I have watched “Parasite” a few times now. During one viewing, I broke out my laptop to take notes. There were a lot of references in the film that people outside Korea wouldn’t get. Darcy Paquet (Hi, Darcy!), who translated the subtitles into English, as he’s done for many of Bong Joon-ho’s projects, worked hard to make the script more international. Translation isn’t just about robotically changing one word for another. A good translator translates cultural cues. On top of Darcy’s great effort, I noted a lot of things that would still get missed. Here are my notes.
Needless to say…
The Half-basement Apartment
This was personal. I actually lived in a half-basement my second year in Korea. At first, I didn’t think it was so bad. Some friends of mine also lived in a roomy half-basement, and I thought it was just an adjustment to living in the city. When I moved there, and my girlfriend saw it, she broke down in tears at the shame I was bearing for living there.
I learned during my year there why. I was right next to a playground, and kids were always peaking in my windows and kicking balls against them. I had no privacy. The musty basement smell permeated everything. I had bought a dehumidifier, and it helped a bit but not a lot. Clothes had a hard time drying. Weird bugs crept in. That said, I didn’t have problems with drunks pissing on my window.
I had to be extra vigilant during the rainy season. I didn’t get flooded like the Kims did in the film, but I was constantly checking and making sure the drains were cleared. The water almost went up to invasion levels. Got lucky.
I have some nice memories of that time, but those are the memories you get when you’ve filtered all the bad. My blog started hitting its early stride during that year. It was the only Korean food blog in existence then. You can go back to those early posts in 2005-2006 and see what the apartment was like.
In the beginning when Ki-woo (pronounced GEE-oo) is trying to get wi-fi, he mentions he can’t get IPTime to work. IPTime is a local brand of wi-fi router. When hunting for wi-fi in Korea, IPTime routers tend to not be password protected. I used to have one, and if I remember correctly, that was its default setting. It wasn’t the most user-friendly device to set up. So people would just plug it in, and strangers could sip off their wi-fi.
Korea isn’t as miffed by privacy as other societies. We hear calls for more CCTVs, not less. I’ve learned to expect no privacy at doctor’s offices, where they’ll announce the results of my drug or HIV tests (used to be a requirement for foreign teachers) in the waiting room.
In the movie, the lady upstairs figured out how to password protect it. I found it funny that they tried to use “123456789” because it coulda worked. It’s been a personal frustration of mine how even large organizations are cavalier about passwords. I used to work for a major broadcaster in Seoul, and I was appalled that the main password to get into their system was similar to that.
Kakao Talk (WhatsApp)
You didn’t hear “WhatsApp” in the dialogue. If you listen closely, you can hear “Ka-talk,” which is short for “Kakao Talk.” Korea’s answer to WhatsApp. It’s how everyone communicates, just like China uses WeChat and Japan uses Line. It’s become so synonymous with Korea, that there are multi-storied Kakao stores selling character merchandise based on their emojis.
The Silver Medal
First off, it’s not an Olympic medal. It translates to “National Classification, Athletics Championships, Korean Federation of Athletics” in 1992. What’s significant is that it’s silver, not gold. There’s no glory in second place.
Even the Kims said, “They still do that?”
In summer, fumigator trucks would ride down neighborhoods to rid the areas of mosquitoes. Children ran behind the trucks because it was fun to play in the mist. Don’t ask me about the health hazards of that. When I lived in my half-basement, I remember the fumigator truck going by. I didn’t open my windows.
The Food & Drinks
I’m sure most picked up on how food showed the Kims’ class progression, starting with a bag of white bread. Then the Drivers’ Cafeteria (기사식당), which I personally like. They’re cheap but good buffets. Then they’re eating proper rice, egg, and kimchi at home. Then grilling L.A. Beef Galbi at home.
When the family is sitting around and drinking the first time in the film, they’re sharing a bag of chips opened like a bowl as “anju” (pub grub). They’re also drinking FiLite, which is the cheapest malt beverage on the market. It’s nasty.
When we return to that same get together as the Kims are moving up in income, everyone but the mom has switched to Sapporo, which is considered an expensive import. Mom stuck to FiLite.
It peaks when they’re indulging in the high end liquors at the Parks’ house. They fly too close to the sun because everything falls apart after that moment.
Status and Character
This one shot here conveys a good bit of character. The much younger pizza boss didn’t resort to banmal, a form of speaking when talking to someone lower than you in the hierarchy. She respected her elders in a sense, even though she was chastising them. The shorthand way to tell is to listen for the “yo” at the end of the sentence. That’s considered–well–not impolite. Later, when Min is yelling at the drunk, who is older than him, he uses banmal.
