Sunday night, at the 92nd Academy Awards, South Korean smash hit Parasite took home four golden trophies. The movie’s best-picture win made it the first non-English-language film to do so in Oscars history—the cherry on top of the industry’s recognition for best original screenplay, best foreign-language film, and best director too. Bong Joon-ho, the film’s director, is known throughout Hollywood for his razor-sharp cinematic eye and humorously dark imagination, but his lesser-known skillset as a cartoonist who storyboards each scene of his movies may explain why the film nabbed nominations for best film editing and production design as well. In Parasite, architecture is used for its aesthetic value and also for its power as a storytelling device, making this film an extraordinary study in how our built environments create narratives that are both within our control and outside of it.
Like Bong, other directors use design and architecture to create worlds specific to their oeuvres. Wes Anderson’s films are famous for their Pantone-perfect color palettes and architecture-heavy sets; the director’s eye for kitschy, vintage, striking yet eerily anonymous buildings create a world that is immediately recognizable as his own. And design elements such as the hexagonal carpet of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining show a similar interest in using visual cues to reinforce the story. In the case of Parasite, Bong has continued in this filmmaker-architect tradition—in what may be the absolute best example of it to date—with an added element of psychology built into his sets. If Anderson’s films are color, Bong’s are color theory.
The film follows the destitute Kim family’s gradual ascent into high society, which begins when Kim Ki-woo (the son) gets a job as a tutor for the Park family’s daughter. The Parks live in a flawlessly designed mansion, tucked away in verdant hills that overlook the common Seoul streets where the Kims live below . . . in a dark, cramped apartment. Over the course of Parasite, Kim Ki-woo devises a plan to get the rest of his family employed by the opulently wealthy and endearingly gullible Parks, whose private home ultimately becomes a public space where most of the film’s action takes place.
In Parasite, the architecture is more than the story’s setting—it’s a central character that was born entirely from the creator’s vision, much like the film’s other fictional characters. Notably, the film’s production designer, Lee Ha-jun, built the two homes featured prominently in the film completely from scratch. This daring and difficult design choice eschewed traditional location scouting for the creation of a universe that’s entirely the film’s own. And it was no doubt influenced by some of Bong’s detailed storyboards—which are sketched out with dialogue, like a manga comic—and a commitment to using design as an allegory for class tension and human fallibility.
Though we, as viewers, rarely experience the urban environment of South Korea outside the two families’ residences, the architecture is used as a visual shorthand for the perils of capitalism. The tiered class system that flourishes in a capitalistic economy is represented by the planes both families view the world on: The Kim family, impoverished and unified, only gets light in their semi-basement apartment through a slim window, at eye level with the busy city street outside, whereas the wealthy Park family’s modern estate features a floor-to-ceiling window wall that looks out onto their perfectly maintained lawn. In this way, the film’s built environments indicate the gulf that exists between the working and leisure classes.
“These semi-basement homes are only half underground. That’s very similar to the psychology of our protagonists,” Bong said in an interview with NPR. “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.”
In an era when minimalism has become a status symbol, the politics of space become particularly poignant in Parasite. The Kims live in a world defined by clutter, and their aspirations for more money (and the advantages enjoyed by the wealthy) can be understood as an attempt to edit their lives down to more superficial concerns such as birthday party desserts and car services—without the burden of unemployment and unpaid bills. Where there is an excess of need, there is a desire for simple comforts. Conversely, the Parks have access to absolutely everything—a home security system, a display cabinet of illuminated china, a team of paid help, a multistory residence designed by a fictional starchitect. Their wealth allows them to exist in a tidy and controlled space, but the excess of space ultimately distracts them from the very danger that has latched onto their hospitality. Their home is too big for them to know intimately, and therefore it’s too big for them to recognize the dangers hiding within it. The bunker buried beneath the polished wood floors of the main level, accessed only through a dimly-lit, descending staircase, shows that even though the working class live among the rich, their experiences are ultimately worlds apart.
The ways we design our spaces show how we want to project ourselves to the world, but also the ways the world insists that we exist. Perhaps Bong and Lee’s decision to build these homes versus using structures that already exist indicates a prescient awareness that to overcome the pitfalls of our current class system, we will have to build a new system from scratch. The architecture in Parasite is both a critique of existing class systems and a suggestion that we have the opportunity to build these systems anew—if we are willing to disrupt old hierarchies. Ultimately, Bong’s choice to infuse the film’s architecture with so much meaning is a radical one, and it brings a new dimension to the world of cinema.