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In Parasite (2019), the decorative rock given to the Kim family by Min is described in the English subtitles as a "scholar's rock," and that it was said to "bring material wealth to families." Indeed, shortly after the Kim family got the rock, they got material wealth from their new jobs.

I don't quite understand the significance or symbolism of how it was used. After the flood, Ki-woo was hugging the rock and said that "it [the rock] keeps clinging to me." Ki-woo attempted to use it as a weapon to attack or kill Moon-gwang (former housekeeper) and Geun-se (Moon-gwang's husband), but this plan backfired.

Near the film's conclusion, Ki-woo placed the rock in a stream. This was after they've already lost their material wealth: their belongings (to the flood) and their jobs.

What is the rock's significance? What does it symbolize? Is there a Korean cultural significance to scholar's rocks that is being referenced in the film?

screen capture of rock 1 screen capture of rock 2

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  • I haven't seen the movie, but it is possible that "scholar's rock" was their preferred translation for "philosopher's stone"? A philosopher's stone is a (hypothetical) object that dates back to ancient Greece and relates in various supposed ways to the ability to transmute lead into gold. Could this just be this movie's spin on the existing legend?
    – Steve-O
    Nov 4, 2019 at 14:15
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    @Steve-O It might be referring to Chinese scholar's rocks: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gongshi Nov 5, 2019 at 10:39
  • youtube.com/watch?v=he3x5flTFPg
    – BCdotWEB
    Feb 28, 2023 at 16:06

2 Answers 2

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The director, Bong Joon-ho, did an interview where he lightly discusses the rocks significance. He mentions the rock as a symbol, but he does not specify what it is a symbol for.

From my own viewing, the rock is a metaphor for the family's employment.

The family receives the rock as a gift from Min along with a gift of the first tutoring job, and just like with the job it is initially a great blessing.

Later during the storm, the jobs have begun to unravel. They have come in conflict with another family over the right to serve the rich family, and now the rock has become a burden that Ki-woo has to carry and we see it literally weighing down on him in the gym. The two families fighting comes to a conclusion when Ki-woo attempts to murder the man in the basement with the stone, to secure his families prosperity, but gets crushed by the stone instead.

Finally in this metaphor, returning the stone can be read as losing the job both literally and mentally, but it is also in most stories how you break a curse.

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    I don't speak Korean, so my comment is all from the subtitles and my own memory from like a month back, but I think Min does mention the rock is supposed to bring fortune, especially wealth. I think Min is right, but obviously he had no idea how dark that "fortune" would be.
    – BatWannaBe
    Mar 24, 2020 at 0:25
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Bong Joon-ho (director of Parasite) was interviewed about the scholar's rock (emphasis mine):

“My father, who’s passed now, he used to collect them,” Bong says. “We would go to mountains and streams, and search for stones. It was quite a trend in my parents’ generation, but my son’s generation probably don’t know what scholar’s stones are.”

He adds, “A stone carries this uncanny sense of being able to transform into various things. At once, it can be a weapon, and then the next, a beautiful decoration. You could say this film is about transformation, where these characters transform into fake college students, fake art therapists and fake housekeepers.”

- Bong Joon Ho discusses the making and meaning of Parasite — Dazed

Background of the scholar's rocks and its significance in Korean culture:

Landscape rocks, known as suseok in Korean, have a deep history in East Asia. The practice of collecting these attractively shaped stones dates back thousands of years, but they became a fixture of Korean society during the Joseun dynasty (1392-1897), when they were commonly displayed on the writing tables of Confucian scholars — hence their other popular English name: “scholars rocks.” Some ancient scholars rocks, or those made from rarer minerals, can fetch astounding sums at Korean auctions.

As a boy, Bong went for mountain hikes with his father looking for rocks suitable as scholars stones. In recent years, however, collecting them has become much less common, especially for Korean young people. Inserting one into the early stages of Parasite was a “deliberately strange choice,” Bong says. When Min presents the rock to the Kims, Ki-woo exclaims, “It’s so metaphorical!”

“Korean audiences are very perceptive about interpreting and analyzing all the symbols in films, so I was having fun with that,” Bong explains. “Is it still a symbol if a character outright tells you that it is? What does that mean?”

- Bong Joon Ho Reveals the Significance of ‘Parasite’s’ Scholar Stone — The Hollywood Reporter

Choi Woo-shik (actor who played Ki-woo) and Song Kang-ho (actor who played Ki-taek) share their interpretation of the scholar's rocks' symbolism (emphasis mine):

Bong’s cast all puzzled over interpretations of the landscape rock, but the director consistently declined to share too much of his own intentions. During preproduction, Choi Woo-shik, the 29-year-old actor who plays Ki-woo, gave the meaning of the rock a considerable amount of thought. “I saw it as representing all the heavy pressure Ki-woo was feeling to take care of his family and find a way to get ahead,” he says. But as production began, his interpretation shifted: “I started to think maybe it represented the family’s desire for a shortcut, because they start using fraud to try to jump up to a higher [socioeconomic] level.”

[...]

In the scene that follows, as the family lies on the floor of a crowded rescue shelter, Ki-woo tells his dad, Ki-taek, played by Bong’s regular collaborator Song Kang-ho, that he feels as if the rock is following him. “Essentially, I think it represents this desire in the heart of Ki-woo not to give up on the idea that he can become the kind of guy who can find a way to give his family a better life,” Song explains. But in the end, the rock that Ki-woo willed to be a metaphor is symbolic only in the manner of Sisyphus, or plainly literal as in “hard as a rock.”

“All it ends up doing for Ki-woo is bashing his skull in,” Song says.

- Bong Joon Ho Reveals the Significance of ‘Parasite’s’ Scholar Stone — The Hollywood Reporter

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