Parasite ( 기생충, or Gisaengchung) is a 2019 South Korean satirical film directed by Bong Joon-ho and written by him and Han Jin-won. It stars Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin, and Lee Jung-eun. The Kims (played by Song, Jang, Choi, and Park) are a poor family who live in a semi-basement apartment (banjiha); they cheat their way into getting jobs working for a bourgeois family, the Parks (played by Lee, Cho, Jung Ji-so, and Jung Hyeon-jun), the Kim employees pretending they aren’t related but much more qualified than they really are.
This is the first South Korean film (and the first non-English language film) to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s a scathing critique of capitalism and class conflict, a critique more and more urgently needed in today’s world.
Here are some quotes, translated into English:
Ki-jung: [about Moon-gwang] She may look like a sheep, but inside, she’s a fox. Sometimes she acts like she owns the house.
Ki-woo: Right. Of all the people in that house, she’s lived there the longest. She was housekeeper to the architect Namgoong, but then she went on to work for this family. When the architect moved out, he introduced this woman to Park’s family, telling them, “This is a great housekeeper, you should hire her”.
Chung-sook: So she survived a change of ownership.
Ki-woo: She won’t give up such a good job easily.
Ki-jung: To extract a woman like that, we need to prepare well.
Ki-woo: Right, we need a plan. [cut to a scene with Ki-woo and Da-hye]
Da-hye: I want to eat peaches. I like peaches best.
Ki-woo: Why not ask for some?
Da-hye: No peaches at our house. It’s a forbidden fruit. [cut back to the Kims]
Ki-woo: [about Moon-gwang] So according to what Da-hye told me, she’s got a pretty serious allergy to peaches. You know that fuzz on the peach skin? If she’s anywhere near it, she gets a full body rash, has trouble breathing, asthma, a total meltdown! [Moon-gwang falls sick after Ki-woo puts peach fuzz on her]
Ki-taek: They are rich but still nice.
Chung-sook: They are nice because they are rich.
Ki-taek: Rich people are naive. No resentments. No creases on them.
Chung-sook: It all gets ironed out. Money is an iron. Those creases all get smoothed out by money.
“If I had all this I would be kinder.” –Chung-sook
“What are you, a family of charlatans?” –Moon-gwang
“Don’t fucking call me sis, you filthy bitch!” –Moon-gwang, to Chung-sook
[to his son] “You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned. Look around you. Did you think these people made a plan to sleep in the sports hall with you? But here we are now, sleeping together on the floor. So, there’s no need for a plan. You can’t go wrong with no plans. We don’t need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next. Even if the country gets destroyed or sold out, nobody cares. Got it?” –Ki-taek
“Dad, today I made a plan – a fundamental plan. I’m going to earn money, a lot of it. University, a career, marriage, those are all fine, but first I’ll earn money. When I have money, I’ll buy the house. On the day we move in, Mom and I will be in the yard. Because the sunshine is so nice there. All you’ll need to do is walk up the stairs. Take care until then. So long.” –Ki-woo, in a letter to Ki-taek (last lines)
The Kims’ smelly banjiha has a Wi-Fi connection so bad, they have to use their cellphones by the toilet. A drunk habitually pisses just outside their window, and Ki-taek, the father of the family, is annoyed by the “stink bugs,” one of which he flicks away with his finger. He welcomes the awful fumes of a pesticide spray from outside to get rid of the bugs.
Min-hyuk, a university student and friend of Ki-woo’s, gives the family a scholar’s rock as a gift to promise wealth for the Kims. He also tells Ki-woo about a job teaching English to Da-hye, a teenage girl in the rich Park family. Yeon-gyo, the lady of the Park house, is rather “simple” and so should be easily deceived that Ki-woo, as Min-hyuk’s replacement teacher, is more qualified than he really is.
After getting the job, he convinces Yeon-gyo to hire his sister, Ki-jung, as an art teacher and “therapist” for Yeon-gyo’s traumatized little boy, Da-song, pretending that Ki-woo’s sister, “Jessica,” is barely even an acquaintance.
