A Tale of Two Houses
Much of ‘Parasite’ is set either in the postmodern hilltop sanctuary of the Parks or the dank apartment of the Kims. Both are meticulously planned sets — in the case of the Park home, several sets.
by Karen Idelson
Illustration by Sunday Büro
In “Parasite,” says director Bong Joon Ho, “the main characters are confronted by the mundane classism that we try not to acknowledge. Since the movie is about the rich and the poor, everyone around the world can relate.”
That classism plays out in the contrast between two homes: the Parks’ hilltop sanctuary and the Kim family’s squalid semi-basement.
The Park house is the setting for a majority of the film’s action, practically a character in its own right. With its sleek, angular, postmodern lines and a surprising capacity for concealment, the Park manse has become one of the last decade’s most talked about achievements in production design. Lee Jung Eun, who plays the Parks’ original housekeeper, says the house is organically related to her character. “The house can keep secrets,” she says.
The residence is woven tightly into the story and even contributes to the actors’ characterizations. Its layered levels are a mirror for the power dynamics of the family as well as its social status.
According to Architectural Digest, Bong wanted the house to be the sort of place a wealthy owner would show off. But while it looks like a posh showplace, the design itself makes it possible for one member of the family to hide in part of the home or creep down a hallway undetected. That helped Bong execute his very specific ideas about blocking, which he uses to create tension — almost a haunted-house feeling.
The production designer and I shared a lot of conversations in detail about the design of the house and spent a long time preparing for the sets, particularly with the rich house, because the set would only be finished close to production,” says Bong. “We created a virtual simulation of the house, where I could replicate the camera angles and positions and roam around the space virtually. Then we created a simple program that reflected the exact design of the actual set.”
As it turns out, the Park house isn’t a set — it’s multiple sets, built in different places. To ensure the house would be ideal for filming at multiple camera angles, the first floor and serene garden were constructed in an empty lot. The crew tracked the sun’s movements so they could make the best use of natural lighting at all times, thus giving the home a more organic feel.
The second floor and basement were built on a soundstage, with the second-floor exterior shots added digitally. In fact, stitching the sets together took over 400 “invisible” visual-effects shots, production designer Lee Ha Jun tells Variety. Those shots were used to connect rooms and even people.
Above all, Lee knew he had to fashion a house that looked like something a famous architect had conceived. In a Q&A with the director at Film at Lincoln Center, Lee said through an interpreter, “Director Bong provided me with a floor plan he was imagining, so that became the basis of our design for the set. I fortunately have a friend who is an architect, and I was in consultation with him throughout designing the set.
“When I first showed my friend this design, he said it wasn’t a livable house ... not a real living space. But I still have to manage to bring this onto the screen because, as the production designer, what’s most important to me is what is being shown on the screen. So there was a lot of navigating to do there.”
If the Parks’ house is at the pinnacle, the Kims live in the depths, making their home in a dirty semi-basement apartment.
Such semi-basements are common in working-class neighborhoods in Seoul. These dank spaces were built in South Korea after the Korean War to double as bunkers in the event of an invasion. They were banned for use as apartments at first, as they are prone to pest infestations and flooding, but they were cleared for habitation to accommodate the demand for worker housing as the economy heated up.
These apartments were soon associated with laborers who weren’t able to take advantage of the economic opportunities available to more educated workers. And then the poor became stuck — literally halfway underground. Bong told NPR that those who couldn’t keep up with the fast-paced Korean economy quickly became lost, left without the chance to improve their lives.
The Kims’ home is meant to be a kind of mirror of the Park house, he noted. Instead of an enormous picture window with a view to a lush private lawn, the windows of the Kim bunker offer a narrow view of a dirty city street — no green in sight — where the family has to watch drunks get sick and urinate. There the Kims face indignities like not being able to get Wi-Fi but also the greater threat of losing all they have if there is a flood.
One visual detail of the set is telling: The Kims’ living space is literally below the toilet, an apt metaphor for the status of the poor and the struggling — and not just in Seoul.
“ ‘Parasite’ is a very Korean film,” says Bong, “but we’re all living under capitalism.”