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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

--From "The happiness of Banjiha Alice" by Shin Hyun-rim

"It could only have come out of that space," she said of the book.

Choi Hyun-jung, 34, has been living in a semi-basement home with her sister since 2012 in the city of Incheon, about an hour west of Seoul. With their modest budget, every unit they looked at as an option was a semi-basement unit.

On rainy days, she'd go out to the street to make sure the sewers weren't clogged up, nervous about flooding. At work, she'd fret about whether she'd return home to find her life submerged. Night after night, the sisters were treated to the sounds of the drunks stumbling out of the pub next door.

A few years ago, she began drawing a web comic about her and her sister's life, titling it "Banjiha room-for-rent." She laid bare their challenges -- the insects, the mold, a recurrent ceiling leak -- but also shared how they were making the home their own and using it as a springboard to their young adult lives. The story seemed to speak to other young people going through similarly tough times. It was popular enough to get Choi signed on as a full-time cartoonist for the web portal Daum.

"It's a necessity for people who are that desperate," she said. "It's not really a place fit for human living."

Kim Nam-hyeon, a 21-year-old college senior, said watching "Parasite," he found himself wondering how much the rent would be for a place like the fictional Kim home.

 

Originally from a seaside town on the southern tip of South Korea, Kim has been living in a semi-basement apartment near his college in Seoul for about two years. About 1 in 10 of his classmates seems to live in banjiha units for the cheap rent, he said.

He's feeling anxious about saving up enough money and getting a good enough job after graduation that would allow him to move out of the basement and into an above-ground living space. The halfway-basement existence is motivating him to work hard to move up in life.

"I'm telling myself it's an experience," he said, "but I don't want to live in one ever again."

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