Parasite – the South Korean thriller directed by Bong Joon-ho – follows the impoverished Kim family, who lie about their qualifications in order to gain employment with the wealthy Parks. The film finally hits UK cinemas this weekend, after months of critical hype and illegal streaming.
The movie shares a lot with its director’s 2013 film Snowpiercer, about a post-apocalyptic train where the poor live at one end and the rich live at the other. Both films deliver blackly comic sends ups of inequality, and both feature settings that are flagrantly metaphorical.
But what’s smarter and subtler about Parasite is the way that the film deploys architecture – using two homes built from scratch in a remarkable, Oscar-nominated feat of production design – to make its point. We are informed early on that a famous – entirely fictional – architect, Namgoong Hyeonja, built and lived in the Park’s family home. It’s a clear signal to the audience to pay close attention to the two building’s design.
The film opens in the home of the down-on-their luck Kim family, who live in a dungeon-like basement room deep down in the belly of Seoul, barely surviving off a communal salary folding pizza boxes. Our first glimpse of the aggressively bourgeois Park family’s abode is when Ki-woo, the Kim’s industrious son, wanders up to apply for an interview as their tutor.
The Parks live in a modern fortress – complete with Silicon Valley-esque security systems – atop a sunny hill at the city’s highest peak. The choice of this modernist style of home – which parallels the designs of real life architects like Richard Neutra, Louis Kahn or Frank Lloyd Wright – mirrors a current urge for this kind of architecture among ‘new money’ types.
The critic Kate Wagner has labelled these homes ‘McModerns’, a play on the term McMansions – large “mass-produced” dwellings composed of a hodgepodge of architectural styles to evoke connotations of taste. “They often have big rooms, open-concept floor plans, lots of garage space and luxury amenities like high-end kitchen appliances, spacious master suites and “bonus” spaces, such as sunrooms and offices,” Wagner writes of McModerns. “Modern architecture is perceived by potential buyers as the culturally significant, high-brow form of architecture, revered by the educated and glossy magazines.”
The Parks, who made their money in tech, fetishise western culture – their son plays cowboys and Indians; the family wear pyjamas, (not typical, according to Bong, in Korea). This fetishisation extends to their residence, which would look right at home in the Hollywood hills. The house’s architectural design – boxy, minimalist, open plan, complete with uninterrupted glass to drink in the sun – also plays heavily into the plot.
The style – beyond making the space easier to film – contrasts with the clutter of the Kim’s house. “I wanted to show the increasing density that reflects the class difference between elevated areas and lower ones as appearances change from the rich house to the semi-basement neighbourhood,” explains production designer Lee Ha-Jun, in an interview with Indiewire.
The architecture also influences the two family’s relationships to sunlight – a common theme in Bong’s movies. “The poorer you are, the less sunlight you have access to, and that’s just how it is in real life as well: You have limited access to windows,” says Lee. “For example, in Snowpiercer, the tail cars didn’t have any windows and with semi-basement homes, you have a very limited amount of sunlight you get during the day — maybe 15 or 30 minutes — and that’s where the film opens.”
The Park house was built to glow with the sun’s position (Ki-woo is literally blinded by the sun on his first arrival at the house). Its great glass wall, which we learn the architect designed to appreciate the garden, has a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, like a cinema screen.
The contrast with the view from the Kim family’s house – where drunks piss outside their bar-covered window and yellow stink bug spray floods the kitchen – could not be starker. For the Parks, the weather is entertainment – sun lights the home, rain sustains the garden – and the rich family gather and enjoy the view like a Windows screensaver, or a glossy tv. The Kim’s home, in contrast to the Park’s, is terrorised by the elements – the rain floods and destroys their house.
At the end of Parasite, Ki-woo dreams of buying the Park’s house to free his trapped father; it turns out this dream is just that – he is still stuck back in his “banjiha”. These semi-basement flats are common in Korea, with thousands in Seoul alone (Lee actually lived in one). The homes were originally bunkers, built during the Korean war. Renting them as homes was illegal, until a housing crisis in the 1980s forced the government to change the law. It’s this kind of reverent attention to architectural detail that lifts Parasite into greatness.
Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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