With its recent Academy Award for Best Picture, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has Hollywood discussing social and economic inequality with greater interest than at any time since perhaps Charlie Chaplin’s parable of inequality in City Lights. This might be one reason that President Trump has decided to gin up the nativist spirits of his base at rallies by attacking the film — despite the fact that he seems not to have seen any movies made since Sunset Boulevard.
Parasite depicts the struggling Kim family, living in a semi-basement apartment in Seoul, desperately seeking sources of income to afford the very basics to sustain their humble lives. In a portentous scene early in the film, the older child of the family, Ki-Woo, is visited by his wealthy college friend, Min, who is departing to study abroad. Min bestows upon Ki-Woo and his family a “scholar’s stone,” delivered on behalf of his grandfather. Throughout the rest of the film, the stone repeatedly emerges in significant scenes, serving as a metaphor for the kind of material striving that burdens people of all classes in commercial societies — a pursuit that so often ends in tragedy, as can be learned from both ancient Eastern and Western philosophy. Indeed, Ki-woo emphasizes that the stone is “so metaphorical,” although he never says what he thinks the metaphor represents.
In interviews, Bong Joon-ho has explained that he intended the stone’s meaning to be ambiguous, refusing to even tell his actors how to interpret it. During preproduction, Choi Woo-shik, who plays Ki-woo, initially saw the stone as “representing all the heavy pressure Ki-woo was feeling to take care of his family and find a way to get ahead,” as he said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. But as production began, his interpretation shifted: “I started to think maybe it represented the family’s desire for a shortcut, because they start using fraud to try to jump up to a higher [socioeconomic] level.”
Scholar’s stones have an extensive history in Asian cultures, dating back to the Song Dynasty in China (960–1279 CE). They have long been associated with moral purity, longevity, wealth, and status, and have been prized as gifts that can bring these privileges. The stones’ traditional associations with success and wealth point toward the metaphorical meaning of the stone in the film. When the Kim family’s semi-basement home floods during a sudden storm, the scholar’s stone floats in the water, suggesting the nearly irrepressible nature of material desire. Insofar as the film’s protagonists continue to embrace the boundless desires of their commercial society, the temptation of the stone will continue to rise to the surface even in the midst of catastrophe, and they will continue to feel its weight looming over their heads, despite the impossible illusion of its seeming weightlessness. Alternatively, one might see in the floating stone the very hollowness of these desires themselves. As Lao-tzu teaches in the Tao-te Ching, a life dedicated to pursuing material desires does not bring contentment. Even as people pursue their desires in the belief that it will bring about their happiness, the very pursuit suggests the futility of this quest.
Along with the gift of the scholar’s stone, Ki-Woo’s friend sets him up with a well-paid position as a tutor for a high school student from the wealthy Park family, which he must secure by falsifying his educational credentials — a deception he justifies by vowing to eventually attain them legitimately. This is the Kim family’s big opportunity to use “fraud to try to jump up” in social class. As the plot develops, the members of the Kim family pursue increasingly devious and less sympathetic strategies to secure further employment by the Parks, until the entire family is working within the Park household, making more money than any of them have likely seen in their lifetimes. Of course, this unsustainably rapid ascent is ultimately followed by an equally quick fall from grace. The family’s seeming good fortune culminates in profound tragedy, as the family loses more than they ever could have gained from their fraudulent employment schemes.
But what about the Park family? How did they acquire their fortune? How many injustices might have been perpetrated along the way? Here again, Lao-tzu offers insight: “when gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honors lead to arrogance, this brings evil on itself.” The Parks’ arrogance is clear in the countless small indignities they inflict on their servants and employees, and the merciless way they fire them — it’s clear in the way the family’s father is repulsed by the very odor of those below them in the socio-economic hierarchy. Indeed, the Parks’ greed might well be central to understanding the film’s title, Parasite, which can be read to refer both to the desperate servants who live off of the wages from the wealthy Park family and to the Parks who live off the exploitation of their hardworking staff. Moreover, if one considers the parasite in relation to infectious disease, then the Parks’ disease can be seen as greed itself. And by displaying their wealth ostentatiously as they do, this parasite has infected others in their orbit, ultimately consuming them all.
An unhealthy, parasitic desire for wealth and status, symbolized by the scholar’s stone, has long been a concern of both Eastern and Western philosophers. It is one of the central themes of Lao-tzu’s Tao-te Ching, which condemns those afflicted with this kind of desire with evil, chaos, and disorder. This work — as notoriously open to interpretation as the scholar’s stones — cautions that, “There is no guilt greater than to sanction ambition; no calamity greater than to be discontented with one’s lot; no fault greater than the wish to be getting.” One pursues one’s desires with the expectation that they will bring happiness. But they rather bring the opposite. The Tao requires releasing these desires to achieve an orderly and virtuous life.
Ancient Western philosophy offers the related concept of pleonexia, commonly translated as “greed,” but even that translation requires some amending. Pleonexia is not simply greed, but rather an insatiable appetite. By virtue of its nature, those consumed by pleonexia are indifferent to limits of any kind, including those established by laws and morality. The objects of pleonexia are theoretically inexhaustible, like money, public esteem, and power. And the affliction is nearly universal: the story of class conflict in South Korea represented in Parasite resonates throughout the world, Bong Joon-Ho has suggested, because “we all live in the same country, it’s called capitalism.”
