Courtesy of CJ Entertainment

December 19, 2019

An English Major and Two Vet Students Talk ‘Parasite’

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Warning: MAJOR spoilers for Parasite follow below

True to its name, Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite captivates your interest from its opening sequence, keeps you transfixed till the bloody resolution and leaves images deeply embedded in your psyche long after the credits roll. When I first heard the film’s title, I thought it was a clever throwback to Bong’s 2006 film The Host but also assumed that, as is the case with most foreign-language films, perhaps Bong’s original title for the film was a word or phrase in Korean that did not have a proper English equivalent. However, I was surprised to learn that the film’s title in Korean 기생충/ Gisaengchung did directly translate to “parasite.” It is easy enough to discern why the film is called this from a quick perusal of its plot synopsis, but the titular implications and layers go much deeper. I spoke with my friends John and Charles Nystrom, who are second-year veterinary students, about their perspectives on the film, given their background.

A transcription of our conversation is below, edited for clarity. 

Zachary Lee ’20: So Dictionary.com’s quick definition of “parasite” is three-fold:

  1. an organism that lives on or in an organism of another species, known as the host, from the body of which it obtains nutriment.
  2. a person who receives support, advantage or the like, from another or others without giving any useful or proper return, as one who lives on the hospitality of others.
  3. (in ancient Greece) a person who received free meals in return for amusing or impudent conversation, flattering remarks, etc.

Given y’all’s background as vets, is there anything that these definitions don’t capture? Or rather, what stands out in particular to you?

Charles Nystrom DVM ’22: That first part of the definition where it mentions that a parasite lives in “an organism of another species” resonates because, in the movie, the Park family can never see the Kims as human beings. The Park’s wealth is too much of a dividing factor. You see this when Dong-ik (played by Lee Sun-kyun) recoils at the smell of the dying Geun-sae (played by Park Myung-hoon). There is blood and chaos everywhere yet the only thing Dong-ik is concerned about is getting car keys and the horrid smell. To the point of how parasites “don’t give back,” I think Bong broke the metaphor a little bit because, for a while, the Kims were actually helping out the Parks. Da-song seemed to benefit from the made-up art therapy. The third definition gets at parasites’ reciprocal nature. Low doses of parasites can actually help you. For example, some people even put tapeworms in themselves to curtail asthma. But too many parasites can overwhelm and kill the host.

John Nystrom DVM ’22: Yeah my mind definitely goes to the biological. Right now we’re wrapping up our parasitology unit and we’ve been focusing on helminths, which are flatworms that include tapeworms, hookworms, etc…things a lot of people don’t like talking about (laughing). Throughout the unit though, we kept hearing that parasites in their adult stage are not harmful; when parasites are adults they don’t do much other than shed their eggs and take some nutrients. But when they are in the larval stage and are transitioning into the body and getting acclimated with it, they leave a lot of nasty debris behind which is ultimately harmful.

ZL: That’s fascinating because as the Kim family was in the “planning stage” (i.e. the larval stage) that is when they are the most dangerous: getting people fired, exploiting allergies, etc.

CN:  Interestingly though for parasites, the “planning” is often thoughtless. Larvae are scouting out an acceptable place to “land.” There’s a lot of tension because the parasites want to shed their offspring, but because the larvae can be destructive, they have to make sure they won’t kill the host.

JN: Think of them as bad house guests: They wander around the host’s body leaving a trail of damage. They’re going into places they shouldn’t and are messing things up.

ZL: Speaking of being bad house guests, there’s a scene where Ki-taek (played by Song Kang-ho) is celebrating with his family because they have successfully infiltrated moving into the Park’s house. Ki-taek marvels at “the amount of money going from that house into ours.” That’s a clear “aha” moment as to why the movie could be called Parasite but were there other scenes, characters or sequences throughout the movie that y’all thought embodied the parasite motif?

JN: The scenes of the Kim family literally hiding under the noses of the Park’s strongly exemplified latency. Latency is a viral evasion mechanism that happens after a virus has affected the body and killed a lot of cells, and the immune system kicks in and begins to flush out the virus. To survive, the virus invades an area such as the nervous system and inserts its genome right beside the genome of the host within the neurons. Then it hides and stays there. The immune system won’t destroy it because the parasitic cells are not doing anything overtly malicious; they aren’t replicating or killing cells. However, the latent virus can then strike back in full force at an opportune time, such as when the host is stressed. Most parasites generally are trying to hide and not take too many nutrients; if they do too much damage it will alert the immune system.

CN: There’s also antigenic switching where parasites are constantly changing their properties so they stay one step ahead of the immune system.

ZL: Both the housekeeper and her husband and the Kim family cited how the Parks (the immune system in this analogy) were naïve and clueless. It was interesting, though, that between the two groups’ “parasites” there was a sense of competition. Would one parasite identify with the host it has inhabited and try to defend it from other parasites or are there examples of co-habitance?

CN: Yeah parasites might fight each other. The body is big and you could share a body theoretically, but they can definitely still have conflict.

ZL: I wonder if the Kims and Moon-gwang and Geun-sae could have peacefully co-existed or not. Although it would probably be hard to all live together without tipping off the Parks.

JN: Well that’s what’s interesting because Mr. Park, despite his grievances with Ki-taek’s smell, is relieved that Ki-taek “doesn’t cross the line.”  If you bought a tapeworm and wanted it to relieve you of asthma that’s fine. It would live off of you but it would also help you. But at a certain point, if it starts to grow its own larvae or migrate to another part of the body you don’t want it to, it crosses the line.

CN: I wonder if there’s an idea of the house actually [being] the host. People are trying to live off the “body of wealth” that the house represents.

JN:  Bouncing off that idea, if wealth is the host, then the Parks are the first parasites and then their housekeepers and the Kims are a competing set of parasites. There’s this hierarchy of parasitism. Then again, wealth could also be the parasite. If so, it succeeded in replicating itself. Ki-woo only cares now about wealth (so that way he can buy the house where his father is now prisoner).

ZL: This sounds like a whole other article (laughing). Thanks for talking y’all!

Zachary Lee is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at zlee@cornellsun.com.