Check out the A&B portal!

"Parasite" - Architecture as a source of suffering

18 of November '20

The article appeared in A&B 7-8'2020

It's been a long time since there's been a film like Korea's "Parasite." It punctuates our reality with increasing social and economic inequality in a way that is as frightening as it is full of black humor. The chasm separating the rich from the poor in Joon-ho Bong's Oscar- and Palme d'Or-winning picture is highlighted by the architectural setting - it plays a central role alongside the actors.

The importance of architecture in "Parasite" is evidenced by the fact that it is difficult to summarize the film without describing its scenery. In fact, the families of the film's main characters and antagonists are best characterized by the houses they inhabit. In the first frame we see a cluttered basement apartment and socks drying in plain sight. We have no doubt about the material status of its inhabitants. From the dusty window, we can see the feet of passersby, the wheels of passing cars and the perspective of an alley cluttered by pauper shops and stalls. Here lives the Kim family, impoverished but nevertheless not giving in to hardship. Its members seize every opportunity to make money. A key moment in the plot is when their son Ki-woo, thanks to the patronage of a friend, gets a job as a tutor with the wealthy Park family.

She represents the wealthy opposite of the Kims, and we first get to know her through their home. When Ki-woo arrives for a job interview, after passing through a gate, he finds himself in a sun-drenched garden, and only after a while, when the eye becomes accustomed to the light, are we able to see together with the protagonist the stunning villa with its simple geometric form and large glass windows. We learn from the guiding housekeeper that the house is the work of the famous architect Namgoong, who originally built it for himself.

{Image@url=https://cdn.architekturaibiznes.pl/upload/galerie/36531/images/original/316b27f01bb88d8e5fd7fa2828f4f589.jpg,alt=kadr from "Parasite," directed by Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019,title=caption from "Parasite," directed by Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019}

© Gutek Film press materials

In the following scenes, thanks to subterfuge, the Kims, like a perfectly harmonized team, win the chauffeur and the housekeeper and take over one by one the jobs of the people serving the wealthy Parasite, while not admitting to their hosts that they are related to each other. If Joon-ho Bong had ended his film on this point, we would have had a satire on capitalism, a comedy in the style of "Olsen's Gang," in which the poor want to get out of their poverty through petty scams. The Kims would be the titular parasites, but nonetheless coexisting with the wealthy Parks. Meanwhile, the luxurious villa hides a dark secret - an underground bunker where the previous housekeeper hid her husband who was prosecuted for debt several years earlier. In a brutal capitalist world, there is no place for two poor families parasitizing one host - eventually a bloody confrontation ensues, and the mood of the film changes from black comedy to thriller.

kadr from the film Parasitekadr from the film Parasitekadr from the film Parasite

© Gutek Film press materials

Like probably most viewers, I was fooled by the two opposing worlds depicted in the film: the Kims' basement along with the slums and Parks' elegant villa. I was convinced that these were the real locations. It wasn't until I watched the film that I learned they were the work of production designer Ha-jun Lee. Kim's apartment and the entire alley were built from scratch in a special concrete pool so that the filmmakers could flood parts of the city in dramatic scenes of a downpour leading to flooding. For the scenes showing Parks' residence, a real plot of land was rented, a garden was laid out on it and the first floor of the house was built, along with the related interior, while the first floor was added by computer in post-production. Other interiors, including the bunker, were created in the shooting hall.

The realism of the set design is impressive, it is what makes us believe in the story. It builds a disturbing contrast between the two families. The production designer documented the demolished neighborhoods of the poor during the preparation of the film, driving down the whole of South Korea to be able to reproduce the quarter in the neighborhood of the Kims' apartment as best as possible. There are even details such as waste paper carts that highlight the social status of the neighborhood's residents.

top and bottom

Both the structure of "Parasite" and the film's set design are eminently vertical. The camera moves up or down. Sometimes we descend to get a glimpse of the social lowlands, then again we climb to see how the upper class lives.

kadr from the film Parasitekadr from the film Parasitekadr from the film Parasite

© Gutek Film press materials

The Kims live in a basement (although it seems that the floor of their apartment is lower than 0.9 meters relative to the level of the surroundings, so according to Polish construction law it is a basement with a window). As the film's director said in an interview with Architectural Digest, this type of space adds realism, as the poor in Korea often live like this, but also "reflects the psyche of the family." Living in a basement makes you "half above ground, so there is still hope for you, you still have access to sunlight, you haven't fallen into the basement yet. However, the characters have a strange mixture of hope and fear stemming from the realization that they could fall lower."

