Parasite: Disgust visualised

Parasite is an amazing film: the layers of metaphor, great unassuming acting, social commentary just oozing from every scene. It is my kind of movie, and I keep going back to it over and over to see if I can spot another gem of meaning hidden in the movie’s visuals and narrative.

And then, few days ago I watched Jordan Peterson’s lecture on disgust.
It completely changed the way I understood Parasite as a movie.

Say what you may about Jordan Peterson, his online lectures are amazing. When we put aside the political undertones, he is a master at interpreting symbols of psychological states, in children’s books or Nazi adverts. And when he manages to connect them to scientific studies in the field of psychology, the resulting explanation is a powerful tool.

It would be a hard sell to tell me that Bong Joon-ho, the movie’s director, has not drawn at least some of the imagery from the theories explained in the lectures. A major recurring theme in the movie is the feeling of disgust and how our protagonists’ lives are affected by it.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

The Kims

First we are introduced to the Kim family, who live in a semi-basement space in a bustling South Korean city.

The semi-basement is a badly lighted, humid, dirty space, nurturing conditions perfect for vermin breeding. The street it looks out to through a small window is regularly flooded with sewage water. People urinate in the streets, bugs crawl into the living spaces. Although, it could be worse, and the Kim family tries to make the best out of this situation.

On the other side of the class divide, we meet the Park family. Living in a beautiful, clean house up on the hill. The house is maintained by the housekeeper, the car is driven by a professional chauffeur, the kids are taught by private tutors. Everything is orderly and respectable. Their world views also reflect all the virtues of the upper class, one of which is the complete disdain and fear of the lower class.

The Parks

As Peterson teaches us, this contempt is not of unknown origin.

There is an inherent fear of disorder and filth, as they can bring on disease. Society has developed so that anything or anyone that could be associated with such dangers is bound to be treated badly by the clean, healthy members. Being targeted as the reason for the disgust feeling in others could mean social isolation, poverty and even death for the target.

This divide also applies to whole groups of people. Nazis targeted the Jewish community, poignantly comparing them to disease, pests, something that needs to be expelled, eradicated. Lower class is looked down with disgust by the middle and upper classes, since contact can bring on biological and societal downfall.

There is one member, I have to mention, of the lower class Kim family that is not at peace with the reality of life: the father, head of the Kim family.

One of the first scenes where this is obvious is when the exterminators come to fumigate the streets. The windows of the semi-basement remain open, and the whole family is quickly coughing, suffering from the fumes. Except for the father: he does not consider himself a pest, and thus is unfazed by pesticide. As we will see through the film, the unwillingness to see himself as disgust-worthy by the world is the force that ultimately resolves the whole movie.

Smell

It is the sense most sensitive to provoking the feeling of disgust. In the film, and it is mentioned several times, the clothes of the lower class family are of a certain, not pleasant smell.

They wash their clothes regularly, but the smell of the space they live in comes through in the form of this stale smell. They are oblivious to it, and it is only the upperclass that notice it. Mr. Kim’s smell is, after all, the only thing that “crosses the line” with Mr. Park. In all other aspects, his skills, his manners, he passes his strict tests.

Disease

There is no real disease in the movie, I don’t think. There are injuries, mental illnesses, allergies, alcoholism maybe. The only contagious disease that I noticed directly referred to is one that is, well, not actually there.

When the Kim family induces a peach allergy reaction with the housekeeper, they make sure they blow it up to a serious disease-level looking incident. Allergies are not contagious and dangerous, but TB? Better throw that person out of the house before she infects anyone. Shows you the consequence a person could suffer if judged as dangerous. In the housekeeper’s case, completely unjustly.

The sewer

There were two scenes of a man urinating on the street near Kims’ home, making their living conditions even more dirty.

If you notice, the first time the man is shooed off by their rich friend, showing how powerful money and confidence of the rich can be in making these unwanted things go away. The second time it is the son and the father who make the urinator leave, symbolising moving up in the world.

Sewer flooding the Kim residence

Later, in one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, the Kim daughter is sitting on an overflowing toilet in their now flooded semi-basement.

It is the epitome of disgust. They are up to their necks in sewage water, a symbol of the mess they have caused at the rich house and all their hard work being washed away. They manage to barely escape it, though. Unfortunately, the next day will see the culmination of their problems.

The ending

As I mentioned before, the Kim family patriarch is never fully at peace with his social standing. But he is constantly reminded of it. This became a great source of frustration and anger in him.

And as he holds his dying daughter in his arms, seeing the upper class father not only choosing to save the sons life over his daughters, but being disgusted by the “parasite” human dying on his lawn (by his smell), he snaps. It is the disgust shown by the upper class father that he wants to punish. He will not be judged by this man.

Ultimately, by killing the man, he makes himself the thing he was always running from: a lowest-form of parasite.

I am sure there are more metaphors in the movie that somehow visualise disgust as a social agent, these are some of the more memorable ones for me. The stairs/vertical divide is the one that I have seen talked about the most, but this disgust-related theme, I think, is a bigger-picture concept that really makes the movie.

Finally, watch that Peterson lecture, it’s worth it.

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Magdalena Tauber

Magdalena Tauber

Passionately interested in mental health, education and general psychology and cognitive science topics.