Eventually, Ki-taek gets a job as the Parks’ driver, after Ki-jung has the Parks fire their previous driver, Yoon, based on a false accusation of having engaged in lewd behaviour in the car; and Chung-sook gets a job as the housekeeper, after an elaborate plan involving deceiving Yeon-gyo into believing the Parks’ original housekeeper, Moon-gwang (played by Lee Jung-eun), secretly has tuberculosis. All of the Kims, of course, pretend they aren’t related.
As such, the Kims are a kind of collective parasite on the bourgeois family, enjoying good salaries and eating nice food, all based on false pretences. Later, we learn that Moon-gwang was also a parasite, using her job to feed her husband, Oh Geun-se (played by Park Myung-hoon), who’s living in a basement bunker under the Parks’ beautiful house to hide from creditors.
Calling these poor, needy families parasites is ironic, given the capitalist context. We Marxists know that it is the capitalist who is the real parasite, draining the energy and life out of his workers to make profits. The workers put value into the commodities they produce, but the capitalist sucks out that value like a leech, stealing it in the form of surplus value, and getting rich off of workers’ blood, sweat, and tears. The capitalist’s exploitation of labour is the true parasitic behaviour, so when the Kims and Moon-gwang engage in parasitism, it can be seen as a matter of karmic retribution.
This film shows us the true, proletarian South Korea, not the country saturated in bourgeois values as seen in such popular South Korean TV shows as Crash Landing on You (which, incidentally, includes Jang Hye-jin and Park Myung-hoon among the supporting actors), with its attractive cast in beautiful clothes living in luxurious settings (the more austere North Korean scenes excepted).
The ironic labelling of poor South Koreans as parasites inspires me to see a few vague associations of the film’s plot with John Milton‘s Paradise Lost. I’m not saying Bong intended it; nor am I imagining there to be exact, point-for-point correspondences between the characters and chronology of the film and epic poem–far from it. Still, there are some connections interesting enough to explore.
The banjiha and underground bunker can be seen to represent hell, the hell of the working class. This makes the workers the devils, though I’m calling them “devils” with the utmost irony, for this story must be seen from the point of view of a ‘capitalist morality.’ The Park family represent Adam and Eve, who are easily beguiled by the serpentine “devils,” who trick them into employing all of them. The beautiful house is the Garden of Eden, a capitalist paradise designed by an architect, Mr. Namgoong (“God”), who has left to live in Paris.
As in Paradise Lost (Note how, fortuitously, Parasite is almost an anagram of ‘Paradise’!), the movie can be said to have begun in medias res, with our working-class ‘devils’ already plunged into the hell of the urban poor, having nothing but their labour to sell to survive.
Before this casting away (i.e., the pre-industrialized Korea of the early to mid-twentieth century), most Koreans had lived a simple peasant farmer life, living off the land, a kind of rural ‘heaven,’ even though they were ruled over and oppressed by landlords, the Japanese, and the bourgeois. To put it ever so mildly, this was far from an ideal life, but we’re comparing Koreans to the rebel angels here, and as Satan says in Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.” (Book I, line 263) Better that the Korean proletariat reign in a communist ‘hell’ (as understood in bourgeois propaganda) than serve in a capitalist ‘heaven’ (also as understood in bourgeois propaganda).
Looked at in this context, we can understand the Korean attempt to establish socialism, to improve Koreans’ lives by overthrowing the bourgeoisie, which was then thwarted in the Korean War and in the establishment of South Korea as a capitalist state. Such a thwarting can be compared to the war in heaven between Satan’s rebel angels, the devils resisting God’s tyranny, and God’s loyal angels.
North Korea may have succeeded in the creation of a socialist state, but we’re concerned here with the South Korean working class, who lost in their attempt to create a proletarian dictatorship because of the prevailing hegemony of US imperialism. Hence, the miserable lot of the Kims is comparable to that of fallen Satan and his demons. And just as Satan learns of the Garden of Eden, Adam, and Eve, so does Ki-woo learn of the Park family’s job opportunity…and just as Satan plans to sabotage paradise on Earth, so do the Kims plan to infiltrate the Parks’ Edenic home.