Thus, it is necessary to descend the stairs from the street to Kim's apartment. There is a recurring scene in the film when a drunk seen through the window pees on a nearby dumpster, almost to their house. In turn, during the deratization of the neighborhood, chemical fumes flow into the Kims' apartment, and the characters suffocate like whacked-out rats. In contrast, the villa of the wealthy Parks is depicted, even the very access to it is through a rising street. After passing through the gate, one has to climb an off-road staircase among growing bamboos, as the house is above the street. Also, the stately building itself is multi-leveled: so up a staircase to the first floor with a large, open living area and then another to the first floor with bedrooms.

{Image@url=https://cdn.architekturaibiznes.pl/upload/galerie/36519/images/original/87bab02eeee89f4ad788f3bfa668c058.jpg,alt=kadr from the film "Parasite," directed by Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019,title=caption from the film "Parasite," directed by Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019}

© Gutek Film press materials

The biggest secret of Parks' house, but also of the entire film, is hidden in the deep depths of the villa - in a shelter that the architect Namgoong reportedly built in case of a nuclear attack by North Korea. A hidden passage in the basement leads to the bunker, then you have to walk up a long flight of concrete stairs even deeper. At the very bottom lives no longer a man from the lows of the social pyramid, but someone living outside society - an outcast and a fugitive.

Verticality is also evident in the scale of the city in which the film is set (its name is never dropped, but we guess it's a city the size of Seoul or a similar Korean metropolis). As the Kim family flees from Parks, they descend one staircase after another, along with streams of rain. Their poverty neighborhood is located, so to speak, at the bottom of the city. When they reach their street, it's already waterlogged, and the apartment is flooded with sewage waste. Bong shows emphatically that his characters are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, even their apartment is below the gutter, like a bilge into which all the waste from the ship's deck flows.

heaven and hell

The director has already used the sharply drawn dichotomy of poverty and affluence more than once. In the 2013 sci-fi thriller "Snowpiercer: The Ark of the Future," humanity decimated by the ice age survives only on a speeding train, in which the order of the cars from the front reflects the social hierarchy - the cars closer to the locomotive are inhabited by the upper class, at the end of the lineup are people already from the bottom.

kadr from the film Parasitekadr from the film Parasitekadr from the film Parasite

© Gutek Film press materials

Bong's camera in "Parasite" moves up and down. Sometimes the vertical segue is on an intimate micro scale. When the Parks suddenly return home, the Kims, like cockroaches fleeing from the light, hide under the furniture - the bed, the table. The rich are just inches above them, but it feels like an insurmountable distance - a chasm that separates the increasingly wealthy upper class (that one percent of humanity) from the increasingly poorer precariat.

Such a vertical spatial division mapping social classes is as old as the world. It also has its famous architectural representations. Already Leonardo da Vinci at the end of the 15th century sketched an ideal city, which he solved on different levels. At the bottom, he envisioned the placement of canals, a water and sewage system, warehouses and commerce, in short: he intended it for service, while on the upper level life was to be lived in beautiful palaces surrounded by gardens and walkable streets. It's a vision of a hygienic city immune to pestilence, but there's a dangerous social segregation inherent in it - downstairs would be worked by cooks, stallholders or porters, upstairs would be lived comfortably by a class of gentlemen. Da Vinci went a step further in his reflections, in his notebooks he wrote: "on the upper level of the city should reside only the handsome people" (W. Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci, Krakow 2019, p. 168.), although, who knows, maybe he was only joking?

