#Francis-on-Film: Parasite

20 November 2019

What is a social parasite? The term was a common one among Maoists who saw rich capitalists as sucking the blood of the working class. The Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism Online has reprinted an essay published in 1977 by the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought: “The past two years in Britain has witnessed the beginnings of a powerful mass upsurge in which hundreds of thousands of people all over the country – workers, women, national minorities, students, youth and intellectuals – have been drawn into various forms of rebellion and resistance against the capitalist/imperialist social system, against the tiny handful of parasites, 2 per cent of the population who own over 50 per cent of the property, who are holding on to the political power in their hands like grim death.”


Talk of the top 2%—or today’s 1%—as parasites may seem merely a historical curiosity to those who were not part of the debates about Maoism in the late 1960s and 1970s. However, Parasite, a new film by the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho that won the 2019 Palme d’Or at Cannes, challenges audiences to probe social parasitism amidst growing inequality in a largely affluent country. (The Gini coefficient—a widely used measure of inequality—in South Korea has risen from .31 to .36 in the past ten years. By comparison, in the U.S. it’s risen from .46 to 49; in South Africa, the country with the highest estimated Gini coefficient, it’s .63).


Who are the parasites, the film asks. The rich? The fawning servant dependent on them? The impoverished family seeking to cheat the rich family in order to survive themselves? Or all or none of these? And what makes them parasites: their wealth, status, economic dependency, emotional dependency, skills, lack of skills, lack of identity, or something else? Or the feeling of geographic dislocation conveyed by the film for all of them? The audience never knows the city in which they live, other than that the film was made in South Korea by a South Korean director with South Korean actors and the general sense that they are spared the repression of the North albeit not the ravages of inequality.


The wealthy Park family in Parasite inhabit a dwelling designed by a famous architect. Although they appreciate the status of owning such a home, they have little appreciation for the home’s functions or unique beauty. The husband is often away on unspecified business; the family clearly has money to spend but its sources are never clear. The wife is easily manipulated by those who are cleverer than she is. She cannot cook and does not understand her children although she cares about them. The older daughter cares more about texting and boyfriends than she does about studying, and the younger son loves shooting supposedly American Indian arrows and drawing in the manner of the CoBrA avant garde. 


The fawning servant, who came with the house at its purchase from the famous architect, cares meticulously for the home and, almost incidentally, for the family who inhabit it. She is dependent on the family for her livelihood and, it appears, to the house for any sense of identity. Where she lives is, like so much else about her, obscured; the film never shows her retreating to living quarters or going to her own place to sleep for the night.  


The Kim family live in poverty in the fetid damp of a basement apartment. Despite apparently trying (and despite the only 3.5% unemployment rate in South Korea), the father of the family has failed to obtain employment. The son, Ki-woo, has apparently taken university entrance examinations four times, without success. (Parenthetically, students in South Korea spend years preparing for the Suneung; estimates are that 2% of students receive offers to attend top-tier universities and 70% of the 590,000 students taking the exam every year are admitted to one of the universities in Korea.)


When Ki-woo’s friend Min goes to study abroad, he recommends Ki-woo as a tutor to the daughter of the Park family. Ki-woo manages to get his sister Ki-jung employed as art tutor to the Park family son; ultimately, his mother replaces the housekeeper and his father the family driver. Ki-woo and Ki-jung are accepted in the family as near but not quite equals; their common smell wafts of the basement in which they live and as a possible revelation that they are related to the housekeeper and driver. Their housekeeper-mother and driver-father, however, are reminded by the Parks of lines they may not cross. As the film nears its end, the father admits that he will no longer try to plan because then he will not be disappointed by failure. The son, on the other hand, has what may be an illusory plan to get rich.


So perhaps each of the characters in Parasite are incomplete, dependent, and out of control of their lives, and their economic circumstances are part of what makes them so. Parasites, moreover, are not symbiotic with their hosts; they do not contribute to their hosts in mutually rewarding ways. Thus is the corrosion of inequality: that it makes parasites of us all.

Comments (11)

RepoMan05's picture


Wednesday, November 20, 2019 -- 4:26 PM

Parasite is really just a

Parasite is really just a poorly defined value term for what we innately deal is the most morbid strategy of life. Carnivore, herbivore, parasite, omnivore, and sanguinivore(dunno actual term) are all really just sliding value terms viewd from a sliding perspective between pure selfishness and a golden rule standpoint.

