The South Korean movie Parasite, a tale of the rich Park family and the poor Kim family, is an international sensation — partly because of universal themes like the conflict between haves and have-nots. But certain elements of Parasite are specifically South Korean, including its architecture.
“When I was little, I did live in a house at one point, but mostly I grew up in apartment complexes,” says director Bong Joon-ho, who spoke with NPR through an interpreter at the Culver City, Calif. offices. “So I mostly lived on the ninth floor, the 13th floor, so I lived mid-air. In Korea during the 1970s and ‘80s, apartment complexes symbolized the middle class.”
You don’t see much of the middle class in Parasite. Its action toggles from a gleaming modernist mansion floating in the hills above Seoul to a squalid basement apartment.
Gina Kim, a professor at UCLA and filmmaker originally from South Korea, notes that similar mansions can be found nearly anywhere in the world: Berlin, Dubai, Westchester County in New York. But the semi-basement apartment is particular to Seoul, she says: It dates from the days of the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.
“Everyone was paranoid after the Korean War, and they started to build bunkers in all the buildings, even in big apartment buildings,” she says. “So that space depicted in the film, the semi-basement, is a bunker in a way, and it was used as a bunker in the 1970s.”
There’s more than one bunker in the movie, but the semi-basement bunker is the primary home for the Kim family, who serve, more or less, as Parasite‘s anti-heroes. Renting out such semi-basements as residences was illegal for a long time, Kim says. They were filled with mold and pests, and prone to floods; people who lived there developed chronic coughs and skin conditions.
But over just a few decades, South Korea went from being one of the world’s poorest economies to the eleventh-largest. Kim says the government was compelled to legalize these semi-underground apartments to accommodate workers pouring in. That doesn’t mean they became desirable.
“People can look into them,” Kim says. “People pee on the windows. People park their cars [in front of them], blocking whatever little sunlight they have.”
Boon Jong-ho says the family in the basement wants to improve their situation, but they’re mired in the muck — literally and figuratively.
“These semi-basement homes are only half underground. That’s very similar to the psychology of our protagonists,” he says. “We became a wealthy country very fast. And people who weren’t able to board that fast train towards wealth, they feel lost. And they feel a sense of inferiority.”
“The economy is not just about numbers,” he says. “It also carries a lot of emotion as well.”
These themes have played out in Bong’s earlier films, especially his 2013 class parable Snowpiercer, as well as in South Korean popular culture more generally. Gina Kim points to a 2008 indie rock hit “Cheap Coffee” by Chang Kiha, which speaks to young people failed by dreams of class mobility.
Her translation of the opening lyrics:
I drink cheap coffee
It’s not even lukewarm and I get heartburn
My feet get stuck on the clammy linoleum floor and make a loud thud as they separate from the floor.
A cockroach skitters by but I don’t even care
I just wonder why my cough doesn’t stop in dark mornings.
The metaphors here, Kim says, are not especially subtle. But then again, neither is the story — in Parasite and around the world — of structural inequality.
Nina Gregory edited the broadcast version of this story.