Bong seems to be true to this cruel thought. The wealthy family is well-groomed and perfect, as if cut from the pages of a lifestyle magazine, while the Kim couple is already overweight, signs of aging already visible. In one scene, the Kims' son looks at a party given in the Parks' garden and says that all the guests are so beautiful and natural, he asks the daughter of the wealthy family if she fits in here. The cruelest scenes in the film are those in which the poor are betrayed by... the smell - the basement fetor of their apartment. As the Parks ankylosedly comment, "people riding the subway give off this smell."

kadr from the film Parasitekadr from the film Parasitekadr from the film Parasite

© Gutek Film press materials

The vertical divide between the world of the poor and the rich is a motif that has resonated vividly in several films considered cult, to mention Fritz Lang's 1927 silent picture "Metropolis," a masterpiece of early science fiction. It's a dystopian vision of a city of the future, in which a race of lords lavish themselves in luxuries, while multitudes of workers work hard for them in the underground of the metropolis. Although the two castes live side by side, the levels of the city separate them completely.

A similar social and spatial division was also used by Robert Altman in his famous "Gosford Park" from 2001. There we get a glimpse of the English aristocracy and life in drawing rooms, under which the colorful existence of servants flourishes in basements and basements. The contrast between the two classes is interesting - the working class behaves freely in their company, but once out in the rooms they must don a mask enforced by etiquette. The aristocracy itself seems enslaved by convention. In Bong's, we have a certain resemblance - the Kims, like the servants in Altman's, are open and close-knit; we even watch their meals together. The Parks form a seemingly perfect family, but they are unable to stay together, each locking himself in his own room. The non-working mother doesn't take care of the children; "qualified staff" takes care of them. The Parks' only meal together was supposed to take place at a birthday party - so they are prepared for the show (but it doesn't happen). These mental differences of social classes can also be seen at the architectural level - the Kims' apartment is open to the street, their mother does laundry on the stairs leading to the basement. Parks' residence is a fortress surrounded by a high wall, guarded by cameras and a video intercom. The poor have nothing to lock and hide, the rich prefer not to expose their wealth.
Bong, however, cites Akira Kurosawa's Heaven and Hell as a filmic inspiration, also with a vertical division. In this Japanese detective story, a rich businessman lives at the top of the hill, while common criminals live at the bottom.

fight for light

In his films, Bong also uses, consciously like an architect, the motif of access to natural light, which, like all other resources and goods, is subject to unequal divisions. "The poorer you are, the less access you have to sunlight. And so it is in real life: you have limited access to windows," the director explained in an interview with IndieWire. In "Snowpiercer," the destitute in the back of the train have no windows; the rich in the front cars have glass conservatories. The Kims' basement catches the light for only a brief moment, while the Parks' house has huge windows on all sides and is flooded with sunlight. The biggest ornament of their minimalist living room is a huge window - it has the proportions of a movie screen. The Kims contemplate the view of the garden during an illicit party in the living room of their principals. The father utters the phrase: "Full class! The lawn is sprinkling rain while we sip whiskey." A few hours later, they have to flee the villa and fight the water element. The wealthy Parks are happy about the rainy night, they say, clearing the city of smog. The poor have a completely different perspective, for them the downpour ended in a flood and the loss of their life's possessions. Bong winks at the viewer: in the coming climate catastrophe, don't count on an equitable distribution of misfortunes.

kadr from the film Parasitekadr from the film Parasitekadr from the film Parasite

© Gutek Film press materials

The director is fond of using this type of hyperbole; in his previous films they were sometimes too simple, but in "Parasite" they create a poignant illustration of reality. As in the scenes when Ms. Park enters her huge dressing room (the size of which could make her the envy of Carrie Bradshaw from "Sex in the City"), to immediately afterwards show poor flood victims throwing themselves on a heap of dry clothes, or rather rags, that the authorities have thrown on the floor of the sports hall serving as an evacuation site.

McModernism

The opulence of the Park family has been dressed up in the language of a modernist villa that could be built anywhere in the world - it would fit near Warsaw, but also in the hills around Hollywood. It has everything one expects from a luxury residence - a large area, large glass windows opening the interiors to the manicured garden, excellent finishing materials, in this case raw concrete softened with wood. The house, although only a stage set, was refined to the smallest detail. Even the furniture was created on special order, and set designer Ha-jun Lee consulted the villa's design with architects. The effect is reminiscent of McModernism, as described by architecture critic Kate Wagner. It's a variation of the McMansion, which is a large suburban mansion built by the nouveau riche, looking like a palace and meant to testify to their material status. In Poland in the 1990s, we referred to them as "carringtons," referring to the TV series "Dynasty," which at the time was an indicator of luxury for us. In McModernism, we have a similar motivation to create social status through architecture, but a more subtle mix of styles associated with modernity and sophisticated taste is used. Houses built in this way, however, look identical, moreover, they resemble stage sets precisely, as if they were built with color magazine shoots in mind, not real people's lives.

