Exploring the Many Faces of Parasitism with ‘Parasite’

Exploring Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece by breaking down the title.
By  · Published on April 14th, 2020

Spoiler warning: This article contains spoilers for Parasite. If you have not seen the film, it is now available to stream on Hulu, so drop whatever it is you’re doing, go watch it, and then come back here. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Biologically, the technical term to describe a long-term relationship between two organisms is symbiosis. Under this umbrella term, there are three main categories into which such relationships fall: mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism. In a mutualistic relationship, both organisms (or “symbionts,” if you want to be extra fancy) benefit from the association. In commensalism, one organism benefits while the other is unaffected. In parasitism, one organism (the parasite) benefits at the expense of the other (the host), who suffers.

Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho is no stranger to packing razor-sharp truths in immaculately crafted cinematic packages, but with the history-making Oscar-winner Parasite, he truly outdoes himself. Class conflict is an eternally relevant and popular subject for storytellers, but the clarity and nuance with which Parasite tackles the issues is truly remarkable. For those who need a refresher, the film centers around the struggling Kim family — mom Chung-suk (Jang Hye-jin), dad Ki-taek (repeat Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho), and their adult children Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-Jeong (Park So-dam, a standout amongst a spectacular ensemble) — who scheme their way into positions working for the wealthy Park family, falsifying qualifications and ultimately framing the Parks’ chauffer and housekeeper, Oh Mun-gwang (Lee Jung-Eun), to make way for their takeover. What the Kims hadn’t accounted for, however, was Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon), Mun-gwang’s husband, who has been hiding in the secret basement bunker of the Park home for four years unbeknownst to all but his wife.

There’s so much to unpack that it’s hardly surprising there is no shortage of thematic breakdowns and “ending explained” posts circulating around the interwebs. That said, let’s get something out of the way right off the top: I’m not about to break down every single aspect of the film because that would require writing a book, and there are many aspects of the film which I, as an American, lack the cultural knowledge to speak to — although for those interested, Ask a Korean! published a great piece that gives quite a bit of helpful context on that front.

Parasite is at once an excellent and challenging film to comment on because it says a lot while giving the viewer space to reach their own conclusions. As Bong told Vulture’s E. Alex Jung, “It’s not about telling you how to change the world or how you should act because something is bad, but rather showing you the terrible, explosive weight of reality. That’s what I believe is the beauty of cinema.”

It is tempting to approach Parasite asking the question “who is the parasite?” and then build an argument in support of the preferred answer that suits your existing viewpoints, but such a line of inquiry is ultimately ill-suited to the nature of the film. Everyone in Parasite is a parasite. One could try taking an “all people are parasites but some are more parasitic than others” stance, a la Animal Farm, but that’s difficult rhetorical ground to stand on.

Instead, today we’re going back to Rhetoric 101: defining one’s terms. Little of the considerable discussion around Parasite I have encountered has addressed the nitty-gritty of what being a parasite entails. This presents a somewhat fundamental issue in trying to discuss the movie with others: if you’re not on the same page about what parasitism looks like, it’s going to be hard to see eye-to-eye.

The dictionary definition of parasitism laid out at the top of this article is very simple, but the faces of parasitism evidenced throughout the animal kingdom are numerous and varied. Parasitism, in truth, can look like a lot of things. Understanding that is at the heart of Parasite, particularly the crux of the climactic scene in which Geun-sae kills Ki-Jeong and Ki-taek kills the Park patriarch, Dong-ik, at his young son’s ill-fated birthday party.

There is a bit of a paradox at the heart of parasitism: a parasite drains resources from its host, but it usually does not want that host to die, kind of like the way you usually don’t want your house to burn down because you enjoy living in it and not being homeless. Admittedly, there are exceptions to this rule, known as parasitoids. Adult parasitoids lay eggs inside host creatures that are then eaten alive from the inside by the parasitic larvae. There are pictures of this phenomenon online but you do not want to see them. Please, trust me on that one.

