and Ki-jung is soon hired, though she proves an adept con artist in her own right in facilitating the hire, selling herself as an “art therapist” and claiming that Da-song’s paintings suggest that he is in need of psychological help (and also explaining that this role will require her to charge higher fees—which are also, of course, justified by her American training).

The most prominent use of American culture in Parasite occurs in the Native American motif that runs throughout the film, leading up to the cataclysmic events at his Indian-themed birthday party near the end of the film. For example, when Ki-woo first arrives at the impressive Park home to try out for the position as Da-hye’s tutor, one of the first things he encounters, after being let in by Moon-gwang, is a series of American Indian–style toy arrows left strewn about the place by Da-song. Those arrows, we will learn, were ordered directly from the U.S., and the boy, as it turns out, has an obsession with Native American culture (no doubt as filtered through its representations in film and television). In addition, after the Parks return from their rain shortened camping trip, Da-song sets up his tee-pee on the Parks’ lawn in the heavy rain, but his mother expresses confidence that the tent won’t leak because it was ordered from the U.S. Again, Yeon-geo shows her admiration for all things American, suggesting that she associates America with quality and reliability.

Thus, the film’s central reference to American culture involves the commodification and racist cultural appropriation of the iconography of Native American culture, with the Parks showing no signs of awareness of the baleful genocidal history that this iconography should evoke. Indeed, it is quite clear that, for the Parks, Native Americans are not real people from American history but fictional characters from American popular culture. Bong, of course, is very much aware of the real history of Native Americans, a fact that perhaps lies behind the way in which Da-song’s birthday party turns into a literal massacre. But the set-up for this party is also important. As Dong-ik and Ki-taek crouch in hiding, both wearing elaborate war bonnets and carrying toy tomahawks, the former explains that the plan is for them to pretend to attack Ki-jung as she brings in Da-song’s birthday cake, so that Da-song can play the “good Indian” and come to Ki-jung’s rescue. What is crucial about this scene is Ki-taek’s obvious discomfort with the whole idea: not only is he not thrilled with the idea of being converted into a party prop, but it is also possible that, at least on some level, he objects to the use of Native American culture in this way, perhaps feeling some sense of solidarity with his fellow members of an abused and marginalized group. Dong-ik recognizes Ki-taek’s discomfort, rather sternly reminding his employee that he is being paid extra to participate in the party and that enacting the planned scene should be regarded as part of his job as a driver (which, of course, it isn’t).

Yeon-gyo’s ability to whip up such an elaborate party on the spur of the moment (as a substitute for the rain-shortened camping trip) is quite impressive (suggesting her considerable experience as a hostess). At the same time, the party also illustrates her basic cluelessness. For example, in addition to the tasteless appropriation of Native American culture, the party also features a Korean soprano (played by Lee Ji-hye) singing the aria “Mio Caro Bene” from Handel’s 1725 opera Rodelinda, which seems designed to mark the Western-inflected faux-sophistication of the Parks rather than to entertain Da-song. In this sense, it is also notable that the party is attended almost exclusive by adults, as if it is meant more for Yeon-gyo’s benefit than for her son’s.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the party goes spectacularly wrong, though the extent of the calamity still remains shocking. As the party proceeds, Geun-sae breaks free of confinement in the basement and bashes Ki-woo’s head in with the very scholar’s rock that Ki-woo had previously seemed to regard as an omen of good fortune. Now apparently completely deranged by all he has suffered, Geun-sae calmly takes a kitchen knife and walks, smiling, into the party, where he rushes Ki-jung as she brings in the cake, fatally stabbing her in the chest. In the ensuing melee, Chung-sook stabs Geun-sae with a barbecue skewer. Dong-ik starts to check the man’s wound but is overcome by his smell from all that time in the basement. Seeing this reaction, Ki-taek, already sensitized to the issue of smell, finally snaps, killing Dong-ik with that kitchen knife and then running away to assume Geun-sae’s former place hiding in the Park basement.

In The Host, Bong portrays the monstrous impact of American arrogance and carelessness on the lives of Koreans, while his Okja (2017) is built around a resource that originates in Korea and is then appropriated by an American company for use in its own ecologically unsound quest for increased profits, no matter what horrors have to be perpetrated in the process. Thus, the portrayal of American culture in Parasite is consistent with Bong’s other work, to the point that one might wonder whether the U.S. is the true parasite in this film. It is probably more appropriate, though, to see global neoliberal capitalism (of which the people of both the U.S. and South Korea have been victims) as the true culprit, even though it is also the case that South Korea’s participation in the global system of neoliberal capitalism has been largely mediated through the U.S.[8] Indeed, the fact that the issues addressed by this film, despite its situatedness in Seoul, are ultimately global in nature is no doubt one reason for the global success of the film, which speaks to phenomena viewers around the world know all too well.

