‘Parasite’ Has a Hidden Backstory of Middle-Class Failure and Chicken Joints

In a few words, Bong Joon-ho conjured up a whole tale of economic insecurity.

Sky Pizza in Seoul
Pizza restaurant owner Eom Hang-ki, 65, works in her restaurant Sky Pizza in Seoul, which was featured in "Parasite," on Feb. 13. Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

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Parasite, the first foreign language film to win the Academy Award for best picture, and the first to be condemned in public by a U.S. president, is a story of poverty and inequality. The movie, which is also the first Korean movie to win an Oscar, is centered on the Kim family, who live in a basement in Seoul. But how did the Kim family end up there? The movie drops only the slightest of hints in the family’s conversation as they retrace the career of the patriarch, Ki-taek. Yet a Korean audience would immediately grasp the implication behind these simple words: “chicken place” and “king castella.” For those familiar with a typical career trajectory in South Korea, those terms reveal a whole world of middle-class failure—reflecting economic hopes and tragedies that still resonate throughout the country.

Korean fried chicken is a delicious dish with a worldwide following. In the streets of Seoul, a fried chicken joint—typically a small, ramshackle operation that relies more on delivery sales than on eat-in service—can be seen on virtually every street corner. As of February 2019, there were approximately 87,000 chicken joints in South Korea, more than double the number of every single McDonald’s restaurant in the world. But its transformation into a staple snack is a relatively new phenomenon. The number of fried chicken joints in South Korea tripled in the decade between 2003 and 2013—and then more than doubled again from 2013 to 2019. The Kim family in Parasite, apparently, was a part of this wave—and, like many other families, lost their shirts in it.

The massive increase in the number of chicken joints was a direct result of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which fundamentally reorganized the South Korean economy in a manner similar to that the 2008 financial crisis did with the U.S. economy. Prior to the 1997 crisis, a typical career path for Korean wage earners, at that point still overwhelmingly male, was to join a company and stay with it until retirement. During the period of employment, the company would often pay for the employee’s housing, car, college tuition for children, and a pension after retirement.

This system, made possible through South Korea’s miraculous economic growth from the 1970s through the early 1990s, was the mechanism that created the country’s prosperous middle class. This middle class pushed the country to transition away from military dictatorship and launched the trend of sophisticated pop culture, including K-pop, Korean drama, and cinematic masterworks from Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Parasite director Bong Joon-ho.

In 1997, this system of lifetime employment failed catastrophically. Even those who managed to keep their jobs could no longer expect tenured employment, much less a pension. It was common for people in their 40s and 50s to be pushed into so-called voluntary retirement with a lump sum of severance pay. Suddenly without the jobs that had anchored their lives, these young retirees had to fend for their families by turning that severance pay into a steady cash flow.

Quick-serve restaurants, including fried chicken joints, offered one seeming solution. They required a low amount of capital and little to no skill to start. Overhead fees could be kept low by enlisting the whole family as free labor. The low interest rate following the economic crisis made it easy to obtain a loan to add to the severance pay and build up seed money. The result is that, as of late 2018, South Korea had 125 restaurants per 10,000 people, more than double the rate of Japan (58 per 10,000) and six times the rate of the United States (21 per 10,000). South Korea’s huge number of restaurants do not just reflect a love of dining out but also an economy that pushes people into small subsistence-level businesses.

Fried chicken joints remain the most popular form of these mom-and-pop restaurants. A fried chicken restaurant requires very little skill, as its menu is only two or three items long. It can be franchised easily, allowing inexperienced restauranteurs to ease into the business. Today, fried chicken franchises comprise more than 20 percent of all franchise restaurants in South Korea. Veterans of fried chicken joints grimly joke that the secret of Korean fried chicken’s flavor is the sophisticated workforce that fries those birds, as laid-off engineers with master’s degrees are known to exercise particular care for the precise time and temperature for marinating and cooking the chickens.

The surge of fried chicken joints quickly saturated the market, to a point that the Korean government tried to slow the growth in these restaurants by, for example, banning franchise restaurants from opening two outlets within half a mile of each other. Yet the number of restaurants continued to climb until around 2015, when the struggling outlets finally began filing for bankruptcy one by one. And so, with a couple of words, Bong implied an entire backstory for his basement dwellers: The patriarch once had a decent job and then started a chicken joint after being laid off. Then the chicken joint failed when five other people opened similar restaurants around them.

The words “king castella” hint that the Kim family’s woes were compounded with yet another entry into a heavily saturated market. If running a fried chicken joint in Korea is akin to day trading, running a king castella joint is like day trading on margins: same meager returns but with double or triple the risk. Around 2016, a snack fad involving a giant custard cake took South Korea by storm. At the time, the fad, which came from Taiwan, seemed like an opportunity for those looking to open a small business: same level of low input as a fried chicken joint but with shorter hours and higher margins. Compared with standing in front of a boiling fryer for 15 hours a day, selling a dessert treat appeared to be an easier way.

Unfortunately, the pastry trend had an even shorter shelf life than fried chicken. The king castella cake fad barely lasted a year; its actual operation resembled a Ponzi scheme where the early entrants sold their stores with premium to the latecomers, who ended up holding the bag when the cake bubble burst. The final nail in the coffin was a purported exposé by a cable news channel, making the dubious claim that the castella cakes were unhealthy because they used too much cooking oil. But the shaky exposé was enough to destroy thousands of small-business owners who bet their last penny on the desserts. In Parasite, the king castella not only ruined the Kim family but also drove Geun-sae, the deranged husband of the housekeeper, into hiding in the mansion’s basement to avoid the loan sharks.

The words “fried chicken” and “king castella” can easily be missed in Parasite, but their implications are chilling. They signify that the Kim family, for all their desperate poverty, were once regular members of the middle class. The movie uses other small devices to indicate this point—for example, the father Ki-taek’s manner of speech, which is proper to the point of being theatrical, or the mother Chung-sook’s silver medal as a hammer throw athlete. All this plants a seed of quiet anxiety for viewers who know what those words imply: Even if you lead a comfortable life today, you could find yourself in the Kim family’s basement tomorrow.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.

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