‘Parasite’ Symbolism Explained: Instant Noodles, Language, Basement

‘Parasite’ Symbolism Explained: Instant Noodles, Language, Basement
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

Bong Joon Ho's daunting observations of capitalism in "Parasite" are apparent. The Oscar-winning picture goes much further in exploring the depths of South Korean society.

By Evelyn Yang

Parasite, the South Korean thriller that took home four Oscars, combines the spirit of all the other intolerable creatures that people hate ⁠— cockroaches, ants, rats. ⁠

Parasites inhabit a place where they don’t belong. They’re greedy, hard to extinguish, and they’re always craving for more. 

“It was already in my brain,” Director Bong Joon Ho talked about how the story of Parasite was initiated. He explained that just like parasites, the story existed in his head for a long time and he never noticed it. “I don’t know how it came to me, but the idea was already there around 2017,” he said. 

He witnesses the story of Parasite every day in a capitalist society. Living in a world where capitalism dominates our values, where we celebrate our freedoms of choices, our wealth and quality of life are more polarized than ever. South Korea is a fairly rich country, Bong said, yet its wealth gap widens as the country grows richer. 

“I think we all have a very sensitive antennae to class, in general,” Bong told GQ. “I wanted to sort of delve deeper into the reality that surrounds me, as if I’m looking at it through a microscope — something smaller but also deeper.”

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Photo Credit: CNA

Modern capitalism: the rich versus the poor

In the opening scene of Parasite, the family of jobless adults are wrapping hundreds of pizza boxes a day. When the pizza shop staff says their pay will be reduced because of the terrible quality, the family gets angry yet stills seeks for part-time opportunities. That’s the first glimpse of their parasitic quality.

Then the rich, handsome friend of Ki-woo enters as the first sign of class inequality. He brings the family a rock symbolizing fortune and offers Ki-woo the tutor job to the wealthy Park family. His kindness reflects a paradox in the capitalist society: the rich can befriend the poor, but the gap stays and widens by time. 

Ki-woo’s friend does not regard him, someone lacking academic success and money, as “qualified” for the job, but he can pretend. From their conversation, it was implied that Ki-woo can only become part of the upper class through pretense and deception. 

The Kim family was portrayed as a greedy bunch. They pretend to be capable and friendly, but their constant scheming is like the “smell” that follows around. Some questioned why they don’t look for jobs if they’re eloquent and clever. The simple answer could be their lack of proper education and their laziness probably would not survive Korea’s harsh corporate reality.

But the rich Park family enables the tragedy. Mrs. Park, in particular, represents how upper class people could be over-protected growing up, leading to the lack of life experiences they have and making the deception more reasonable. 

Parasite might be sounding an alarm about modern capitalism, but it is a phenomenon too entrenched that could only be improved rather than fixed.

寄生上流奉俊昊南韓電影劇照
Photo Credit: Catchplay

Instant noodles with steak

The scene in which the Park family returns home from camping and ask the housekeeper, Mrs. Kim, to cook instant noodles for the youngest boy, Da-song, revealed the strange gap and the overlapping of similarities between the rich and the poor.

“Usually rich people eat expensive, organic food, so they wouldn’t eat something like this… The mom adds sirloin on top of this cheap, instant dish, just to leave the signature of being rich. No one really eats it that way, it was my creation,” Director Bong told GQ

To add a steak on top of the cheap instant noodles is an act of qualifying and justifying Mrs. Park’s enjoyment of a “lower-class” dish. The rich, despite their wealth, would still crave for things that are below their social status, but with their own imagination. The dirty underwear that disgusts the Park couple also becomes their sexual fantasy at one point. 

Language 

Since the first time meeting Ki-woo, Mrs. Park asserts her preference for those who receive higher education: the more westernized the person is, the better.

Back in the Kims’ basement apartment, they speak in slangs, not to mention their lack of table etiquette. However, once they enter the Parks’ house, the language they use become completely different — mixing in English words and softening the tone — to fit in. Language is a way to distinguish them from the rest. In South Korea’s case, English is seen as a privileged and restricted language that should only be accessible to the upper class, the educated. 

The semi-basement offers only a partial view 

The Kim family lives in a dirty, old semi-basement, where the windows offer a partial view of the outside world. They can always look out, like the frogs in the shallow well or the pests that hate sunlight and prefer staying in wherever they’re accustomed to.

“Leave the windows open,” Mr. Kim, the father of the household, said and demanded to let the overwhelming pesticide “clean up” his home, too. But who are the pests?

The camera frame becomes much wider when we enter the Park family’s mansion, which in contrast is bright and almost dust-free. The only basement in the house is the cellar for storing wine (or other parasites for that matter). 

The invisible line

We see countless visible and invisible lines in Parasite. In the slum, the immense amount of cable lines blockading the view reflects the confinement of the lower class. The structural lines are more prominent whenever the shot follows the “parasites” going down a stair, emphasizing the descent into chaos. 

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Screenshot From YouTube

Division is commonplace in modern society, and the invisible line is drawn by dialogue. 

“Mr. Park says in the film, is they [draw] a line over their sophisticated world and they don’t let anyone cross it. They’re not interested in the outside world, the subway and people who might perhaps smell. They want to push everyone outside of that line and they want to remain safe behind it,” Bong said. 

People pretend to be nice to navigate the society, like Mr. Park making small conversations with Mr. Kim in the car without any intention of making a genuine connection.



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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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