Explaining Parasite: A Tale Of The Poor And Rich

Why does Ki-taek kill Mr. Park? What role does the scholar’s rock play in the story? And, most importantly: who, or what is the true parasite in the world created by Bong Joon-ho? The poor family, the man in the basement, the rich family or maybe… someone else?

Please bear in mind that there are lots of spoilers in this article. So in case you haven’t watched the movie yet, go enjoy Bong Joon-ho’s cinematic masterpiece, and then rush back here to learn all about it!

The lights from the basement

Let’s begin with a tiny detail that could be seen as relatively unimportant, though trust us - it’s a key element to understanding the hidden meaning of Parasite. We’re talking about the lights coming from the basement. Yes. Have you ever wondered what those signals really mean?

Were they just another great story element or did director Bong Joon-ho invest them with a philosophical and metaphorical meaning? Of course, he did! They are clearly a brilliant directorial metaphor. But a metaphor for what? Take a look at the town where all the events from Parasite take place as an architectural symbol of social class. The town is hilly and full of stairs. Stairs-stairs-stairs… Stairs are everywhere!

The Kim family lives about as low as you can get, they’re practically subterranean status is a very literal representation of their lower-class status. Meanwhile, the Parks live on a high hill, representing their monied, well-off, financially comfortable status.

But the deepest, darkest place in the whole movie is in the Park’s basement. This is a class beyond the simple divide of rich and poor, these are people who are so deeply below the poverty line they fall off the scale… The point is that the man from the basement, the man who represents the lowest of classes, uses the lights to connect with the very top of the social system he lives in. With Mr. Park. 

But Mr. Park can’t understand him. Why? Because as tragic as it is, a signal from someone outside of the system is just impossible to decipher for the perspective of someone rich or well-off. Quite an apt metaphor for how inequality and the class divide blinds people to the plight of others. THE WHOLE MOVIE is about the tragic depth of the gulf between two families: Kim’s and Park’s. Or the gulf between two classes: the poor and the rich.

Bong Joon-ho movies

And this is far from the only symbolism hidden throughout the movie. Before we move to one of the more obscure one symbols - the one with the scholar rock and how it’s connected to the murders that happened at the end of the film - let’s give credit where it’s due; to director Bong Joon-ho.

First of all, if this is the first Bong Joon-ho movie that you’ve seen and you enjoyed it as much as we did then we have some great news - the director has made lots of other films… and they’re just as terrific as Parasite!

Go ahead and watch any of his films and you’re in for a treat, though pay special attention to “The Host”, “Memories of Murder” and “Snowpiercer” which are among some of his best and most accessible films. It’s highly recommended watching these three in order to better understand who Bong Joon-ho is, where he’s coming from, and the central conceit of almost all of his movies.

Bong Joon-ho loves to address social and political ideas in his stories, using allegory as a potent tool to unpack complex ideas. And Parasite isn’t an exception. Throughout this film about the rich and the poor, Bong Joon-ho uses many techniques and images, and the scholar’s rock is probably one of the most complex… So… What is it about this stone?!

The scholar’s rock

This massive piece of stone is introduced at almost the very beginning of the film. The Kim family’s only son receives it as a gift from his friend that’s meant to symbolize financial luck. And scholar’s rocks have a really deep history in Korean culture. How deep? Try about 3 thousand YEARS deep.

Basically they are shaped, naturally occurring stones of different sizes and colors which can be used for many purposes, such as garden design and for contemplating while studying. Koreans used to worship nature a lot, especially when it comes to rocks. That’s why they tried to surround themselves with all kinds of scholar’s rocks, believing that they had powerful energies.

As time went by, the culture of collecting scholar’s rocks became less and less common. Especially for today’s generation. But Bong Joon-ho still remembers those days from his childhood when these special stones still had value. This is why he decided to imbue his movie with another symbolic image: the rock which symbolizes financial luck.

However, Bong added a warning sign to his symbol: everybody should be really careful and respectful of cultural matters otherwise the price will be taken… And this is exactly what happens to Kim’s family. They all pay a horrible price in their pursuit of money. For being parasites… But were they the ONLY parasites in the movie? That’s an intriguing question. Let’s unpack that…

Who is the real parasite?

The idea that Kims are the movie’s namesake is perhaps the easiest and most straightforward interpretation of the movie. Indeed, the Kim family quite literally lives off Mr. Park’s. That’s inarguable. But what if the Kims are not the only parasites? How about the man in the basement?

The great thing about this character is that he makes the Kims feel like they are above him, they’re no longer at the bottom of the heap. Which is crazy because all of them are in the pretty same situation! All of these characters have illegally occupied the Parks’ house, after all! So there’s no doubt they are parasites. But what about the Parks themselves?

This may sound odd to many of you but here’s our point. Maybe this whole tragedy, indeed the whole movie itself, wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t such a thing as apathy? Maybe if Mr. Park wasn’t so indifferent to the workers that he hired, maybe if he didn’t build walls in his relationship with Ki-taek and if he could understand that the Kims are just as human as he is, maybe the tragedy wouldn’t have ever happened.

More than that Mr. Park isn’t merely indifferent to the poor and those of an “inferior” class, he’s clearly DISGUSTED by them. Remember how he held his nose every time he smelled the clothes of the poor? We can see this in that tragic scene where the Kims’ daughter is killed... and the only thing Mr. Park is worried about is how to escape with his family. Holding his nose in disgust. And that’s the last straw for Ki-taek…

He lost his house, he lost his daughter and now he finally sees that Mr. Park NEVER treated him as a peer or an equal. He was no better than an inanimate object or a collectible to him, something that Ki-taek can’t take anymore. And that’s why he HAS to kill Mr. Park…

“People have to maintain mutual respect towards each other,” the director has said, “And this film deals with a situation where that minimal amount of respect you should have towards another human being is completely destroyed and ignored.”

Recall the scene with the rain? It caused a disaster for the poor people who lived at the bottom of the town but treated as a purely beautiful miracle by the rich people who lived on the hill. The grass in their gardens will be even more green after the rain, right? So who cares about thousands of people who’ll lose their houses, their livelihoods, their very LIVES because of the flood?

The scene with the rain is another great example of how Bong Joon-ho uses metaphor. The rich reap the benefits, but the poor ultimately pay for it. So can you see how the Parks could be seen as parasites now? The real parasites of society? Or, maybe, not only them… Maybe the true parasite is … us? Maybe THE AUDIENCE is a parasite too? This is perhaps the most perplexing and mindblowing interpretation of the movie out there.

The idea that everybody in our world is a parasite, more or less. Everybody has to live off somebody else. But is that true? Bong Joon-ho doesn’t offer any straight answers to these questions. He doesn’t want to pass judgment and decide who’s right and who is not. He’s like us, an observer of class struggle and the conflicts that it causes.

What Bong Joon-ho does is raise the idea that this is a tension, a problem of inequality that has always been present in every civilization, and that our modern society hasn’t done away with this historical issue.

But what do you think? Who’s the real parasite? The poor family, the rich family, the man from the basement or... everybody. You included. We truly believe that there are some fascinating ideas and theories out there, and we can’t wait to read yours in the comments.

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