From the houses to the noodles, South Korea’s Oscar-winning movie ‘Parasite’ tells its story of a suffocating class struggle through the sights and smells of Seoul.
‘Parasite’ made history as the first non-English language movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture, prompting South Korean social media to erupt in celebration.
It is a tale of two South Korean families — the wealthy Parks and the poor Kims — mirroring the deepening disparities in Asia’s fourth-largest economy and striking a chord with global audiences.
The visual clues in the film resonated with many South Koreans who identify themselves as “dirt spoons”, those born to low-income families who have all but given up on owning a decent house and social mobility, as opposed to “gold spoons”, who are from better-off families.
Much of the movie was shot on purpose-built sets, but both the Parks’ mansion and the Kims’ squalid “sub-basement” apartment were inspired by, and set, amid real neighbourhoods in the South Korean capital.
A tour of the film’s locations, props, and backdrops reveals the unique meanings they have for many South Koreans as they engage in their own debates about wealth — and the lack of it.
Ahyeon-dong is one of the last shanty towns near downtown Seoul and made an appearance in several scenes depicting the Kims’ humble neighbourhood.
Perched on a hillside near the main train station, Ahyeon-dong is a warren of steep, narrow streets, many of which end in long staircases that residents climb to reach their homes.
“Watching the film made me feel like they put my life right in there,” said Lee Jeong-sik, the 77-year-old co-owner of Pig Rice Supermarket, which is featured in the film.
Kim Kyung-soon, 73, who has operated the shop with her husband Lee for 45 years, said she opens the supermarket at around 8.30am, while he closes it down after midnight.
She used to open the store even earlier, at 5am, for mothers who would stop by early to buy school lunch fixings for their children. Now, however, the neighbourhood is mostly older people, with few young couples or children, Kim said.
The film’s fictional Kim family live in a “sub-basement”, usually small, dark apartments built partially underground.
Residents said rent for the sub-basement apartments had increased to around 400,000 won (Dh1,240) per month, more than doubling in the past decade.
Ahyeon-dong sits in the shadow of newly built apartment towers, and the city has faced protests from some residents who fear losing their homes to redevelopment.
“It’s definitely a neighbourhood that isn’t faring well,” Lee said. When he heard that ‘Parasite’ had won at the Academy Awards he was so happy he could not sleep. As a throng of media gathered outside his shop, he wondered whether the film’s fame would change plans to eventually build new apartments there.
SEOUL’S ‘BEVERLY HILLS’
In contrast, the scenes around the wealthy Parks’ home — which itself was a movie set built elsewhere — were filmed in Seongbuk-dong, known as South Korea’s Beverly Hills and home to many business families and diplomatic residences.
Unlike Ahyeon-dong, the streets in Seongbuk-dong are clear of rubbish and almost silent, with most homes hidden behind high walls, spiked fences, and security cameras.
“The houses here are all very fancy residences,” said Chung Han-sool, CEO of Peace Estate Agents. “Most of the houses have basements and they use it for home bars or mini theatres.”
According to real estate brokers, homes there usually cost around 7 billion won. Those rented to foreign diplomats are offered for 10 million-15 million won per month.
“There are 48 ambassadors living in the neighbourhood, so there is a whole separate squad of police officers in the area,” Chung said.
Even within Seongbuk-dong the disparity is highlighted by the “gisasikdang” or “drivers’ diners”, similar to one featured in ‘Parasite’. Gisasikdang sprung up to serve meals to drivers, including those ferrying the area’s wealthy residents.
“There are taxi, bus drivers and those who drive the CEOs who live around here,” said Bae Sun-young, a manager at a gisasikdang in Seongbuk-dong. “The wealth is so polarised here. It’s extreme.”
As news of the Oscar wins spread, South Korean social media burst with photos and recipes of “jjapaguri”, a combination of two different instant noodles translated in the movie as “ram-dong” (ramen plus udong).
The dish initially became popular as everyday food due to a television show but got a boost from the film, which added a satirical twist as the Parks top it with expensive Korean beef.
US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris even tweeted with an image of jjapaguri cup noodles, saying the embassy was hosting a party to watch the awards ceremony.
Standing in the cramped aisles of Pig Rice Supermarket in Ahyeon-dong, Lee noted that the residents’ economic status was reflected in what they bought.
“People are not well off here,” he said. “What they buy most is ramen and alcohol.”
The other supermarket that makes an appearance in ‘Parasite’ is ORGA Whole Foods in Bangi-dong, a trendy neighbourhood in Seoul that is popular with upper-middle class families who want to send their children to top elementary and middle schools.
“The most popular items in our store aren’t cigarettes, alcohol or instant food like in regular supermarkets,” Ryu Hee-woong, a manager at the branch, said. “Our customers usually purchase fresh food that is focused on safety, sustainability, and eco-friendliness.”