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."