Ki-woo tries to appease the boss and get a part-time job. Note how he tries to keep his head at her level or lower to show respect. Yet his sister Ki-jung does not. It’s their version of Good Cop, Bad Cop.
Language forms and body language add this whole rich layer to the class message. I’ve been reading articles about how “Parasite” could be made in any country. Yet I feel it works so well in Korea because of the many layers of hierarchy present in simple things like verb endings, head height, eye contact. A Hollywood remake (PLEASE DON’T) couldn’t do this with this much subtlety. It would have to be BONK BONK on the head.
If you haven’t lived or visited South Korea in the past ten years when the 50,000 won note was introduced, you may have missed this amusing contrast between the pizza boss’ payment and Park Yeon-kyo’s payment later. Going from green 10,000 won notes (~$10 USD) to golden 50,000 won notes (~$50 USD) and just flipping through them like they were nothing. I could feel Ki-woo’s heart leap at that.
I didn’t notice this until just watching it now. When Min walks in, he takes his shoes off because we are a civilized country and take our shoes off when entering a home. But he steps in something strange and shakes it off. I found that funny.
That ain’t a nice wood floor. It’s linoleum.
Oh, and I’m sure you want to know more about the rock. I’ve seen these in Samgyetang places and old people’s homes. It’s better explained here.
Convenience Store Bars
One of the great charms of living in South Korea is the convenience store bars. Tables usually sit outside convenience stores and bodegas (called “Super” in Korean). Just grab some drinks, cups, and snacks. You have yourself a cheap all-night drinking spot.
Note Korean drinking etiquette. Pour for your elders. And when it’s friends, you usually pour them for the first drink. Also note that they still have some nuts to eat. We always have something to munch on when drinking. As I said, civilized society.
Just a small thing. The translation says “frat boys,” but he really says neukdae, “wolves.”
My Korean is okay. I recently had a level test, and I’m 3 out of 5 levels in TOPIK, so my ears still need much training. But I’m sure when Ki-woo calls himself a “loser” in the subtitles, he says, “Baeksu 백수,” in Korean. Literally, it means, “white hands.” It’s one of the first Korean idioms I learned. My first girlfriend had lost her job, and she called herself that. Her hands were white because she wasn’t working. So “loser” in this sense really meant “unemployed.”
That was surreal. I just cropped an image of Photoshop in Photoshop.
Yonsei is translated as “Oxford.” It’s one of the top three South Korean universities everyone wants to get into. It’s one of the SKY universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, Yonsei University. Or SKYE if you include Ehwa University.
Faking one’s education credentials has been a running series of scandals for decades. Every few years we get rocked by these. Educational credentials mean a lot. Even more than experience. Even rappers have gotten in trouble with rumors that they faked their college degrees.
Yes, in Korean hip hop, university cred trumps street cred.
Ki-jung and Ki-woo make the forgery in a PC bang (PC room). They were ubiquitous. They’d be crowded with gamers playing Starcraft. With the advent of smartphones and the banning of smoking in PC bangs, they’ve dwindled to endangered status. More character development with Ki-jung smoking even though it’s banned. Getting a used Shin Ramyeon cup to flick her ashes in.
Am I bad that every time I watch this, I get a bigger crush on Ki-jung?
I don’t know where this neighborhood is. I’m sure if I did a little online research I’d find out. Or maybe it’s not a real place in Seoul. I’ve seen areas that look like this in Gangnam (Sinsa-dong or Banpo-dong, specifically) and in Hannam-dong, near Itaewon. I also feel like this could be in Buam-dong, in northwest Seoul, where there are a lot of nice houses. Some more small evidence to point to Buam-dong is that there are no subway stations there. It’s the only part of Seoul without any. The Parks mention it’s been a long time since they’d taken the subway. In Seoul, basically EVERYONE takes the subway at one time or another.
Western audiences outside big cities wouldn’t appreciate how rare it is to live in a house with an actual YARD here. A yard is an indicator of wealth. A freestanding house is another indicator. A two-car garage. WHOA!
One hint was that the driver later took Ki-jung to Hyewha Station, which is in northeast Seoul. I’m wondering if the Kims sort of live near there. It is hilly and has some old “villas.”
