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The halfway underground homes of 'Parasite' are real spaces of desperation and dreams

Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SEOUL, South Korea -- For nine years, South Korean poet Shin Hyun-rim and her daughter resided in a netherworld seven steps below the street.

In the heart of Seoul, a stone's throw from the presidential residence and skyscrapers housing the likes of Samsung, Shin and her daughter lived in a banjiha -- a semi-basement apartment with scant sunlight and dirt-cheap rent, that for many South Koreans is a last resort, a rite of passage or a low slung pit stop on the way to something better.

"You can't tell whether it's night or daytime," said Shin, 58, who moved to a fourth-floor walk-up about two years ago. "It's a good place to dream. Your imagination is what gets you through it."

The halfway underground banjiha home figures prominently in South Korean director Bong Joon Ho's dark comedy "Parasite," a stark depiction of the rock-bottom existence the movie's Kim family tries to claw out of then and then descends back into. Bong has said the tantalizing in-betweenness of the semi-basement was a major inspiration in his thriller exploring class disparities, which has connected with audiences around the world and made history at Sunday's Oscars by becoming the first non-English-language film to win best picture.

"Banjiha is a space with a peculiar connotation. ... It's undeniably underground, and yet you want to believe it's above ground," Bong said last May after the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. "There's also the fear that if you sink any lower, you may go completely underground."

Bong said the film's translators struggled to find the right word in English and in French because there wasn't a direct equivalent. They ultimately settled on "semi-basement."

 

For many in Bong's native South Korea, the film brought back memories of months or years spent in banjiha dwellings -- the bleakness, the critters, the moldy smell that comes from a perennial dampness. Like Hong Kong's cage homes and Brazil's favelas, the banjiha in many ways has come to symbolize a segment of South Koreans squeezed by increasing density and diminishing affordability, crammed into unseen corners of a city where the rich keep getting richer and occupy more and more of the space.

"I must have wanted to lock away the semi-basement in the basement of my subconscious," one South Korean blogger wrote, saying she'd forgotten she lived in one as a graduate student until she saw "Parasite." "My self-esteem dropped exactly as much as the ground was high against the window."

More than 36,000 South Koreans live in semi-basement homes, according to the most recent survey conducted in 2015, the vast majority of them in the greater Seoul metropolitan area. Many were built in the 1970s as bunkers for a potential North Korean attack and later haphazardly modified as stand-alone rental units to meet a surging demand for housing.

As in the climax of the movie, when the Kims wade through rising waters in their home during a downpour, many banjiha homes are vulnerable to flooding and have been submerged during monsoons. During a particularly severe flood in 2010, authorities in Seoul said that most of the more than 9,000 homes damaged by the rains were semi-basement units. They pledged to gradually eliminate banjiha homes and provide other forms of affordable housing instead.

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