Most of the Kims’ tricking and beguiling is done to Yeon-gyo, the Eve of the family; and as we know, the serpent (Satan in disguise) tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. The difficult and tricky process of getting employment for all of the Kims reminds us of when Satan says, “long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Book II, lines 432-433)
Religion is used to justify such authoritarian ways of doing things as feudalism and capitalism; accordingly, it is assumed that God in Paradise Lost is all-good–hence Milton’s claim to “justify the ways of God to men.” (Book I, line 26) So is it also assumed that capitalists’ successes are admirable achievements, a result of God’s grace, rather than the exploitation of the poor.
Still, Milton’s God shows hints of a more despotic rule. God says, “…man will…/easily transgress the sole command,/Sole pledge of his obedience: so will fall,/He and his faithless progeny: whose fault?/Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of me/All he could have; I made him just and right,/Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” (Book III, lines 93, 94-99) What God says here about Adam and Eve can be equally applied to the rebel angels, who were also free to obey or disobey Him. Note His bitter comments about how man is “faithless” and an “ingrate.” Such an attitude is hardly in keeping with a loving, merciful God. He faults any who don’t do His bidding, never Himself.
Such an attitude can also be seen in the capitalist, who imagines that the proletariat are “free” to be employed in any job they like, or to quit any they don’t like. Such a simplistic judgement fails to address the reality workers face when they struggle to find work, competing with the reserve army of labour that’s trying to get the same jobs. Since workers don’t own the means of production, and can live only by selling their own labour, it’s absurd to describe them meaningfully as free.
We fall because, with the limitations we have in knowledge and moral strength, what else can we do? I discuss the weakness of the argument of Christian free will in this post (scroll down to about the middle). We wouldn’t fall, no matter how much free will we had to do wrong, if we had the moral strength and the wisdom to know that making the morally wrong choice would destroy us. Capitalists, just like Christian authoritarians, justify their power over us by claiming we have a freedom we lack.
Workers’ foul body odour is a recurring motif in Parasite. Mr. Park finds Mr. Kim’s smell difficult to endure, and Da-song notes how all the Kims have the same smell. Geun-se also has the odour. Related to the smell of the stink bugs, these ‘poor devils’ have the smell of hell. Now, even though the Kims do do their share of bad things, we viewers sympathize with the Kims (and with Moon-gwang and Geun-se); just as Satan, the hero of Paradise Lost, has at least some sympathy from Milton’s readers, even though he is evil.
Moon-gwang’s allergy to peaches makes them “forbidden fruit” in the Parks’ house. The Kims’ exploitation of her weakness, misrepresenting it as tuberculosis to the ever-gullible Yeon-gyo, causes Moon-gwang to be dismissed. Since she has been feeding her husband, Geun-se, in the bunker, and she has now been kicked out of the Parks’ Edenic house, Moon-gwang is, in this sense, a second Eve who has lost paradise. It’s interesting in this connection that Mr. Park, already missing her cooking, has a craving for some ribs [!].
The use of the “forbidden fruit,” leading to Moon-gwang’s dismissal, begins a chain of events ultimately leading to the Kims’ expulsion from the house, too. While the Parks are out camping, the Kims get drunk in the house, a sensual indulgence comparable to Adam and Eve eating of the Tree of Knowledge. (In this sense, the Kims can be seen as doubles of Adam and Eve, too; for after all, the naked lovers, as fellow rebels to God, can easily be seen as doubles of the devils.)
When Moon-gwang returns to the house in a desperate attempt to procure food for starving Geun-se, she tries to appeal to Chung-sook’s sense of compassion for and solidarity with the needy; but Chung-sook would rather identify with the Parks, and so she tries to call the police on Moon-gwang and Geun-se. In this sense, class-collaborating Chung-sook is a devil.
