Siddharth Kataria, BSc. Politics and Economics ‘25 (Reading Time: 5-7 minutes)
⚠️Warning: Spoilers for Parasite (2019)
South Korean cinema has always depicted various points of socio-economic and political contention—whether that be the war-induced economic upheaval during the 1940s or the rapid urbanization of the twenty-first century. Following in this tradition, the black-comedy-thriller, Parasite (released in 2019), surgically eradicates the myth of upwards social mobility and conveys the inevitable consequence of a society dictated by wealth: death.
Parasite follows the story of a poor family, the Kims, who infiltrate the household of a wealthy family, the Parks. The narrative develops when they discover the presence of Geun-sae, a fugitive living in the Park’s basement, who threatens to expose the Kims. Writer and director Bong Joon-ho portray a visceral disillusionment arc while slowly revealing the film’s grander statement on the destructive capitalist economic order. Through his choice to use recurring symbols that develop into the motifs of the viewing stone and smell, Joon-ho represents the Kim family’s aspirational beliefs, as well as the inescapable poverty trap. These motifs enrich the character’s emotional journeys and ultimately culminate in a dramatic end that fully renders the film’s singular, intensely political theme: that social mobility is impossible. Welcome to Parasite.
2. The Stone & Escaping Poverty
The stone’s symbolic significance is centered around Ki-woo’s inefficacious desire to socially advance and is cemented in the exposition of the film; it is introduced as a gift from Ki-woo’s wealthy friend, Min-Hyuk when he pays his family and their semi-basement house a visit. Upon receiving this gift from Min-Hyuk, who claims that it will bring “luck and money,” (Screenplay, page 9) Ki-woo softly speaks “How perfect for us. Symbolic” (Screenplay, page 9). This elucidates that this viewing stone is a motif for his hope to improve his social standing and join the affluent class. Ki-woo’s optimistic embrace of this stone is contrasted by his mother, Chung-Sook’s, despondent cynicism as she states, “he should have brought food” (Screenplay, page 9). The juxtaposition of Ki-woo’s naive, hopeful nature with Chung-Sook’s more cynical and realistic view is indicative of how such social ambitions erode with age and highlights the futility of these dreams. After this scene, Min-Hyuk fades as a character, but the stone remains as a reminder of his purpose: to seduce Ki-woo into believing he can escape the life he was born into.
As the plot progresses, the stone is emphasized via its growing geographic prominence and placement in each scene. It is often “displayed prominently in the middle” (Screenplay, page 58) of the house, and Ki-woo is often seen “laying his head on it” (Screenplay, page 13). This cinematic structure mirrors the grip this dream has over Ki-woo’s mind and life. Although these small moments are significant, Joon-ho’s mastery of motifs comes into play when a storm wreaks havoc upon the city. Ki-woo and the rest of the family return after escaping from the Parks’ house and see that their semi-basement is completely flooded. Upon this realization, everybody tries to grab their most precious belongings. While Ki-Jung, Ki-woo’s sister, runs to find emergency supplies, Ki-woo desperately looks for and finds his viewing stone. He then “hugs the rock, it’s like he just found a precious treasure,” (Screenplay, page 108) all of which highlights its personal value. The stone also floats in the flooded basement, symbolizing the hollow nature of Ki-woo’s dream. Joon-ho’s narrative choice to create an event that necessitates the prioritization of valuables elucidates Ki-woo’s futile obsession with his dream.
The arc of the viewing stone culminates when Ki-woo is on the brink of entering a higher social class. When Geun-sae threatens to reveal the truth about him, Ki-woo uses the stone to try and kill him. However, Geun-sae snatches the stone and drops it on Ki-woo’s head, incapacitating him. Through the stone, Joon-ho conveys how Ki-woo’s desire to socially advance is weaponized against him, and how his burning desire to escape poverty leads to him being both physically and mentally devastated. His belief in the myth of social mobility only increases the extent of his marginalization.
3. Marx Digression
Joon-ho personifies the idea of structural inequality by contrasting the Kims and Parks living conditions. Marxist theory suggests that market-driven economies generate society-wide structures of oppression that suppress the working class to such a degree, that their humanity is stripped, and their sole purpose is to work (Stanford, 2020). It further argues that natural disasters, due to the rigidity of these structures, devastate the working class while only mildly impacting others. While Joon-ho’s choice for the Kims to reside in a semi-basement and the Parks’ to live in a mansion emphasizes the reductive nature of their living quarters, it also conveys how a natural disaster, can completely destroy one group of people, and not affect others. In fact, the tent in which Da-Song, the Park’s youngest child, is camping is completely waterproof. This contrast emphasizes how even one’s home, a place of safety and comfort is just another symbol of oppression.