You might say carnivores and herbivores exist!
The truth is virtually all herbivores are documented eating meat and even lions chew grass sometimes. then you say omnivore! But then we find that there are actually some animals that gain sustenance from minerals like worms that also get sustenance from animal and plant matter.

The truth is, "codification fallacy" is the definition of "subjectivity" and "enculturation" is the definition of "subjectively contagious subjective agnosia."

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, November 28, 2019 -- 6:16 AM

Believe it or not, RepoMan05,

Believe it or not, RepoMan05, inside your comment above, you have the basis of a genuine response to this film and Leslie's post.
I don't think you do believe your own response though do you?
If you don't know (or as you say "dunno") what a word means or if it even exists - look it up. It's a free process - even if only above the bare corner of Ki-woo's subterranean commode.
Deep down, inside your anti-intellectual take is an interesting thought. What is it?
If you saw this movie... I think you would find some answers.
You have pieces of truth in you.
I don't have the time to put all of them together if you don't have the time to express them coherently.
But express them you must. Why?
What is going on RM5?
How do you feel?
I want to know.

RepoMan05's picture


Saturday, November 30, 2019 -- 11:20 AM

You deal it out so simply.

You deal it out so simply. "Look it up." Firstly "it" doeasnt really exist so looking "it" up does nothing to prove its valid existance. Anyone can spontaneously make up a word and then define it. Neither the concieved word nor the proffered definition proves the existance of the other. What you're saying here is nothing more than furtherance of a stereotypical "it is written" fallacy.

While i often write things i dont believe so i can glean from others why it should be unbelievable, this is not exactly the case. I dont actualy "believe" anything. Nothing what so ever. For me, everything is up for discussion unless it's a clearly defined slippery slope i.e. a logical error that shouldnt have been the basis of an equation in the first place and could only yeald another logical error. Something i find in every single one of your posts. I've found it typical of certain peoples of certain fanclubs. If it isnt too much to ask, what fanclub do you subscribe to?

A labyrinth of subjectivity can be just as intricate and complicated as you can imagine it.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, December 2, 2019 -- 4:28 AM

You are in my fan club RM5..

You are in my fan club RM5...if it exists at all. Your point there is deep and I can't offer solace or direction.

I can say look it up however without finding turtles all the way down. Sophocles was a stooge for his student who, I think, misunderstood his teacher.

It is a very safe position to take all as subjective. This movie is not safe. Can you objectively tell me why?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, November 22, 2019 -- 8:42 AM

Parasitology is an imperfect

Parasitology is an imperfect branch of the study of living things. Why? Because when we consider those things which are, by definition, parasitic, we fail in our assessment by comparing them to others which are not. Apples, oranges, glass and broken windows, etc. Generally speaking, then, we think of mosquitoes as parasites when all they are doing is looking for lunch, uh, as repo man has noted, sanguinivores (or whatever is the actual term). Leeches are also, strictly speaking, parasitic blood suckers, but here again, they are just looking for food and are well-equipped to extract it from available sources. In the sociological sense, parasite, as applied to certain people or groups thereof, is a bit of a misnomer, but the best we can do without resorting to fouler language. So, we are used to referring to a variety of organisms, microorganisms and viruses as either parasites; pathogens or disease vectors because they can cause us to sicken and die. And since, by-and-large, they have no useful features, we write them off, figuring out better ways of protecting our selves and disposing of our vermin. When we do the same with parasitic humans, we have always already useful justifications for so doing.
Film makers are all over this when plying their craft. They know their viewing public is always ready to buy a thrill. Anti-heroes are better than no heroes at all.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, November 28, 2019 -- 7:58 AM



Parasitology is imperfect because it is defined by non parasites??? Is that really what you are saying?

Few things are perfect. Let's not strive for that here. Let's just agree on a definition.

Wikipedia to the rescue...

Parasitology is the study of parasites, their hosts, and the relationship between them. As a biological discipline, the scope of parasitology is not determined by the organism or environment in question, but by their way of life.

Hmm...I like getting to the sociology here, the way of human life. But, does a person have to cause death to be considered a parasite? There's quite a bit of death going on in the film.

People are not vermin, even the most vile in this film are not that. There are no useful justifications for disposing of people. I enjoy your takes, but this is going too far.

Are you alluding to Triumph of the Will here? Are you talking about film makers as a class separate from humanity? Is this fake news? Am I all over that?

Who is the Anti-hero in this film? Ki-jung? Kim? Park? That might be the key for me in figuring this one out.

