The metaphor of the parasite in Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite”

Marlyn Pereira
6 min readApr 18, 2020

(Spoilers ahead)

Through a comical representation, the juxtapositions of socio-economic conditions of two families, “Parasite” transcends into a thriller tragedy by the end. The film chooses to address the gap between the privileges of the upper-class bourgeoisie and the lower class, creating a commentary that takes the audience on a journey of deceit, and manipulation while simultaneously exposing the helplessness of the Other, in a capitalistic money-driven world.

The setting of the house of the Park’s family is very essential to understand the film. It is the luxurious space, the lawn, the lifestyle that first attracts Ki-woo, reminding him of his lack, which consequently leads to what the Kim family does next. It is in this space where the two classes come together, not only through the Kim family but also through the presence of the Park’s housekeeper Moon-gwang. The symbol of the bourgeois lifestyle is made to become a space that opens up a liminality where class transitions take place or class mobility is experienced and simultaneously the space that maintains its bourgeois nature by making the class differences between the two families more and more apparent. The Park’s residence is the space through which the full potential of the metaphor of “Parasite” is explored. Bong-Joon Ho layers the metaphor. A parasite is an organism that lives in or on another organism. It thrives by deriving benefits from the existence of its host. The Kim family that represents the lower class thrives on the lifestyle and the privileges of the Park family by penetrating their lives through deceit and fraud. They replace the Park family’s staff one by one, one manipulation after the other, for a taste of the upper-class privileges that they can never have. They benefit, however rather temporarily, from that which belongs to their economic Other, their host.

Similarly, it is also the system that survives based on that which it feeds on. It is not only the lower class that falls under the metaphor of the parasite, but also the system that creates the classes and the differences between them, that thrives on them. The capitalist system that creates the difference between the slums that the Kim family occupies and the mansion that the Park family occupies also renders them the hosts for its own survival. Both the lower and the upper classes feed the fundamental core of the system, through the maintenance and the reproduction of the class of the bourgeoisie and the aspiration towards it. The presence of the bourgeois class does not only maintain the status quo but allows for a visual representation of what it is to be bourgeois, therefore concretizing a goal for the lower class to aspire towards. The latter is the reproduction of a class structure that adherers to the system, and consequently is a reproduction and maintenance of the system in itself. Whether or not these classes aspire to become their socio-economic Other, the pursuit of it is the very factor on which the system exists. It is a factor that feeds the existence of the system. It is the system that is the parasite, which fixates itself on the prevalent status quo, and bases its existence and functionality on its subjects. The metaphor of the parasite comes alive in the progression of the film, as we see the difference between the two classes become sharper and sharper with every encounter, every contrast that is created through the scenes. It is at its peak when Mr. Kim is cornered with his own reality when he is made to listen to Mr. Park talk about the way he smells. It is an essential element by virtue of it becoming the distinguishing element between the Park’s and the Kim’s, as all the Kim’s smell the same. The confrontation with his reality and the difference between that and Mr. Park’s reality creates a schism in the character of Mr. Kim, almost as if there is something inside him after that scene, that snaps. From a character that was comical and approachable, Mr. Kim becomes cold, almost as if the realization eats him up internally much like a parasite itself. It becomes his trigger and when Mr. Park seems to be appalled by the smell of Moon-gwang’s husband, Mr. Kim stabs him. It is the parasite like nature of the stark contrast between the lower and the upper class, the nature of the system that all the characters are subject to, that brings the tragic emptiness, and loss.

Bong Joon-Ho’s amalgamation of comedy, tragedy, and thriller-like elements bring out some brilliantly shot scenes in the film. The narration of the ghost sighting in the house, by Mrs. Park, is covered with eerie tones and the 3-second frame that introduces this “ghost” like figure sends chills down the spine without even capturing the entire body of the ghost. There is madness in Moon-gwang’s eyes when he rushes outside the bunker to kill his targets, that contrast with the emptiness in Mr. Kim’s eyes while simultaneously highlighting the schism that has taken place in his consciousness due to the confrontation with his reality. Which one of these characters is driven with madness, more than the other is hard to concretize. There are elements of comic relief in the way the Kim family struggles to find reception and free wifi in different corners of their home, or in Mrs. Kim’s grunt about how Min should have brought food rather than the landscape stone as a present.

The landscape stone or the scholar stone arrives at the Kim’s residence through Min, and Ki-woo seems to immediately make a strong connection with it. It is undeterminable whether Bong Joon-Ho attempts to depict the arrival of the stone as something mythical. “It’s so metaphorical,” says Ki-woo on accepting the stone, as if foregrounding the aftermath of the arrival of the stone and how the changes that come along with it. Would Bong Joon-Ho deliberately foreground the events that will follow, or is it a fleeting satirical comment on the superstition that the landscape stone brings wealth and luck? According to an article in The Hollywood Reporter by Brzeski, Choi Woo-Shik who plays Ki-woo, the stone first represented the responsibility of changing the fate of the family on the character, however, as the film progressed he started to think that maybe it was the family’s excuse to con the Park family and acquire a better socio-economic standard of living. Ki-woo, regardless of the symbolism of the stone, seems to have an eerie connection to the stone, it may or may not be his inspiration for a lifestyle, but it sure does transcend into being his prized possession that he looks for during a crisis, and eventually his murder weapon. In the scene where the Kim’s escape the Park’s mansion and return to a flooded home, the stone appears in the flooded house and surfaces almost as if it wants to be found by Ki-woo. In the following scene, Ki-woo hugs the stone, keeping it close to him throughout as if he is afraid to lose it. Perhaps it is not the family but Ki-woo who symbolizes the stone as the answer to his problems and that of his family. From a mythical collective, the stone becomes a last resort for Ki-woo, through which he will finally save his family.

“Parasite” is not a perfect or a flawless cinematic experience, but it is a creative one. In the process of infusing difference. Somewhere in the process of creating the build-up for the parts of the film as a thriller, it falls short. However, the compensation with music that highlights the tensions, the haste, suffices for this lack. It is a lack of flow in the scenes that induce the urgency and the fear that a thriller should have. However, this shortcoming might perhaps be irrelevant to other viewers. “Parasite” is an address of the chasm in the social strata that the lack of money creates through its comical lenses, and it’s tragic tangents in the narrative. The photographic frames take a backseat in the list of prioritized focal points for the film, while the narrative and the execution of the narrative take centrality.

The film adapts different narratorial as well as cinematic techniques for the representation of the social spectrum, while simultaneously exploring the elements of the thriller genre, orchestrating a story that somehow exits with a bitter-sweet and quite unexpected ending.

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Marlyn Pereira

“Taste is an ideological discourse” says John Storey and this is an attempt at delineating the two.