Hunger & Humiliation Gone Wild

Hunger can lead to desperate acts. And, it does –  in Bong Joon-Ho’s startling new film, Parasite. Plus, we find. if you’re hungry and helpless (emotionally, that is), you can even become a parasite. The kind of hunger we witness in many of Parasite’s characters leads to various forms of exploitation – of the class above or below. But, it’s not simply exploitation that makes for a parasite. There are many complicated things that cause the need to feed off someone else. Mostly, we discover, it’s what lives in the basement. Locked up there (potentially in all of us if we’re driven to it). A desperate starvation. Leading to almost anything as a means of satisfying a hunger that won’t stop. What is it, then, that Parasite might teach us?

Well, at the center are children (or child parts of the film’s adult characters) – helpless, struggling, to find hope their parents don’t (or didn’t) give them. All alone to find answers. And, frightened to their cores.

Frightened Kids, Desperate Measures & Greed

Do they look frightened? Ki-woo Kim (Woo-sik Choi). Ki-jung Kim (So-dam Park)? Da-song Park (Hyun-jun Jung). Or, hungry? No, not on the surface. But, that’s how it goes with kids. They develop symptoms. Get hyperactive. Act up as loudly as a scream: “Hey! Help me. Do something!” Or, they use their wiles.

Yes, that’s what happens when parents are helpless, unavailable, or have given up.  Kids get creative. Sometimes it goes well for them – but very often not, as we see with the Kim’s and the Park’s. Da-song has been terrified by the resident parasite (his own hunger for the love and attention he’s not getting), and he acts out in fear and anger.

Ki-woo and Ki-jung? They’re as cunning as they can get. As creative as their parents are not. But, in all the wrong ways – given that they haven’t the guidance they need or help. Yes, when Ki-woo’s friend, Min-hyuk (Seo-joon Park) gives him a lucky stone to bring prosperity – it, understandably in his circumstances, quickly turns to greed.

So, what about greed? It’s true, sometimes the wanting just won’t stop. You can’t get enough. Or, you’ve given up. That is until an opportunity (like for Ki-woo and the Kim family) just seems to present itself. And, the hunger takes over your whole being. That hunger, now greed, could drive you to do just about anything. We see that in Parasite.

But, how does such greed develop? And, why? Because we see it not only in the down and out Kim family – we also see it in the wealthy, privileged and seemingly nice Parks. They are mutual parasites, really. Feeding off each other. What drives their hungers? 

The Kims:  “I’d Be Nice Too If I Was Rich”

We first meet the Kim’s in their crowded, smelly, basement apartment. (The basement is ironically, or not so ironically, where Mr. Kim (Kang-ho Song) and Ki-woo start and end). They’re the image of defeat. Especially Mr. Kim.

A drunk repeatedly pees outside their window. They’re forced to watch. The ultimate “debasement.” As if life thumbs its nose at them.

They’re trapped in this life. Folding pizza boxes for pennies. Doing it poorly and haphazardly because they do not care. Losing that job too. Is there any way up or out? Not if it’s up to Mr. Kim. He doesn’t believe in hope. It gets you nowhere, he tells his son. Why try? So, it’s up to Ki-woo to save the family. A hard task for a kid.

Is it any surprise that the lucky “prosperity stone,” that gift from his friend Min, along with an opportunity, turns into a greedy scam? Not really. Hunger and poverty have their ways. And, anyway, Min has his own scam up his sleeve. You see, he needs his “friend,” Ki-woo, to step in for him as a tutor for the wealthy Park family.

Mostly, he wants him to watch over their daughter, Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), because he’s fallen in love with her and trusts no one else. He convinces the smart but uneducated Ki-woo to lie about his credentials – and Ki-Woo is hired. He makes for a rather brilliant tutor. But, greed can’t be trusted. Greed has no rules or bounds.

In fact, as we see in Parasite, the Kim family’s greed thinks nothing of destroying the lives of anyone in their way. And, they do. Mrs. Kim ( Hye-jin Jang) says it all too well: “I’d be nice too if I was rich.”

The Park’s: Helpless “Niceness” Born Of Privilege

Greed abounds. Between the Kim’s and the Park’s. They use each other. Once Ki-woo is in, he concocts troubling stories to convince the naive, helpless and easily frightened Mrs. Park (Yeo-jeong Jo) to fire their loyal, long-time housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee), and also their chauffeur. In come Mr. and Mrs. Kim. And, the Kim daughter Ki-jung – as “trauma therapist” for the Park’s unruly son.

Yes, lies abound. And, greed is opportunistic. But, the Park’s are blind. They may be nice, but their privilege embodies its own greed. And, as we see, helplessness. So, they don’t think twice about using the underclass. In a way, anything goes for them too.

When it comes to their own comforts, they’re self-absorbed and entitled. They don’t think of anyone else. And, they make use of what is available. What they can pay for. Which carries its own kind of exploitation. Money buys. Kindness is limited. Their needs come first.  We see it when Ki-woo gets his way by scaring Mrs. Park.

No question, Ki-woo has the cunning wiles of a kid born on the streets. He convinces Mrs. Park that Moon-gwang’s peach allergy is tuberculosis. Panics her. And, Moon-gwang is gone without a thought. Or interest in realities. And, when Ki-jung plants a pair of underpants to frame the driver, Mrs. Park is terrified that they’d hired a pervert.