{Image@url=https://cdn.architekturaibiznes.pl/upload/galerie/36520/images/original/d7422a83894d94a723dee31b7b738f19.jpg,alt=kadr from the film "Parasite", directed by Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019,title=caption from the film "Parasite", directed by Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019}

© Gutek Film press materials

At Parks, we also have another important symbol of luxury - a big green lawn. In the dense metropolises of Southeast Asia, every meter of land is at a premium. Leaving it undeveloped and dedicating it to grass is a sign of affluence, quite ostentatious by the way. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in "Homo deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow," the lawn is a universal symbol of power, money and prestige.

Walking down the street, one can quickly [...] determine the wealth and position of any family by the size of the area and the quality of the turf around the houses. Nothing indicates so clearly that things are going badly for Mr. and Mrs. Jones as the neglected lawn in front of the house.

In the film, in the first frames showing the Parks' property, we see a perfect lawn and working sprinklers. Although the makers of "Parasite" were silent about the existence of gardeners, we can only guess that they would be another representative of the service required to maintain the mansion. It is on the lawn during an idyllic party that the horrifying and bloody climax of the story takes place - in full daylight.

two families as two Koreas

The two families depicted in "Parasite" also inevitably bring to mind the two Koreas - North and South Korea. Just as in our country East Germany and West Germany used to be said to be a worse and better Germany, the 38th parallel with the demilitarized zone separates two very different, but after all, once united countries. The Parks are, of course, the richer South Korea. Like that country, the family gazes at the United States and its pop culture, with the youngest son playing Indians and cowboys, the mother calling her employees names like Kevin or Jessica, and the spouses over-emphasizing the American college diplomas the Kims shower them with. The Kims, on the other hand, bearing the same surname as a dynasty of North Korean dictators, symbolize this "inferior" Korea. In Bong's case, even the division of families, drawn with a sharp line, is heavily satirized, and one of the film's funniest moments is when Mrs. Kim preempts a North Korean state TV presenter.

After all, "Parasite" is set in wealthy South Korea, so why the poverty and disparity? The truth is less colorful than our stereotypical image of the "Asian tiger." Unemployment has been rising in Korea for years, especially among young people, and for many there is a lack of prospects. Social frustrations are also intensifying. This young democracy (the first democratic elections were held in 1988) still suffers from nepotism and a strong connection between business and power, public opinion is shaken time and again by corruption scandals in the highest political circles. As a Korean proverb says, it matters what kind of spoon you are born with - if with gold, you will live in abundance, if with mud, nothing will lift you out of poverty.

kadr from the film Parasitekadr from the film Parasitekadr from the film Parasite

© Gutek Film press materials

The Kims, despite their cleverness and initial success, fail to jump up the social ladder. The father ends up in hiding in a bunker, as a murderer and fugitive. In the cruel game of life under capitalism, Ki-taek falls to the lowest possible level of existence, lower than his family's basement. His son Ki-woo's biggest dream is not to start a family or graduate from college. He dreams that one day he will buy Parks' villa and the whole family will be together again. Architecture is thus the object of dreams here, but also ultimately a source of suffering.

Will the poor boy fulfill his dream? The director put the answer in a song sung, during the screening of the closing credits, by Woo-shik Choi, the actor who just played the role of Ki-woo in the film. The author of the lyrics of this song is Bong. It is performed in Korean, so most viewers are not able to learn its message. Choi sings that Ki-woo spends the next days of his life setting aside money for his dream house. It will take him... 564 years! That's how much an ordinary precariat would have to work to earn a residence of similar size.


Tomasz
MALKOWSKI

Photo: © Gutek Film press materials

The vote has already been cast

INSPIRATIONS