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In 'Parasite,' Food Is a Violent Weapon of Class Struggle

Bong Joon-ho's bleak new movie turns food into a form of terror as it explores the desperation of trying to move up in the world.

by Bettina Makalintal
Oct 11 2019, 11:00am

Photo Courtesy Neon Entertainment

Bread splattered with blood, meat hacked apart forcefully, the soft fuzz shaved from the curve of a peach: Bong Joon-ho's Parasite is a food movie—but it's not likely to make you hungry. Instead, Parasite keeps you on edge, wondering what violence food will become a part of next.

The dark and twisty brainchild of filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, Parasite is a Cinderella story. The Kim family lives in dire straits in the slums of Korea, folding pizza boxes for pennies and losing profits when their boxes fail quality control. The Kims' sunken home is assaulted by clouds of fumigation rolling in and drunk men peeing outside the kitchen window; son Ki-woo and daughter Ki-jeong use their phones crouched by the toilet, the only place where they can steal nearby internet signals. When Ki-woo accepts an offer to tutor a girl from the rich Park family, the Kims' luck takes a turn for the better, and they'll do anything to keep it that way.

With proximity to wealth closer than ever, the Kims cook up plans to worm their way into the Parks' lives until the entire family, including father Ki-taek and mother Choong-sook, work for the wealthy Parks. Life in the Park household earns the Kims comfort by proxy, from the well-stocked fridge from which Choong-sook cooks to the shiny Mercedes Ki-taek drives. It affords luxuries like being able to use the internet freely at home, and heaping their plates with meat at a buffet.

But attaining those comforts, and maintaining them, requires a series of increasingly desperate acts. Ultimately, the question Parasite poses is: What lengths would you take to move up in the world, and what would you do to keep yourself there? The tension between the two families grows as the Kims realize the distance from reality money has afforded the Parks. Parasite is a food movie, sure, but more so, Parasite is about class warfare; food just happens to be one of its weapons.

Between pizza boxes and buffets, food marks the time points for the Kims of having money and not having money, discomfort and peace, reality and aspirations. Food is integral to that transition. It is the catalyst to the Kims' happiness, and their eventual horrors. As part of the Kims' plan to wriggle into the Parks' lives, they must control and manipulate, and with a long-game attack involving peaches and hot sauce from the pizza company where they used to work, they push out the Parks' housekeeper, the biggest roadblock in their control of the Parks. As Choong-sook prepares meals on the Parks' every whim and delivers plates of cut fruit like clockwork to the two Park children, she reminds them subtly that the Kims belong in the household, too.

From the Parks' end, food serves to remind the Kims of their place: lower, and beholden. Its over-supply serves as an unspoken taunt to the hungry Kims. Its preparation is a service rendered, not a task done out of pleasure. That's best exemplified by the Parks' last-minute, late night order of "ram-don" (a mixture of ramen and udon) topped with sirloin, which sends an already tumultuous night for the Kims into the realm of the deranged. Through wealth, the Parks bend the Kims to their will, no matter the inconvenience, and the Kims must comply, because what else would they do?

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Photo Courtesy Neon Entertainment

From grilled beef and pizza to noodles and fruit, the food in Parasite serves as a symbol of power exchange, but no matter how much the Kims might think they have the upper hand, the broader systems of power only exist to pull them down. The illusion of symbiosis between the two families is eventually shattered when the Kims learn there are other leeches in the ecosystem. The systemic violence of class gives way to bloodier, more gruesome violence in which food plays an unfortunate role.

In Bong's most recent work—2013's Snowpiercer, and 2017's Okja—food has been similarly hard to stomach. In Snowpiercer, a film about a train carrying humanity in the wake of a climate catastrophe, a bullet train represents a world's worth of hierarchies and the struggles that come with them. While the wealthy at the front of the train have the luxury of freshly grown food, the poor at the back of the train soon come come to a horrific conclusion: Their food is made of cockroaches.

Following the intense and almost familial relationship between a young human girl and the genetically-modified "super pig" she tries to save from slaughter, Bong's Netflix original Okja was a parable about the horrors of modern factory farming and the violence of our food supply. Food and the ways people twist their mindsets to condone its mutations was the crux of Okja's sadness and conflict.

Parasite reinforces Bong's ability to turn food into a source of horror, increasing the discomfort we feel as viewers as he twists through the darkness of modern life. Food isn't something in the background; it opens characters' eyes to the bad around them, and mirrors the bad they carry in themselves.

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Tagged:
South Korea
class privilege
snowpiercer
parasite
Bong Joon Ho
food movies
Okja
food-features
parasite movie