4. Scent & The Poverty Trap
While the viewing stone depicts the futility of aspiration, the motif of smell depicts the inextricable nature of poverty. When all the Kims have infiltrated the Park household, the first person to notice that all the members smell the same is Da-Song. On encountering all four members, he exclaims “They smell exactly the same!” (Screenplay, page 58) Given that smell and scents as concepts are intrinsic, unchangeable qualities of humans, this symbol is uniquely equipped to parallel poverty, as that too is impossible to break out of and change. Joon-Ho’s structural choice to have the youngest character be the first to notice this smell of poverty depicts the early onset of class consciousness, as Da-Song is only 5 years old.
In the same vein of creating a situation that highlights the meaning of a symbol with that of the storm and the stone, Joon-ho creates a situation that forces the audience to see the relationship between smell and class intimacy. The Kims are trapped under a table trying to escape from the house, while the Park’s sleep on the couch close above them. For the first time, Dong-Ik and Yon-Kyo (the richer Parks), explicitly address a “poor people smell” (Screenplay, page 101) infiltrating the house, which Dong-Ik narrows down to a “subtle aroma that steeps into the air.” He then finally says that although Ki-Tek, (the patriarch of the Kims) is a respectable driver and “never crosses the line,” (Screenplay, page 101) he states, “that smell, that definitely crosses the line” (Screenplay, page 102). Firstly, this line can symbolize the blurred socio-economic definitions of poverty and prosperity, and almost demarcates the class divide. Secondly, this dialogue takes place while Ki-Tek is hiding under a table and is forced to listen to the entire conversation. Viewers are made to watch the impact of these statements on him, as he knows his smell, much like his poverty, will not be something he can change overnight. The description of the scent as a “subtle aroma that steeps into the air” (Screenplay, page 101) creates the visual imagery of the stench of poverty forming an almost essential part of the socio-economic atmosphere. In this scene, we also see Joon-Ho’s mastery of the cinematic technique of blocking. By entrapping the Kims under a table, Ki-Tek is forced to hear and endure every derogatory insult thrown his way without reacting. This immense frustration is stated in the stage direction “Ki-Tek can do nothing but silently take hit after hit. Ki-Tek is completely expressionless.” (Screenplay, page 102) This devastating scene is a microcosm of the power dynamic between the rich and the poor; the poor have no choice but to endure anything the rich have to say, no matter how derogatory or insulting it may be.
The film culminates with elder Ki-woo imagining reuniting with his father after becoming a successful businessman. But then sharply cuts to a young Ki-woo on a hill, staring at the same house. “Bright” music plays “but with an undertone of hopelessness” (Screenplay, page 141). This uncomfortable aftertaste that Parasite leaves us with concretizes how entrenched the futile desire for social mobility is. The desire can needlessly generate violence and destroy whole families. Yet, Parasite, through the simple literary technique of motifs, conveys that this longing will never cease.
Similar concerns have been addressed in Joon-ho’s previous works. In the dystopian thriller, Snowpiercer (released in 2013), wealth disparities are explored in the context of an uninhabitable dystopia, and the global population is reduced to the occupants of a single train. He constructs similar microcosms between the rich and the poor by forcing physical proximity but chooses to explore the absolute extreme of capitalism, which is in stark contrast to Parasite’s portrayal of believable actions that a twenty-first-century poverty-stricken family may take. In fact, this initial believability of Parasite—the idea that the Kims’ actions once happened on the streets of a city—is what allowed the film to resound with global audiences, transcending all linguistic and cultural barriers.
To conclude, the two main motifs represent two different aspects of poverty to render the singular theme—the futility of social mobility. While the stone explicitly demonstrates how consuming and destructive an ‘American dream’ aspiration really is, smell depicts the unavoidable nature of impoverishment; once one has succumbed to the poverty trap, it becomes more than an economic state and transforms into an integral part of one’s identity. The film finishes with the distinction between person and poverty, being, as it always has been, bloody—but more importantly, blurred.
“Parasite – Screenplay.” Script Pipeline, 5 Apr. 2020, scriptpipeline.com/parasite-screenplay. 25 September 2021.
Wolff, Jonathan, and David Leopold. “Karl Marx.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 21 Dec. 2020, plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/text=The%20first%20states%20that%20thenature%20of%20the%20economic%20structure. 24 October 2021.
Op-Ed. “’Parasite’ Symbolism Explained: Instant Noodles, Language, Basement.” The News Lens International Edition, 15 Feb. 2020, international.thenewslens.com/article/131297. 29 December 2021.