In his Republic, Plato describes those consumed with pleonexia as having “tyrannical” souls. A tyrannical soul will stop at nothing to satisfy what he calls its “lawless desires.” According to Plato, as pleonexia takes hold in the soul of an individual, “what he used to become occasionally in his dreams he has now become permanently while awake, and so there is no terrible murder…and no act from which he will refrain.” Where one was once restrained by reason, prudence, or caution, one instead simply casts all that aside in the relentless quest for more. This parallels Lao-tzu’s dictum, “He whose (desires) are few gets them; he whose (desires) are many goes astray.” The overabundance of desires leads inevitably, it seems, to an endless series of morally dubious choices. These dangers resulting from pleonexia help explain why, for example, Plato’s Athenian stranger in the Laws sought eliminate luxuries and discourage commerce and trade. It is also why Lao-tzu seeks to discourage all but the most modest desires.
There is a complicating context here, implied by Plato and made more explicit by Lao-tzu. As Plato outlines, once a society reaches is oligarchic stage, the pleonexic desires are set in motion, culminating in a tyranny where citizens and their rulers are consumed by their own excessive desires. For Lao-tzu, these desires are not organic for most people, but are rather fostered by societies tolerating these excesses at the very top. If only, he advises, we could “discard our (scheming for) gain, there would be no thieves nor robbers.” Insofar as the elites pursue their unbounded desires, they create both the desperation of the poor that leads to “thieving” and “robbing” to meet their basic needs, and also an underlying ethos that justifies the desire for more. Bong’s own reflections suggest the importance of this context for understanding this film: capitalism creates that underlying ethos in which greed is at first tolerated and then celebrated.
The Kim family’s desire at the beginning of the film to acquire a steady stream of income is entirely understandable. They cannot afford internet or even nourishing food, and have to fight off roaches in their apartment and urinating drunks at their front door. No one in that position could be blamed for seeking a materially better life. But even at the earliest stages of the transformation of the Kim family, they make morally questionable decisions. Ki-woo calls upon his sister Ki-jeong to forge a diploma in order to secure his job with the Parks, but even when the family has this steady source of income, this is not enough. Ki-woo lies about Ki-jeong’s credentials as an artist as well as her relationship to him in order to secure for her a second job with the Park family. Not satisfied with that, Ki-jeong fabricates a psychological diagnosis of the Parks’ son in order to inflate her fees. She then plants evidence in the valet’s limousine in order to get him fired and replace him with her father, Kang-ho. The Kims then hatch a scheme to convince the Parks that their housekeeper, Moon-gwang, has tuberculosis and poses a danger to their son, and arrange to replace her with the Kim family matriarch, Chung-sook.
At this point, the entire Kim family is working for the Park family, and one might hope they could be finally content with their significant financial improvement, at the expense of those they have schemed to have fired. But as Lao-tzu notes, it is an unfortunate human tendency to take away “from those who have not enough to add to [one’s] own superabundance.” Even once all of the Kims are employed by the Parks, they cannot stop themselves from wanting still more. Having the Park house to themselves for an evening, they fantasize about one day owning it themselves — and, after witnessing what they have done to this point, the audience is left speculating about the lengths they might go to in order to achieve that. Such are the possibilities raised by boundless desire. Living not only in a commercial society, but also spending their working days in an opulent home has only accelerated their desire for more.
Of course, as already noted, Lao-tzu taught that desire — whether of the wealthy to maintain their elevated status or of the poor to attain such a status — ultimately “brings evil on itself.” Similarly, Plato teaches in The Republic that pleonexia is ultimately self-destructive. If one cannot find a way to let go of insatiable desire, Plato and Lao-tzu teach, then greed will ultimately destroy the greedy. Tragedy is ultimately visited upon the greed of not only the Kims but also their impoverished rivals, the housekeeper Moon-gwang and her husband Geun-sae, as well as the wealthy Park family. Moon-gwang’s efforts to keep skimming off the Parks’ largesse by blackmailing the Kim family results in her death from a head wound inflicted by the family’s desperate efforts to keep her trapped in the basement of the Park house. Ki-woo is then bludgeoned with his own scholar’s stone by Geun-sae after attempting to use the stone to kill him in order to maintain the family’s status in the Park house. Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jeong, is stabbed by the raving Geun-sae in response to the violence which the Kims have inflicted upon him and his wife, before he himself is killed by Mr. Park. The Park patriarch is then murdered in turn by Kang-ho, because he cannot suppress his arrogant sense of elite superiority, exhibited by his exaggerated sensitivity to the smell of poor people, even in the midst of the violent tragedy unfolding around him. And Kang-ho is finally forced to flee the scene of the crime by effectively imprisoning himself within the basement of the Park house which he had earlier fantasized about owning.
In the film’s extended and ambiguous coda, we learn that Ki-woo has miraculously recovered from his bludgeoning and has returned with his mother to his family’s old semi-basement apartment. As if to confirm the irrepressible nature of desire, Bong subsequently shows Ki-woo earning a fortune and purchasing the fabulous home where his father lives underground. But the final images reveal this to be a fantasy. Viewers are left to wonder whether Ki-woo longs to obtain the home simply because he hopes to free his father and joyfully reunite the surviving members of his family, or because he desires to finally prove his own self-worth through financial success — and we are left to wonder whether either goal, based on material striving, could ever be more than just a dream.
David Lay Williams is Professor of Political Science at DePaul University and author of Rousseau’s Platonic Enlightenment, Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’: An Introduction, as well as co-editor of The General Will: The Evolution of a Concept, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Fundamental Political Writings.