Of course, when Moon-gwang and Geun-se realize that the Kims are a family rather than the unrelated employees they’ve been pretending to be, she grows equally hostile to them. She records video of them on her cellphone, the sound having recorded Ki-woo calling Ki-taek ‘Dad,’ and she threatens to send the video to the Parks. Now the lack of working-class solidarity is a two-way street.
Moon-gwang and Geun-se compare the ‘send’ command on her cellphone to a nuclear warhead from North Korea. She tauntingly speaks in mock reverence of the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, as if ready ‘to launch the warhead.’ This juxtaposition of no mutual solidarity among workers with feigned loyalty to the DPRK could be seen as a sardonic comment on infighting among leftists, including those who profess to be staunch Marxist-Leninists.
The Kims manage to get the phone away from Moon-gwang and Geun-se; the Kims also confine them in the bunker. Meanwhile, rain and flooding have caused the Parks to give up on their camping plans and come home. The Kims must clean up quickly and hide everyone except for Chung-sook.
With the Parks back home that night, little Da-song wants to play ‘Indian’ and camp in his American-made teepee on the lawn outside. This is an indication of how far the South Korean bourgeoisie has been enmeshed in American cultural imperialism: they copy the white man’s appropriation of other cultures.
As Mr. Park and Yeon-gyo wait on the living room sofa for Da-song to finish his camping game, they–not knowing that Ki-taek, Ki-woo, and Ki-jung are hiding under the coffee tables–engage in some sexual fondling. We can see a parallel here with a scene in Paradise Lost, when Adam and Eve have lustful sex after having eaten the forbidden fruit. (Book IX, lines 1034-1045)
Eventually, Ki-taek, Ki-woo, and Ki-jung sneak out of the house and walk home that night in the rain. When they discover that not only the rain but also the sewer water is flooding their banjiha (as well as every other banjiha in their neighbourhood), we see in this incident a parallel with the Great Flood as predicted in Book XI of Paradise Lost (lines 719-867).
The cause of the Great Flood, as scholars have pointed out (Mays, page 88), was the prohibited mixing of the divine and human worlds, as shown when the “sons of God” mated with the “daughters of men” (Genesis 6:1-4; note also in Milton, Book XI, lines 683-697, “those ill-mated marriages” [line 684]). Similarly, Ki-woo, one of the ‘fallen angels’ of the working class, has been fooling around with Da-hye, the daughter of the Park family, her parents being the ‘Adam and Eve’ of the movie.
As Mr. Park frequently says, he can’t stand it when employees “cross the line,” or move outside of the circumscribed realm of their class. This notion of “crossing the line” can be paralleled with the prohibition against mixing the divine and human worlds, where ‘divine’ represents the bourgeoisie, and ‘human’ represents the proletariat…or if you prefer, the capitalistically righteous sons of God (the Seth-like Parks) are mingling with the sinfully proletarian daughters of men (the Cain-like Kims).
My interpretation of the primeval history of Genesis (scroll down to Part X) is that the mixing of the divine and human worlds, understood as sinful, is a reflection of the wish of the priestly class, representing God, to separate themselves from the lay population; by keeping separate through self-sanctification, the priests could better assert their authority and power. The same goes for the capitalist class: if the proletariat “crosses the line,” the bourgeoisie’s power is threatened.
Mr. Park says that Mr. Kim’s body odour “crosses the line,” since the breathing in of that odour is, symbolically, an introjection of Mr. Kim’s life essence, as it were. It’s one thing for the bourgeoisie to have to interact with the proletariat; it’s another one altogether if these two classes, meant to be separate in essence from each other, are exchanging projections and introjections of each other’s energies, which feels tantamount to erasing the boundaries between classes, “crossing the line.”
Ki-taek’s resentment over his hated smell builds over the course of the movie. It starts with his dislike of the stink bugs at the beginning of the film, and with the letting in of the pesticide fumes. Then there’s Mr. Park’s distaste of the smell, along with Chung-sook’s comparing him to a cockroach (associated with stink bugs, and thus the smell) during the Kims’ drunken party, provoking Kim-taek’s grabbing her by the shirt and threatening to hit her. Later, as he’s driving Yeon-gyo in the back seat, he notices her putting her hand to her nose.