Towards the end, there’s this brief shot with the only recognizable Seoul landmark in the film, N Seoul Tower. I’m definitely calling this, saying it’s north of the tower looking south, which does place it closer to Hyewha.
Please tell me if you know in the comments. I’ll update.
UPDATE: The long stairs they climb down in the rain and the tunnel are in Buam-dong. A lot of the filming locations for the Kims’ neighborhood are near Chungjeongno Station. Seongbuk-dong has been regularly mentioned as the likely neighborhood the Parks live in. Either way, it’s in very north Seoul, just north of the palaces.
There are a few notable class cues when Ki-woo gets his first impressions of the Parks. Nathan Park runs an augmented reality tech company, and there’s an article about him in New York. As they say, if you can make it there…
When taking English classes or going overseas, most students adopt English names, which is why Mr. Park also goes by Nathan and later Ki-woo goes by Kevin and Ki-jung goes by Jessica.
I don’t know what a “Hybrid Module Map” is, but he got some innovation award for his company, Another Brick. Take whatever you wish with that name.
Mrs. Park has a lapdog. They have a few little dogs. Pet ownership was almost unheard of outside university areas when I arrived in Korea in 2004. My first year, a friend of mine had this large gorgeous dog. While he was walking it, a man walked across the street and kicked my friend’s dog.
Now we have chains of pet supply shops. Mostly small dogs because of apartment living. It’s been fascinating to watch this cultural shift to shunning pets to embracing them.
Random aside. I just found out a friend of mine was university friends with Jo Yeo-jeong, who plays Mrs. Park. Small world.
She implies her daughter Da-hye isn’t a good student. She also implies it doesn’t matter. She’ll get into a good school anyway.
English itself is a status symbol. Like how nouveau riche Americans think dropping French phrases makes them sophisticated. When I co-hosted an English education radio show, there was a lot of posturing in the message boards about grammar and pronunciation. Petty stuff. It amounted to netizens jostling for status based on their technical English knowledge.
The Korean general public knows more English than it shows. One of the reasons Koreans may not speak English to you is fear of being judged and taken down a notch if their grammar isn’t perfect. That’s an uncomfortable subject many will not admit.
Mrs. Park dropping her phonetically pronounced English phrases were stabs at making her look sophisticated. She’s also impressed by anything western. Even just Ki-woo saying, “Illinois,” impresses her when he’s selling her on hiring “Jessica.”
Foreign brands, names, and such, emit a cosmopolitan vibe. Even the dog food is Japanese. I could spend a whole series of blog posts on this. It annoyed my wife when we first moved to these nice apartments that one show-offey woman kept bragging about all the stuff, including detergent, her international businessman husband brought from America.
Nonetheless, this brought back memories of me tutoring for wealthy families. And yeah, they were all very nice people, like they are in “Parasite.” It’s eerie how similar my past clients were to the Parks.
The Parks’ and the Kims’ family structures are similar. Two parents, sister, brother. Even though things have been changing, having a male heir was very important. In my old teaching days, I remember a lot of families, especially middle to upper class families, had older daughters and stopped having kids when they got to having a son.
The University Entrance Exam
Ki-woo’s sample English lesson gives us a glimpse of the notorious Korean university entrance exam–Korea’s SAT. It’s taken in November, and they release the questions and answers in December. The English section always has the most stupidly difficult gotcha questions that even native English speakers would have difficulty with. I bet the test creators copy and paste some dense academic paper and make one word a blank. The test taker must guess which word they left out.
The Jessica Jingle
All you need to know about this song is that it’s a common children’s song, like “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” that they’re using to memorize “Jessica’s” back story.
Okay. It’s a nationalistic song about Dokdo, the disputed islands off the east coast. “Dokdo is Our Land.” “Dokdo Uri Ddang 독도우리땅.” My daughter sings it.
It’s used by children a lot to memorize things.
Hot Sauce on Pizza
Koreans are surprised to see that people outside Korea generally don’t put hot sauce on their pizza. Or rather, pizza shops don’t offer hot sauce in ketchup packets. The Korean palate craves the sharpness of hot sauce and the astringency of sweet pickles to cut through the greasiness of pizza.
I loved how clever this was. They connected the pizza box folding job to them later being served by their former boss in the pizza shop to the inspiration to use the pizza hot sauce packet to bloody the tissue to get the housekeeper fired. Long, long con by Bong Joon-ho.
Just a small guess that this looks like the main reception area of Severance Hospital. After my seizure and spine fracture in 2016, I’ve spend a lot of time there, so that waiting area looks familiar. Especially with the airy light. Then again, I’ve been to a hospital in Ilsan that sorta looked like this.
