Bong Joon-ho, the erudite South Korean writer-director, is at the peak of his game with Parasite, orchestrating a movie that barrages you with its brisk pacing, basks you in its beautiful visuals, and prods your thinking with its daring script. Parasite had me rapt with curiosity and left in deep thought. It is worth studying from various angles – there are many-an-article left to write about Parasite and it will receive a great editorial future. Here, I want to take a shot at one question: Who or what the title is referring to? The movie is laden with numerous clues, straddling the line between ambiguity and certainty, hence, one can glean different convincing interpretations.
an organism that lives in or on an organism of another species (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the other’s expense.
In a literal sense, the family might be the most plausible answer. The first half of the movie, before the reckoning bell rings, is a stage on which the family plays their series of deceit; with us rooting for them. From the very first scene, they exude such alluring chemistry that you can’t help but fall in love, cheering them as they go on with their subterfuge. The opening scene, where they are hilariously trying to connect to a neighbor’s Wi-Fi living above them, encapsulates the family as a team striving for a common goal. This companionship lies at the core of our interest; this is what makes us relate to them. At least on the surface, the movie doesn’t portray them as your typical poor victim family, but rather as people who are trying to overcome their destitution. Their behavior resembles that of a parasite the most when they infiltrate the rich host – Mr. Park. Their common goal is to survive poverty through one well-executed plan: to all be hired by the rich host. Completely oblivious to the trickery, Mr. Park and his wife, Yeon, are coaxed into hiring all of them, indicating how the host is unaware of the parasite and its spread. They literally live inside the host, deriving nutrients at his expense and finally, they kill him. One counterargument would be the service that the family offers, they’re not simply sucking the host dry like a parasite; which is what the next candidate does: the bunker guy.
Sticking with the literal definition, another cogent answer is the bunker guy. He’s living inside the host, nourishing off of him without his awareness, and eventually, leads him to death. Earlier in the movie, Kim mentions that he worked as a valet after some cake shop went bust. The bunker guy shares a similar experience as he tales how his cake shop went bust, hence got overwhelmed with debt, and wound up in the bunker to hide from the debt collectors. During the narration, Bong Joon-ho takes a medium profile shot of Kim reacting to it, highlighting the similarity. Given this, coupled with Kim’s fate, where he ends up in the bunker with a bleak future akin to this guy, the movie might be alluding to him as the next parasite, implying a loop. What makes Parasite more than just a fun thriller is its multi-layered script, which begs to be explored on different levels of analysis, therefore, I will take a look at two different cases which I believe carry some of the movie’s important themes and might be related to the question.
Stepping away from the literal definition, we can tap into Mr. Park’s view of the poor. To him, the poor are mere servants that can be dispensed with; mere tools that should know their place and never cross the line, the odor of whom stirs up memories of filthy subways. Yeon adopts a similar view, and therefore, we can extend the whole idea to the rich vs the poor. The movie conveys how the rich distance themselves from the poor through odor – like Mr. Park’s reaction to how Kim smells – in tandem with hygiene – like Yeon’s nauseated demeanor over shaking Kim’s hand. This view culminates in the wild birthday scene, where Kim’s smoldering rage erupts as he can no longer put up with Mr. Park’s contempt; shown in slow-motion to emphasize the odor. So, Parasite might be referring to a view the rich hold of the poor.
Gliding into a metaphorical realm, there might be a link – although tenuous – between this eerie rock and the question. Given how Bong Joon-ho is meticulous with his shot choices, he wants us to take it seriously as he has shot it in close-up multiple times, and in slow-motion accompanied by a mysterious score. The family’s infiltration journey begins as they receive this gift from Ki-woo’s friend, which was supposed to bring wealth yet wound up as a curse, and Ki-woo letting go of it marks a new beginning. Furthermore, he wanted to use the rock to kill the bunker guy, which, quite the contrary, it ensnared himself, leading to the rampage that was the birthday scene. One can go as far as to suggest it was a parasite that assailed the family and tore them apart. Even if the rock is not related to the question, its significance shouldn’t be glossed over.
No matter how you look at it, from a literal or metaphorical perspective, Parasite refuses to give a definitive answer; only interpretations. I have mustered up four – the family, the bunker guy or Kim, the view of the rich, and the rock – all of which can be the answer, but I find the bunker guy to be the most plausible one as he fits all the criteria, with the implication of a loop being the cherry on top. There’s more to glean, more details to notice, so I turn to you; who’s the Parasite?