This smell of hell reminds him, over and over again, of his low origins; no matter how hard he and his family try to rise socially, they’ll always have that shameful, infernal stink.
Added to his resentment is the stress he feels over what he and the other Kims have done to Moon-gwang and Geun-se. In their drunkenness that night, the Kims have shown no solidarity with the husband and concussed wife trapped and tied up in the underground bunker; but the next day, there is some residual sense of sympathy, responsibility, and remorse over how they’ve treated Moon-gwang and Geun-se. Similarly, during that night of drunkenness, Ki-taek shows some sympathy for the original driver, Yoon, whose job he has stolen.
The next day, the Kims want to help Moon-gwang and Geun-se, but it’s too late: she’s died from her head injury, accidentally caused by Chung-sook’s having shoved her down the stairs to the bunker the night before; and Geun-se wants revenge. Ki-taek has tied Geun-se’s hands up, and so his only way to communicate with the outside world is by pushing a large button at eye-level on a wall using Morse Code. This means that Geun-se has to hit the button many times with his forehead, causing a bloody mark there.
Since he commits the first deliberate murder in the movie (after the attempted murder of Ki-woo by hitting the boy twice on the head with the scholar’s rock, Geun-se takes a kitchen knife and stabs Ki-jung outside at Yeon-gyo’s impromptu party), that bloody mark on his head can be associated with the mark of Cain, whose murder of Abel is mentioned in Book XI of Paradise Lost (lines 429-460)
So Geun-se can be seen as doubling as an underground devil and as Cain. To make the association clearer, recall Hamlet saying that Cain “did the first murder” (Act V, scene i), and recall also John 8:44, when Jesus said that the devil “was a murderer from the beginning.” Remember that human sinners are like devils on earth, since both sinner and devil are rebels against God.
Just before the violence, Mr. Park would have Ki-taek help him indulge in more disrespectful appropriation of Native American culture by having himself and his driver wear the feathered headdresses and brandish tomahawks, so Da-song can come out of his teepee and have some fun. Ki-taek’s mounting stress–not only from his worries over what’s happened in the bunker, but also from the culturally imperialist absurdity of playing “Indian” with his capitalist employers–is showing in the frown on his face.
But seeing his daughter stabbed, his wife fighting off Geun-se, and Da-hye carrying injured Ki-woo away, is pushing Ki-taek to the limit of endurance. Da-song, believing Geun-se to be a ghost from the underworld (and as I’ve argued above, that’s what he is symbolically), whom he’s seen, and been traumatized by, before, faints at the sight of the killer.
Mr. Park and Yeon-gyo are desperate to rush the boy to the hospital, and he demands Ki-taek’s help; but their driver is naturally far more preoccupied with the injuries done to his own family, still a secret kept from the Parks. He tosses the car keys over to Mr. Park, but must also help dying Ki-jung. Here we can see the conflict between capitalism and the family, which can only meaningfully coexist for the bourgeoisie.
As Karl Marx said in The Communist Manifesto, “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution.” (II: Proletarians and Communists)
Chung-sook manages to stop Geun-se by stabbing him in the side with a skewer. Dying Geun-se looks up and sees Mr. Park, whom he regards as almost god-like for providing him, however unwittingly, with a home and food, and shouts, “Respect!” Ki-taek has earlier shown a similar, almost religious reverence to Park, saying, “Let’s offer a prayer of gratitude to the great Mr. Park.” Ki-taek has also spoken of the “bounteous Wi-Fi,” earlier in the film; thus do we see how the ‘poor devils’ are sinful idolaters of the bourgeoisie and the products that capitalists sell to us.
