To celebrate Parasite’s 1st anniversary, we perform a detailed analysis of the masterpiece that revolutionized Asian cinema and became the first non-English speaking film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Spoiler warning for Parasite (2019).
Last year, Parasite took the world by storm. The South Korean film, directed by Bong Joon Ho, became an instant classic as it won the Oscar for Best Picture despite its staunchly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist themes. One year later, its impact becomes especially resonant in light of the pandemic and the obvious disproportionate effects based on class disparities. In honor of its one-year release anniversary (just a little bit late), here are analyses of my three favorite motifs throughout the film.
- The Rock
The rock is an interesting symbol in Parasite because the protagonist Ki-Woo himself recognizes it for what it is: “It’s so metaphorical.” It’s first introduced when Ki-Woo’s friend Min brings it as a gift to his family. Min describes it as a scholars stone—landscape rocks commonly displayed on the desks of Confucian scholars, prevalent in East Asia. Min claims that the rock is meant to bring “material wealth.” Shortly after, the family does end up getting employed by the Parks, but the capital success is short-lived as a rainstorm floods their semi-basement and they are forced to salvage a few of their little belongings. Ki-Woo chooses this rock, and as his father asks why he’s clinging to it, Ki-Woo responds that he feels as though it’s following him. Only the next day, as he heads down to the basement with the rock with unknown intentions, he has his skull bashed in with it. The rock makes its final appearance near the end of the film, as Ki-Woo writes his letter to his father, saying he’s going to make money honestly as he places the rock into the water.
Whatever the rock stands for, we know it must be tied to the idea of material wealth, as Min says. To me, the rock stands for the idea that material wealth can bring happiness at all. When the family believes they have it made once they’re all employed, they find that dream shattered at the end with their family permanently fractured. When Ki-Woo puts the rock back, although he still plans on making money, this time he just wants to be with his father again.
- The US
The US as a motif in Parasite may not be immediately obvious, but once you notice it, you realize how prevalent it really is. The Park family never fails to mention the items that they’ve gotten shipped from the US as a sign of their quality: the Indian arrows, the son’s tent. The Park son Da-Song also fetishizes the idea of the Native American, cosplaying as one throughout the film and even having his birthday party themed around it, which his parents chalk down to his being a Cub Scout. English, too, is constantly used by the characters in the film to prove their class or to show off. Ki-Woo tutoring Da-Hye is the family’s attempt to get her into a good university as well.
This fetishization of the US, the imperialist view of what the Native Americans should be, and the use of English as a class marker all reflect theorist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s idea of the North Atlantic Universal. His theory states that the countries of the North Atlantic (i.e. the US and Britain) dominate the global sphere and have become synonymous with a universal or global culture. Globalization and modernization are measured in terms of how close they come to the North Atlantic interpretation of these processes. It’s consequently unsurprising that Ho, known for his anti-imperialist themes, would satirize the cultural imperialism of the US.
- The Parasites
Bugs make their first appearance early on in the film when Ki-tae flicks a stinkbug off the table, ridding his own home of parasites. The connection between the bugs as something to be exterminated and the Kim family is initially made as the family proceeds to sit at the table, continuing to fold pizza boxes earnestly as the street and their home is fumigated. The connection between the Kim family and bugs in the home is furthered when Chung-sook tells Ki-tae that if the Park family were to come home and see them drinking, he’d scurry away like a cockroach. This exact situation proceeds to happen as the Park family unexpectedly comes back and they are forced to clean up and hide until they fall asleep. On a more metaphorical level, Moon-gwang supports her husband Geun-sae as he lives in their basement, and the Kim family joins the household to work for the Park family.
These signs may point to the Kim family and Geun-sae being the “parasites” of the film, but Ho challenges this assumption with some of the dialogue in the film. First, when Ki-tae accuses Moon-gwang of stealing food to feed Geun-sae, she tells him that she bought all of her husband’s food from her own paycheck. Though he does live in their basement, it isn’t something that the Park family ever knew about or used, so they live in mutually exclusive spheres.
The Kim family, though appearing to “leech” off of the Park family, are in reality performing all the labor required of them from the implicit agreement between the Kim and Park family, that one will offer labor and the other will offer capital in exchange. Nathan Park himself says that his wife has no “talent” for housework (which is also shown later as she struggles to close an overly full dishwasher) and that the house will be in chaos in a week. Da-song does in fact have trauma which Ki-jung recognizes, and though not trained in art therapy, she does have art skills and succeeds in getting Da-song to open up to her, something which is meant to be difficult for him according to his mother. Ki-woo, as Min says, has taken the exam enough times to be able to tutor Da-hye in English. Ki-tae does personally chauffeur the Park family around and also helps with chores such as carrying groceries and such.
The Kim family is, in fact, painted as essential to the Park family to function, so much so that by the end when they need to take Da-song to the hospital, Nathan needs to ask Ki-tae to drive them and, when he won’t, needs to ask him for the keys. Though the Park family is painted as taking care of and providing for the Kim family and Geun-sae and Moon-gwang (as Geun-sae regularly pays his “respect” to Nathan Park), in reality, the Park family needs their labor to maintain their own lives (with the exception of Geun-sae, who, though he never worked for the Park family, was largely self-sufficient. At the very least, he performed the role of turning on the lights which were initially thought to be sensor-activated).
Who, then, are the parasites of the film? Geun-sae on his wife? The Park family on society? I don’t know that I have an answer for that. The title and theme of “Parasite” at least challenges our immediate assumptions on the value that we place on labor and capital.
Parasite is available to stream on Hulu and to rent on platforms including Amazon Prime and YouTube.