The ending of Parasite involves a sort of extended postscript after the climactic events of the birthday party, a postscript that involves another sudden swerve of genre involving a somewhat comical police investigation of the events at the party, beginning with their hospital-bed interrogation of Ki-woo, who has miraculously survived. He and his mother have also gotten off with a sentence of probation for the crimes they have committed. These escapes, though, bring about no sudden change in attitude for Ki-woo but instead substantiate Minjung Noh’s argument that Parasite portrays capitalism as a sort of religion, to which all of the characters remain devoted, though “ideologically enslaved” might be more accurate terminology. One might think, after the events that have led to the death of his sister and driven his father, now wanted for the killing of Nathan Park, into hiding, that Ki-woo might want to question the situation that led to these events. However, rather than realize the injustice of the capitalist system and concluding that no one deserves to live like the Parks while others live like the Kims, Ki-woo wholeheartedly opts into the system. He dreams, not of toppling the system that had brought Park his wealth, driving others into poverty, but of somehow using that system to gain similar wealth for himself, apparently oblivious that his climb to the top, even were it possible, would inevitably involve stepping on and over others along the way.

Of course, Parasite leaves open the possibility that Ki-woo’s continuing allegiance to the capitalist system might be the result of brain injury from his assault by Geun-sae, but it is more likely a result of the power of capitalist ideology, which has burrowed into his brain like a parasite. In any case, the film makes it quite clear that Ki-woo’s fantasy of buying the house is just that—a fantasy, and not one that is likely to be realized. In concocting a grand plan for the future, he is following in the footsteps of a younger Ki-taek. Everything we have seen in the film to this point tells us that he will also follow in his father’s footsteps in having his plans and dreams ultimately crushed beneath the weight of neoliberal capitalism.

Works Cited

Bean, Travis. “Capitalism Gone Wild: The Ending of Parasite Explained.”, 30 January 2020, Accessed 21 January 2023.

Bello, Walden, “All Fall Down.” Foreign Policy in Focus, 27 July 2007, Accessed January 20, 2023.

Brzeski, Patrick.“Bong Joon Ho Reveals the Significance of Parasite’s Scholar Stone.” The Hollywood Reporter, 7 January 2020, Accessed 16 January 2023.

Hsu, Hsuan L. “The Dangers of Biosecurity: The Host and the Geopolitics of Outbreak.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 51 (2009). Accessed 16 January 2023.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. Columbia University Press, 1982.

McCurry, Justin. “Seoul to Phase Out Parasite-style Semi-Basement Flats After Storm Deaths.” The Guardian, 11 August 2022, Accessed 19 January 2023.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011.

Noh, Minjung. “Parasite as Parable: Bong Joon-Ho’s Cinematic Capitalism.” Cross Currents, vol. 70, no. 3, 2020, pp. 248–62.

Schulze, Joshua. “The Sacred Engine and the Rice Paddy: Globalization, Genre,
and Local Space in the Films of Bong Joon-ho.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 47, no. 1, 2019, pp. 21–29.

Syamsu, Bondan. “The Physical and Sociological Distance of Wealth Inequality: Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite and Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low.” Broadly Specific, 6 May 2021, Accessed 19 January 2023.

Taubin, Amy. “A House Divided.” Film Comment, vol. 55, no. 5, September-October 2019, pp. 38–41.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904–1905. Trans. Talcott Parsons. 1930. Routledge, 1995.

Yoo, Sang-kuen. “Necropolitical Metamorphoses: Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Parasite.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol 14, no. 1, 2021, pp. 45–69.


[1] Many Koreans also have an “English” name for use un international or English-speaking contexts, thus facilitating Korea’s extensive relationship with the West, especially the U.S., a relationship that is important throughout the film.

[2] The name “Another Brick” suggests a lack of real creativity, especially if read through “Another Brick in the Wall,” by the English rock band Pink Floyd from their 1979 rock opera The Wall. After, all “another brick” is used by Pink Floyd to signify the way a conformist educational system seeks to turn out children with interchangeable, but empty, minds. Bong has confirmed (on the commentary track to the Criterion edition of the film) that this allusion is intentional and that Pink Floyd was his favorite band in college. The implication would seem to be that Park has made his fortune through opportunistic marketing more than genuine innovation.

[3] Ki-jung forges credentials for Ki-woo from Yonsei University, one of the most prestigious in Korea and Bong’s alma mater.

[4] For example, secret basement lairs play key roles in recent horror films such as Don’t Breathe (2014) and Barbarian (2022)—both of which happen to be set in Detroit, where the basements figure as signs of poverty and urban decay.

[5] I owe this identification to a Tweet posted by “Movie Details” on April 29, 2020.

[6] Hsu discusses the influence of the formaldehyde scandal on The Host, but also notes the relevance of the impact of these neoliberal market reforms on the Korean economy, noting that the 1997 crisis drove a number of Koreans to suicide. For Hsu, then, The Host becomes “an allegory not just of US military occupation but also of neoliberal market reforms” (n.p.).

[7] Some have suggested that, while “Illinois State University” is an accurate literal translation of the Korean, the much larger and more prominent University of Illinois was probably what was really meant. It is interesting, though, that the College of Fine Arts at Illinois State is called the “Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts” after a Korean artist who was a substantial benefactor of the college, of which she is an alumna. Jessica complicates matters soon afterward when, rehearsing her faux credentials before meeting Yeon-gyo, she mentions “Illinois Chicago.”

[8] After the death of Dong-ik, Parasite stipulates that the Park house is sold to a German family that is newly arrived in Korea and thus unaware of the house’s history. The presence of this family makes it clear that global capitalism is, in fact, just that, involving much more than just Korea and the U.S.