Mr. Park gives thanks to this class collaborationist ass-kissing in a predictably capitalist way: by putting his hand to his nose. Ooh, that smell! This latest affront to working-class dignity is too much for Ki-taek to bear, so he, in a wildly impulsive move, grabs Geun-se’s knife and stabs Mr. Park. Fittingly, we see a stink bug crawling on dying Geun-se’s body. Also fittingly, the headdress falls off Ki-taek’s head just before the stabbing, representing his rejection of capitalist cultural imperialism, and its abusive appropriation of the cultures of conquered peoples.
This killing of Mr. Park, the Adam of the story, recalls Genesis 3:19, God’s pronunciation of the death sentence on Adam, also found in Paradise Lost, Book X, lines 206-208. Here we see how the capitalist (Adam), too, is killed by capitalism (God); for its contradictions, as Marx prophesied in Volume 3 of Capital, would cause it to destroy itself, through the agent of the revolutionary proletariat.
Indeed, Ki-taek is finally demonstrating a little worker solidarity, acknowledging Park as his class enemy. Finally, violence against the bourgeoisie has been achieved…but it’s far from enough to help the proletariat. One must build socialism after the overthrow of the ruling class (as the DPRK did), and the Kims never achieve this. So, just as Satan boasts to the other devils of having succeeded in taking control of the world (Book X, lines 460-503), but then he and his demons are turned into limbless serpents (Book X, lines 504-577), so are the Kims thwarted in their hopes to use their jobs to take over the Parks’ house and improve their lives.
When Ki-woo wakes up in hospital and is told his Miranda rights by a police detective, he finds himself involuntarily laughing. The doctor there says people who have undergone brain surgery sometimes laugh like this. Ki-woo continues uncontrollably smiling and laughing when he sees a photo of now-dead Ki-jung, all while Chung-sook is weeping over the loss of her daughter.
This laughing during a mournful family moment reminds us of Arthur Fleck‘s pseudobulbar affect, which happens most notably when he’s upset. As I argued in that post, this laughing/weeping represents the dialectical relationship between sorrow and happiness. Recall Laozi‘s words: “Misery is what happiness rests upon./Happiness is what misery lurks beneath.” (Tao Te Ching 58)
The point is that suffering has grown so extreme for Ki-woo that he laughs rather than sobs; one goes past the ouroboros‘ bitten tail of weeping and over to the even greater sobbing of the serpent’s biting head, expressed in laughing. (See these posts to see how I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical unity of opposites, the serpent’s head and tail representing extreme opposites on a circular continuum, the ouroboros’ coiled body, representing the middle points.)
Finally, once Ki-woo is better, he tries to find his missing father. The surviving Kims are the only people who know about the underground bunker, so he rightly suspects that Ki-taek is hiding down there. In a desperate attempt at communicating with the outside world, Ki-taek uses Geun-se’s method of tapping that button in Morse Code so someone outside might, by chance, see the flashing light and decode the message. This desperate communication is yet another example of alienation caused by capitalism: if only father and son could speak to each other face to face.
Fortunately, Ki-woo sees and decodes his father’s message. The boy’s plan is to make as much money as he can to buy the Parks’ old house one day and free his father from his underground prison, his hell. This hope of a rescue, far off into the future and difficult to have faith in, reminds us of the promise to Adam in Book XII of Paradise Lost (lines 386-465) of paradise regained at the end of time, salvation from Christ’s crucifixion.
Now, Adam will have to wait interminably in Sheol for the Divine Rescue, but he will eventually get it. Similarly, the surviving Park family can hope for a better life after the tragedy at the party, even after the death of Mr. Park…because they have the money for that hope. His money lives on after him.
Ki-taek, on the other hand, isn’t anywhere near as lucky. He must wait for Ki-woo, still stuck in the Kims’ old hell-hole of a banjiha, to scrounge up the money to regain the paradise of the Parks’ former home, a rather unlikely achievement, to put it mildly. For remember, in my scrambled allegory of Milton’s epic, the Parks are redeemable Adam and Eve, but the Kims are the devils, forever stuck in the hell of South Korean capitalism, the Seoul of Sheol.