But to return to the general rule instead of the exception, parasites usually want their host to do as well as it possibly can under the circumstances because that is often the best-case scenario for the parasite. So the Kims jump through hoops to take over the Parks’ household staff and do their jobs well. It’s not unheard of for a parasite to want to keep its host happy.

Both the Kims and the Ohs seek more from the Parks and their house than the Parks realize — the Kims are employed under false pretenses, Mun-gwang gets a place to hide Geun-sae from loan sharks — which is inherently parasitic behavior, although well within the Parks’ capacity to comfortably (albeit unknowingly) support. That is, until the Kims and Ohs become aware of each others’ fundamentally incompatible scheming.

If there is any slight notion of class solidarity between the Ohs and the Kims, it disappears the moment each realizes the threat of exposure (therefore, expulsion) posed by the other, and polite professionalism turns violent with fatal consequences in the blink of an eye. The brutality of their clash feels not just within reason but inevitable when considering it as two parasites struggling over control of a prime host. There are no comrades in Darwinian survival struggles, only competitors.

But, as mentioned earlier, everyone in Parasite is a parasite. Everyone. It’s a commentary about a cruel and destructive capitalist system that warps people in cruel and destructive ways but is kept afloat by false promises of upward mobility –scholars’ rocks that float because they are hollow and Ki-Woo’s dream that hard work and determination will bring him the success necessary to one day purchase the Park house himself.

The Parks are also parasites. They are not merely parasitic, but obligately parasitic. They require the labor of others to have their basic physiological needs and human responsibilities met, from feeding and clothing themselves to caring for their children. Being in such an enviable position inherently requires there must be circumstances such that others have good reason to be desperately envious, living in semi-basement flats falling apart at the seams and facing financial circumstances so dire the damp darkness of an underground fallout shelter is the preferable option.

Bong Joon-ho has a particular talent for endings that pack a punch, from Detective Park Doo-man turning his suspicious gaze directly to the camera at the end of Memories of Murder to the heart-breaking truth behind Mother‘s central mystery, and young Park Da-song’s ill-fated birthday party is no exception. Unhinged with grief after his wife succumbs to head wounds sustained after being kicked down the bunker stairs by Chung-suk, Geun-sae escapes his basement prison seeking revenge, knocking Ki-Woo unconscious before interrupting the backyard festivities armed with a kitchen knife.

Ki-jeong, roped into taking an active role at the party instead of the promised “guest” appearance, does not even have a split second to defend herself from her attacker, hands already full with Da-song’s birthday cake complete with lit candles. She hits back as much as she can, but a pastry is no match for a sharpened blade; she dies.

Ki-taek watches his daughter bleed out in the grass and his wife fights for her life against Geun-sae in stunned horror. The Park patriarch, Dong-ik, has a distinctly different reaction to seeing his son’s tutor and the family housekeeper in mortal peril: he screams impatiently at Ki-taek for his car keys. When Ki-taek doesn’t respond, Dong-ik risks moving closer to the carnage to retrieve the keys himself from where they’ve fallen on the ground, taking the time to hold his nose in disgust at Ki-taek’s “semi-basement” smell.

It’s at this point that Ki-taek picks up the kitchen knife and stabs Dong-ik for basically the same reason the Kims and the Ohs turned violently against each other: seeing the terrible consequences that so outweigh the short-lived benefits his family gained by working for the Parks, Ki-taek recognizes his employer as not a mostly-benevolent host, but yet another parasite.

The rosy fantasy of neoliberal capitalism is one of mutualism, of understanding compensation for labor as a system in which both parties benefit and benefit comparably. What Parasite does so brilliantly is to show how, behind this fantasy, the reality is often better described as reciprocal parasitism — of a system defined by everyone constantly taking, forcing those who have the least to live on the precarious cliff’s edge of losing everything.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.