TRIVIA: Severance was the first modern hospital in Korea. Founded by American missionary doctor Horace N. Allen in the 1890s.
They mention that Korea has the highest tuberculosis rate in the developed world. That’s true and has been in the news. It’s another way Bong Joon-ho throws the Korean zeitgeist into this film.
I’m glad Galbi Jjim got this translation. Other times, it’s called “Stewed Ribs.” Technically, that is true, but the feel of the dish is more braised than stewed. It’s a special occasion dish that takes a long time to cook. If using beef ribs, they’re also expensive. South Korea has some of the highest beef prices in the whole world. Another subtle nod to class difference that Mr. Park craved such a luxury.
Here’s a video on how to make it.
The Business Card
Business cards are big deals in East Asia. Western businesspeople need to learn the proper business card etiquette in this part of the world. If someone hands you their business card, you treat it with respect. Receive it with two hands. Feel the paper and admire it. Note the job title of the person on the card. In a meeting, put it on the table, not in your pocket. Even better, place the business cards in order of status if you’re in a group meeting.
Mr Park comments how the business card is a sign of class. Not only is the design good, it’s printed on thick paper stock. Those types of business cards are pricey to make.
Even today, most Korean homes don’t have dishwashers or clothes dryers. Ovens are still penetrating the market. Bidets as well. Oh… I love bidets…
When Mrs. Park calls the fake agency for a housekeeper, she’s asked for documents, including a family register. Koreans have documentation of their ancestry dating back centuries. My wife’s family goes back to around 700 A.D., and I just recently got entered into the register after ten years of marriage. Asking for the family register shows how ridiculously excessive and elite this agency is.
500 University Graduates
Mr. Kim praises that they’re doing well when even “an opening for a security guard attracts 500 university graduates.”
Recent articles have come out about the over supply of university graduates and how hard it is for graduates to get jobs.
It’s obvious to anyone not in Korea that all the events take place in summer. Well, they do mention it’s June. But there are other touches I found that signify it.
The Parks go glamping. They ain’t camping. No roughing it. There was no serious camping as a past time in Korea until the 2010s. And the camping public when straight into glamping. Being able to go camping in Korea is considered a trendy activity. The Parks are even bringing a BEAM PROJECTOR to go CAMPING!!!
Our fruits and vegetables can be extremely seasonal. Peaches are only available during a window of June to late July. Sometimes I’ve seen the season only last a couple of weeks.
The rainy season, jangma, hits its peak in July, but I’ve seen it start in June. We haven’t had a bad one in a while, but when it hits, it hits hard. Flooding. And yes, overflowing sewage.
Caught a Bouquet
Ki-jung says she once caught a bouquet for someone she never met. In Korean westernized weddings, everything is done for the photos. It’s as if the Korean idea of a western wedding came from watching Las Vegas weddings on TV.
Catching the bouquet is just another photo op. A friend of the bride is chosen ahead of time, and she throws the bouquet to her for the photo. Sometimes it takes a few tries.
Click here for more details about Korean weddings.
To show our bonds, we call each other by familial names. Big sister, big brother, auntie, uncle. You hear girls call their boyfriends “Oppa,” meaning, “Big Brother.” I call the owner at the Two-Two Chicken I frequent “Hyung,” also meaning, “Big Brother.”
Moon-gwang calls Kim Chung-sook “Unni” here, which offends her for being so familial.
A little later, Moon-gwang gets on her hands and knees, rubbing her hands. It’s an extreme form of begging for favor. I’ll admit I’ve been in a situation where I’ve done this.
Yes, they do exist. For different reasons. But many to hide if North Korea attacked, or even worse, government prosecutors want to do a raid (as she states). There are other bunkers around Korea. There’s one that was built for former dictator Park Chung-hee that’s in Yeouido. There’s a WWII Japanese bunker hidden in plain site next to Gyeonghuigung Palace.
FUN FACT: Many Seoul subway stations go deep underground because they double as bomb shelters.
Taiwanese Castella Shops
This is the line that prompted me to make this post. It’s an inside joke Seoul foodies would catch. Castella shops were one of many flash-in-the-pan food trends going through Seoul.
As with all these trends, many people lost money trying to get rich quick. Usually men forced into early retirement, which is why there are so many fried chicken pubs. Many of these men feel they have two choices: driving taxis or opening a restaurant.
