How Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” Made Deliberate Use of its Architecture
Much has been said about Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the movie that’s been on everybody’s minds since its release last year. It’s clear it’s been on the minds of the Academy Awards’ voting body as well, thanks to the movie’s six Oscar nominations – a prized haul that includes considerations for Best Picture and Best Director. That it was able to receive nominations is already a historical feat for the film, as it has since gained the honor of being the first South Korean feature to do so in 91 years.
There’s a lot to love about the movie, like its rich script, its tight direction, and the cast members’ incredibly personal acting. But more than all of these, the real reason behind Parasite’s popularity lies in its unique take on a very universal conflict: that of the class divide and the struggle that often comes with it.
The set-up is simple: the Kims, a poor family, work out ways to con their ways into the extravagant home and good graces of a much richer family, the Parks. The Kims are ultimately successful, but their celebrations are cut short once a much darker secret comes into play.
The Parks’ house, arguably one of the most impressive set pieces of the film, is so important and so distinct, that nearly the entire movie takes place inside it. The house is introduced to us as a place that was designed and previously owned by fictional architect Namgoong Hyeonja, and thanks to its sprawling outdoors grounds, grand interiors, imposing gates, and vast spaces for its downstairs areas, the home certainly lives up to its prestige. It’s safe to say that Parasite would not have been half as impactful if not for the house it takes place in.
A Change in Perspective
The house that Parasite built did not come alive overnight. Every bit of its structure was carefully constructed, ensuring that every detail that showed up on screen was meant to be there. Like a mystery box with multiple layers, the house is first introduced as a wide, friendly space, before getting slowly exposed as a much darker collection of secrets. Everything about its construction had to be so precise, that director Bong stated: “on a fundamental level, if the structure of the house isn’t correct, the story doesn’t work.”
It was a challenge to put the entire house together, and as both the director and production designer Lee Ha-jun put it, the main thing they had to consider was to make sure the house looked as organic as possible. While the house had to function as a cinematic set piece, which would take the actors’ blocking and spacing into consideration, it also had to look like an actual home that was lived in by its characters.
It was a factor that prompted Lee to approach the issue from an architect’s point of view first, and a set designer’s second. Thanks to this mindset, this was a challenge the film was able to overcome, and the results can be seen in the house’s deliberate and impressive architecture. At the same time, its lay-out is also so vast, that the actors are able to freely move across the floors.
The Issue of Space
Despite having most of its story set inside the Parks’ house, Parasite is really more about the poorer Kim family and their more unfortunate lot in life. This is why the film starts inside their house, so that the audience is properly set up for the class conflict later on. Compared to the Parks, the Kims are not much better off, living instead in a space that’s half-above and half-below the gutters. It’s a set-up that’s uniquely Korean, and it’s described by director Bong as a crawlspace “that really reflects the psyche of the Kim family.”
The spatial differences between both homes go a long way in telling us more about the characters than any spoken line of dialogue. Where the Parks are able to enjoy a free-spaced house with high ceilings, the Kims have to endure in a much more cramped space that’s nearly all the way underground. While the Parks have little visible clutter at home – a fact, no doubt, aided by the presence of their housekeeper – the Kims’ belongings are all over the place, with stuff crammed into as many little spaces as they can find.
The Great Outdoors
The exteriors and outdoor surroundings of both homes were also significant factors in character exposition. The Parks had their impressive outdoor garden, which was most certainly their home’s centerpiece. Their pride in their garden was clear in how prominent the space was in their home, even taking the place of the television set as the family’s preferred view from inside. Sunlight played a huge role in setting the scene; while the film’s climax is defined by the rain, it’s the sunlight that serves as Parasite’s mood-setter and a great indicator of the Parks’ affluence.
Meanwhile, the same cannot really be said for the Kims. As they live halfway between the gutter and the street, they are unable to see their fair share of the sunlight and greenery. What they get, instead, is a series of unwanted views of the poor conditions they live in: a passing drunk, regular fumigation, and the homes of their neighbors that are so tightly-packed together.
Although the outdoor surroundings of both families help paint a picture of the differences in their social standings, much of the contrast is highlighted by the homes they live in. Because the Parks live in a large house, they have the luxury to fashion their outdoors to their own liking and tastes. Meanwhile, because the Kims live in a much smaller and cramped space, they find themselves having to deal with the circumstances the outside street deals them instead.
Japan’s traditional minimalist style of interior design has also added character to some of the nation’s most-loved movies.
Architectural Comforts and Discomforts
According to director Bong, infiltration is the name of the game for the movie, and that much is already clear in its title. It’s something that takes place all over the Parks’ house: first, when the Kims come up with schemes to enter it, second, when each Park family member crosses over into each others’ personal spaces at home, and third, when things take a dark turn for the worse. Although the Parks’ grand house plays the part of the host, it can get difficult to tell which of the families is the titular parasite – and it’s because of this conflict the film takes on another layer to evolve into something else entirely.
The result is a case of irony: although the Parks’ house was created in a way that emphasized comfort, luxury, and class, Parasite also goes out of its way to highlight the fact that there are no safe spaces inside. The Parks’ family home is splashed in warm, tonal colors, as a nod to their sophistication and affluence. The interiors are wide and inviting, and they’re made more welcoming, thanks to the visible greenery and sunlight. But the house, much like the film’s characters, hides a secret of its own, and it’s one that can be found underneath, within its imposing basement.
Each character takes up a specific space that subtly defines their personalities, and part of the movie’s thrill is watching them interact upon leaving or entering these spaces. Because architecture was used as the main tool to tell its story of class divide, Parasite was able to convey so many things with its impressive sets and backgrounds.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
Another key architectural element Parasite takes advantage of is its seemingly-endless series of stairs. To further highlight the class divide, the movie makes its characters go through a lot of upward and downward movements.
It is no accident, for instance, that the highest point of the Kims’ cramped home is their toilet, or that, in the Parks’ house, the stairs play a vital role in showing us the family’s hierarchy. In the Parks’ house, going upstairs means ascending to a place of power, while going downstairs leads you to dark things even the owners themselves are unaware of.
The vertical movement also helps bring the film’s climax home, where a torrential downpour is only a minor inconvenience to the Parks. But once the rain flows downwards, towards the poorer communities, it becomes clear just how desperate the whole situation is. Where the Parks see the rain as something minor and even exciting, the Kims, like their neighbors, are rendered completely helpless and end up getting swept away by forces beyond their control.
In the end, Parasite is a cinematic achievement that scores high marks all around for its story, direction, characters, acting, editing, and especially its cinematography. While the plot is already engaging enough on its own, and while its execution is thrilling enough to keep you invested until the end, it’s the setting that ultimately tells the bigger story. Although the film already says enough to get its message across, it is mostly thanks to its deliberate use of architecture that Parasite is able to achieve its desired impact.
Like architecture, smart home technology has also helped give movies a personality of their own.
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