Perversion? Really, it’s in the mutual exploitation between the families. In their consuming preoccupation with satisfying their own needs. No consideration of anyone else’s. Yes, they feed off each other. But, in the end, such mutual exploitation royally backfires. Explodes in destruction, thoughtless humiliation, and out of control rage.

Spirally, when Mr. Kim overhears Mr. Park tell his wife about Mr. Kim’s strange smell. 

Smell Of Poverty, Humiliation & Rage

A smell on Mr. Kim. That’s what Mr. Park tells his wife as they lounge on the couch after coming home from their ill-fated, rained-out “camping” trip. Watching their son camping, now, in the backyard. A particular smell. Little do they know that the Kim’s have usurped their home, almost caught in the act, and are hiding under the furniture.

Listening to every word. Hearing the cruelty of it. What is that smell? Is it the smell of struggle? Poverty? Now that smell turns to something else. Humiliation. A humiliation that links up with slowly seething rage. Rage that is hiding underneath the apathy. The ways he’s given up and tells Ki-woo that what comes from trying is “one big nothing.”

Yet, what comes from years of humiliation, hopeless despair, the envy of those more fortunate is one very big disaster.  If there’s no help and nowhere to turn.

How can anyone continue to live with such feelings being forced right in your face (even though you’ve put yourself closer in your own hapless greed)? After a while those awful feelings (that you’ve pushed away and denied) are bound to take over.

And, they do. For Mr. Kim and Moon-gwang’s husband, Geun-se (Myeong-hoon Park), both beside themselves with helplessness, hunger, grief – and finally murderous rage. When everything has been taken from them. Their self-respect and the ones they love.

And, when a seemingly lucky stone has far from saved them.

Lucky Stone (& Greed) Gone Wrong

No, a lucky prosperity stone isn’t meant to be misused for greed. If there’s any big life lesson for Ki-woo to face, this is it. The stone was meant for hope. But, hunger and despair, and a father that has no hope, doesn’t bode well for working hard. Or, for waiting.

If you’ve seen giving up – and heard that hard work doesn’t pay off – what else is there to do but seize an “opportunity” and put it to use as fast as you can. It’s no different than an addiction to gambling, not knowing when to stop. And, the Kim’s took a big unconscious gamble. Without a bit of reality mixed in. Since reality has not been kind.

A sad turn of events – when Min (in his own ill-fated way) tried to give Ki-woo a break. Yes, greed and desperation too frequently boomerang – and wreak their catastrophes.

No, greed doesn’t provide a very big gain. In fact, we see in Parasite just how it leads to very big losses. And, in the vicious cycle that hunger, helplessness, and lack of help keep alive – right back where you started. Trapped in a basement of desperation. Either believing there is no way out – or relying on a son to find a different way.

Ki-woo must learn that a lucky stone used for greedy purposes only turns against him. And, we see it so clearly in Geun-see’s vengeful attempt to kill him with that very stone. I think we might say there’s no good end when hunger is left unattended, not properly fed, and drowning in new and old grief. And, when there’s no parent to help.

In fact, for Ki-woo, it’s tragically the other way around. He’s left to save his father.

Lonely Son Left To Save A Father

It’s a heavy weight for a kid to carry. Ki-woo’s lived with that burden his whole life. Trying to shoulder the needs of an entire family, while pushing aside his own hunger. That’s what got him beaten up by Geun-see (the epitome of hunger gone wild). And his sister, Ki-jung (just as cunning and desperate) – killed by that very same hunger.

A dad who lives in apathy and denial leaves his children shut away from real needs; their sorrows and their fears. We see it after the Kim parents throw Moon-gwang down the stairs, to get rid of her, to keep what they think they’ve gained; killing her.

Shocked and terrified, their dad offers no comfort: “Don’t think about it and it didn’t happen.” But, that’s not true, of course. It did. And, it’s the fault (so to speak) of their terrible desperation. Denial isn’t what anyone needs. Even though sometimes it seems like the only and last resort.

There’s love in this family. But, denial of reality isn’t the kind of love that makes kids thrive. It creates problems in hope, deprivations that are hard to work around, buried hunger; overwhelming feelings;  and corrupt means for getting something more.

Does Ki-woo have a chance? Parasite leaves us wondering if his determination to get a real job and buy the Park house is just another fantasy. The only one he has left to save his father – who replaces the now-dead Giun-see. Living in the basement after he’s murdered Mr. Park (in his humiliation about “his smell” and grief about his daughter.)

Culprit: Desperate Hunger Gone Wild

Desperate hunger isn’t so easily stopped. We’ve seen that to be true. The Kim’s thought they’d beaten out the old housekeeper. Living high on the hog. Off of what they had stolen. But, Moon-gwang returned, destroyed by the life they’d forced upon her with their selfishly callous greed. To reclaim what she left behind.

Her husband. Hunger itself. Sequestered in the secret cellar. Without her upstairs,  carefully attending to his needs. Starving. Young Ki-woo’s been left starving too, with no mom or dad to notice his needs. Having to grow up. Fast. To take care of them.

So, in the end, what’s the real culprit in Parasite? Hunger in the basement. The hungry child in all of them; deprived, scared, and longing for someone to hear. What they all live with unawares. Because hunger locked up, denied, frustrated, hidden away as if it doesn’t exist  – turns to greed, goes wild, and when not satisfied – ends in rage. 

And, we see what’s left in its ravaged pathway. A young kid, alone, in a basement. Starving for help. Trying to figure out the answers to save his world – all by himself.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

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