The most recent trend has been Taiwanese black sugar bubble tea. This summer, there were hour-long waits for this Instagrammy drink. Now the cafes are empty.
When the Parks cut their trip short and return home, Mrs. Park asks Mrs. Kim to make her some “Jjapaguri.”
This is a recent junk food creation that came from a TV show that follows celebrity dads as they take care of their kids. One of the dads said his go-to dish was mixing two popular instant noodles together, Chapagetti and Neoguri (pronounced NUH-goo-ree). It’s kind of a Homer Simpson type of dish, but it got popular.
Chapagetti is ramen style noodles with black bean sauce. Neoguri is thicker udon style noodles with a spicy seafood flavor. Mrs. Kim, I guess, hadn’t heard of it because she didn’t have a TV to see the program.
Mrs. Park wanted it with “sirloin,” which classed it up. That’s the translation. She really says, “Hanoo,” which is high end Korean beef, akin to Kobe. So imagine making something like Honey Boo-Boo’s sketti with lobster.
It’s not in the translation, but when Mrs. Park is telling Mrs. Kim to quickly make the noodles, she finishes by saying, “Fighting,” which is a kind of cheer.
It’s an easy dish to make, and you can get the ingredients at most Asian and Korean grocery stores. It’s quite salty. I had it the other night at a bar during a BBQ tour. We ate the whole thing.
This is an old-fashioned way to punish children. Have them kneel or stand with their arms up.
Moon-gwang then impersonates the famous North Korean newscaster we always see.
Saeng Cream Cake
Mrs. Park talks about when Da-song was traumatized by the “ghost.” He saw the ghost when we went down to get some Saeng Cream Cake. It’s a popular cake in Korea that uses whipped cream for frosting. Recipe is here.
In the meantime, Mr. Kim and Geun-se are talking about Geun-se’s life in the bunker. He talks about how it’s home. SO MANY DETAILS in these shots that I’ll have to pause and pause to catch them all. I particularly found it funny the stack of used condom wrappers on a spike with two hopeful unused ones.
The floods hit. The Kims escape. Some say this is a little too on the nose, but so what. It showed the Kim’s going down and down the hills of Seoul to their half-basement. The trickle down of the rich’s filth reaching them. In old poorer areas, you see the spaghetti tangle of utility cables.
I’ve been in floods like this. In 2011, many of us were trapped in a neighborhood after a mudslide blocked all exits. Cars were floating and all.
The Birthday Party
Everything went to shit, as you know, for the Kims. The Jangma rains flooded their apartment as they narrowly escaped being caught. This isn’t a cultural point but some have been surprised about the ending. Pay attention to the wording used when Mr. Kim is helping Mrs. Park shop for Da-song’s birthday party in shops his family would never venture. She talks about how refreshing and cleansing the rain is, when we know how devastating it was to the Kim family. How the rich viewed the rain contrasted so sharply from how Mr. Kim’s class viewed it.
“The sky’s so blue and no pollution.” <–we do have pollution issues in Seoul
That’s when the knife struck down in his mind and permanently split him from the Parks.
Note that all the food and drinks they prepare for the party are foreign–pasta, gratin, salmon steak. The Korean elite, especially the nouveau riche, shun Korean foods and drinks when they want to impress.
Mrs. Park wanted the birthday table arrangements to mimic Admiral Yi’s crane formation in defeating the Japanese navy–back in the Imjin Wars of 1592.
One could REALLY be reaching out on a limb when she says Da-song’s tent is the Japanese warship. There have been accusations many times that South Korea’s current elite has ties to collaborators during the Japanese colonial period of the 20th century. Eh–forget I said it.
Any car that is not Korean is considered luxurious. Mini Coops, Mercedes. When the guests arrive, one arrives in a black taxi, which is the most expensive taxi out there.
I don’t have any more subtle cultural notes for the jarring ending. Other than this movie really portrays Seoul well without even showcasing a single landmark. That’s what Seoul is in my opinion. It’s like Los Angeles. It’s a city with a feel to it that doesn’t need landmarks. It’s a living breathing creature.
One Final Note
Don’t be the daughter of actor Song Kang-ho in any movie. They tend to die.
This post has gone through many edits and additions thanks to our amazing community.
Special thanks to William Cho, Kent Matsuoka, Eugene Whong, Jieun Park, Andy Kim, Shawn Morrissey, Sam Henderson, Steven Ward, Rob Ouwehand, Karl Mamer, and Hayne Kim for helping with the editing.