RepoMan05's picture


Saturday, November 30, 2019 -- 6:41 PM

My point was that however you

My point was that however you choose to define paracite, it's still just a value term. Not a true definition. It's main use is as a crutch to beg illegitimacy for whatever persuasive you choose to use it. It could be plyed equally to the powers that be in one sentance and then unceremoniously plyed to a gutter bum in the very next. Liknesses are like that.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, December 2, 2019 -- 4:34 AM

You don't see virtue in Kim?

You don't see virtue in Kim? I do.

You equate Park to Kim?

That would be a stretch. I admit I am having trouble with this movie...but it is not because it is all the same to me.

If it is to you, then pftt... as you would say in the Non Human Rights post.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, November 28, 2019 -- 7:57 AM

Let me say this film is a

Let me say this film is a load. Leslie's teaser is exactly that. Don't see this film unless you are ready for deep disturbing action, motive and thought. Therein you will find a clear window at the collision of sociological world views that is Korea.

It's stark that the US Gini coefficient is harsher than South Korea's if so far less than South Africa's. Something in that starkness tells me that income disparity is not the whole story here, if even the story at all.

I think instead it speaks to family, love, respect and desperation. My candidate for true parasite is Namsoong, but we are at a cultural cleft that I can't bridge with my limited Asian purview (and I grew up in Japan... once a gaijin always a gaijin.)

Kim's decision is the key to the whole thing. Ki-woo's tribulations are a pretense for his father's transformation. Where eastern confucianism meets disparate capitalist excess is the backdrop. To take this movie in the window of income disparity is a Maoist take not supported by the plot, action or characters. That is not to say income disparity doesn't contribute to the story or isn't a problem.

The social parasite here by design is Park. That he can't formulate his love for his wife, tells Kim to do his job prior to the Indian raid and continually talks about line crossing delineates his parasitic nature, but as I said before ... parasite has an eastern and communist meaning that I can't quite find in my psyche.

Good film... can't recommend it to those who can't take gruesome detail.

Confucius over Mao every time when talking about anything Asian.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, November 29, 2019 -- 9:40 AM

Well, I did not say PEOPLE

Well, I did not say PEOPLE were vermin---somehow you read that into my prose, or did you? Your question sounds like you did. Sorry my meaning was muddy or not well-taken. I do try to keep things as brief as possible, but words are difficult to manage sometimes.. Let me give another example. I have thought that Utilitarianism and Pragmatism are akin to one another. Pragmatists are (allegedly) interested in things which are more useful, rather than less (Rorty). Utilitarianism, as a term, implies that a thing (or a class of things) has 'utility' or is therefore, useful. Now, it seems Jeremy Bentham was considered the Father of Utilitarianism, although it is now pretty difficult to find his writing, while it is much easier to find those who have written about him. It is also said that his writing was difficult to understand and that this is one reason why he is not commonly read. I do not know right now because I have only been able to read those things others have written about him. The upshot of all this is that the Father of Utilitarianism: a. did not know what he was talking about, or, b. could not express it, or c. both. So, as you know, words may be misunderstood or misinterpreted, whether spoken or written. This makes philosophy difficult. Especially when terms are not well-defined and/or their meanings not well-agreed upon. I don't expect this clears anything up. But, if it helps, I can say I tried. Merry Christmas!

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, November 30, 2019 -- 8:56 PM

Utilitarianism and pragmatism

Utilitarianism and pragmatism in particular vex me. To your point words are misunderstood... so too are images. This movie vexes me. Leslie has inserted this movie into my thanksgiving where I could have instead indulged Frozen 2. I'm happier for it as I am for your comment and cordiality.

I would discuss this movie here. It is con-specific social parasitism that is the topic and it is an -ism that is applied to people in this movie. Who is the parasite? Who is the host? I see what you are saying. Repo man used ecology rather than sociology to frame this discussion. That is productive to a point but not instructive.

In a similar vein to how Darwin fails socialism, so too ecology fails social parasitism. Just because animals feed on animals doesn’t make them parasites. Between humans there are economic and social transactions that benefit both parties without having to term one a host of the other. This is a problem with Ayn Rand and the recent swerve into selfishness that would justify income disparity to the point of denying some their basic human dignity and livelihood

Where selfishness crosses the line of respect for elders, family and fellow human beings the concept of social parasite is flipped.

Namsoong is the real parasite and I would suggest the pragmatic choice for Korea and the world at large. Bentham won’t help Kim get out of his basement, nor does he offer Ki-woo much hope of coming to his aid. Right? Something tells me parasite is woefully under translated. That translation is playing out in Korea on the screen and before our eyes.