The Sinister Role of Food in Parasite
by Olivia Stoll
The Park family lives in a luxurious house in Seoul with a lush backyard and custom architecture. They enjoy meals prepared by their live-in housekeeper and exclusively drink bottled VOSS water. Across the city, the Kim family resides in a semi-basement. Through a small window below the ceiling, we can see that the apartment is almost entirely below street level. The Kim family folds empty pizza boxes for extra cash, eats around moldy bits of bread, and drinks cheap “FiLite” beer. When the son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), lands a job tutoring for the Park family’s daughter, the rest of the Kim family cons their way into employment under the Park family. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is not a particularly appetizing film, but food plays a critical role. Food is a representation of the class divides that persist throughout the story. Peach fuzz, meat kebabs, birthday cake, and coffee are among the foods wielded by the characters of Parasite to drive their tasteful class war.
The most thematically significant dish in the film is also the only dish prepared onscreen: Ram-don with steak. Mrs. Park requests this peculiar meal as she (and the rest of the Park family) returns home early from a trip. The catch: the Kim family has been lounging in the empty Park house, not expecting them home so early. On top of that, the old housekeeper (who has been hiding her husband in the Park’s secret basement) discovers the Kim family’s con and threatens to expose them. Now, Mrs. Kim has to prioritize making a noodle dish for Da-song while her entire family’s livelihood is at stake. “If you boil the water now, the timing will be perfect.” (1:16:09) The editing in this sequence parallels food and people, cross-cutting between Mrs. Kim handling steak and the other characters violently fighting. The effect of this editing also juxtaposes the concurrent conflicts, highlighting class struggle. The old housekeeper and the Kim family are fighting for their lives, and yet Mrs. Kim must focus on preparing dinner because Mrs. Park casually demands it.
The ingredients of Mrs. Park’s request are very intentional. Ram-don is a hybrid of Ramen and Udon noodles, which are notoriously inexpensive foods often associated with people on a tight budget. However, Mrs. Park says “There’s sirloin in the fridge, add that too.” (1:16:15) The Korean translation suggests Mrs. Park is actually naming a more expensive cut of meat than sirloin, but the effect is similar either way. The contrast between cheap and expensive ingredients directly parallels the cross-cutting in the scene and the Kim/Park family dichotomy as a whole. Much like this scene, food is a sinister tool throughout the film. The Kims use peaches as a weapon to destroy the old housekeeper’s career. Her husband is killed with a meat kebab, which frames him as another chunk of meat on the skewer. Mr. Park uses a cup of coffee to test Mr. Kim’s driving abilities rather than drinking it, reinforcing his superior status. There is so much food in this film, but it is rarely enjoyed. In Parasite, food is foremost a weapon that represents class struggles.
Parasite. Dir. Bong Joon-ho. HBO Max, 2019. Streaming.