Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s black comedy of manners about a crafty poor family infiltrating a naïve rich household is fiction, and the homes of both families in the Oscar-grabbing picture were built on sound stages.
Yet neighborhoods like those in the film truly exist in Seoul – and Asia Times can reveal a story that bears remarkable similarities to the plot of Parasite.
K-popster Psy won global fame with 2012’s Gangnam Style, a catchy number lampooning the flashy district south of Seoul’s Han River. The prosperity of Gangnam is vividly obvious to any visitor, but the ‘hood, which rose from rice pastures in the 1970s, is not the home of South Korea’s old money: Its reputation is nouveau riche.
South Korea’s 1% does invest in Gangnam – property is a hugely favored Korean investment destination, driving rampant speculation – but doesn’t live there.
High society lives at high-altitudes: Neighborhoods built around networks of alpine roads that skirt the gradients of northern Seoul’s forested mountains, perched high above the noise, hustle and bustle of the crowded, traffic-jammed and plebeian districts below.
A resident of one such district has revealed a personal story that compelled her to flee – and that bears close similarities to Bong’s tale of haves, have nots and nefarious incidents.
While there is no “class” in South Korea – the ancient class system was dismantled in the 1880s, and disappeared during the 1910-1945 colonial era – income inequality exists. As a result, the modern class is largely defined by wealth. And a key wealth indicator is one’s home.
Class-defining homes can, speaking very generally, be divided into several broad categories.
Those of the middle class are apparent to – indeed, cannot be missed by – anyone who travels anywhere in urban Korea: The most striking architectural feature of virtually every city is its massed ranks of identical, high-rise apartment complexes.
Bong’s film ignores the bourgeoisie, focusing instead on the starkly polarized classes. However, the residences of high and low society are less architecturally obtrusive and can be difficult to track down in Seoul, a relentlessly middle-class capital.
The poor live in aged, low-rise apartments or in basement-, ground-, or upper-story flats in hemmed-in villas jammed into crowded, commercial/residential neighborhoods.
More secluded and architecturally-sound villas function serve as residences for the upper-middle and upper classes. Luxury apartments also exist in clusters.
However, the domiciles of the true elite are walled-in mansions perched on mountain slopes. These areas are not easy to reach for the casual visitor: For topographical and social reasons, no subway stations serve these rare climes.
Here reside financiers and media stars, as well as senior diplomats and prosperous expatriates. But the most moneyed (and discrete) residents are the “royal families” who control the chaebol – the mighty conglomerates that dominate South Korea’s economy.
Balcony view over Seongbuk Dong. Photo: Asia Times
Just three such neighborhoods exist. “They are always a good address to show ‘I have money, my family is rich!’” “Ms Kim,” a well-do-businesswoman told Asia Times. “Address is very important in Korea.”
Mount Namsan was developed in the 1960s, Songbuk Dong (“dong” is a suffix meaning district or village) in the late 1960s and 70s, and Pyeongchang Dong in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Samsung’s Lee family is domiciled on Mount Namsan, the landmark that looms over downtown Seoul.
Hyundai’s Chungs, LG’s Koos and SK’s Chois reside in Seongbuk, on the eastern slope of Mount Bugak, which stands behind the city’s medieval Gyeongbok Palace and the presidential mansion. Seongbuk was developed in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
The Chos of Hanjin/Korean Air, as well as a number of retired K-drama and K-pop stars, live in Pyeongchang, set on the slopes of a valley north of Mount Bugak on the southern edge of the Mount Bukhan National Park.
The furthest of the three districts from downtown, Pyeongchang, has the smallest number of ambassadorial residences and related police boxes, so it is considered least secure. Its feng shui is also considered overly powerful, Jang Song-hyon, a long-term Seongbuk resident and business consultant told Asia Times.
Though not specifically identified in the film, Pyeongchang is widely seen as the rich family’s neighborhood in Parasite. However, Asia Times has learned that some exterior scenes were shot in Seongbuk.
“Gangnam has no views, and is very congested and very confined – unlike here,” said Jang. “The only downside here is when it snows – it is difficult to drive.”
These three “top 1%” neighborhoods all offer a distinct series of impressions. They boast very few businesses, bar a sprinkling of cafes and galleries. The plethora of eateries, watering holes, groceries, convenience stores, etc, that dot “normal” Seoul districts are conspicuously absent.
There are no high-rises, and all homes are steeped, granting every house down-valley views. Personal gardens – rare elsewhere in Korea – are musts. Greenery is abundant.
There is no dominant architectural style. Some houses resemble European mansions, others Alpine chalets. Some are neo-traditional Korean houses, others are bespoke structures designed by star architects. And a handful are whimsical flights of fancy.
Most are split-level, with space for extended families, and/or quarters for live-in home help – housekeepers, cooks, drivers, bodyguards. For linguistic reasons, foreign residents tend to employ Filipinos, but in Korean households, help is likely to be Korean-Chinese (who work cheaper than locals). As in Victorian England, many homes have separate residents’ entrances and servants’ entrances.
Some homes rent floors out; prices are around $20,000 per month, Jang said. And as they are split-level, floor areas are huge: Between 200-400 pyong (660-1,322 square meters) Jang estimated, quoting a Korean floor measurement. By comparison, most family apartments in Seoul are 20-35 pyong.
Strikingly, virtually every home is walled. Some have relatively modest, eyebrow-height brick walls. Some have neo-traditional walls, some have designed stone walls. But many squat behind massive concrete ramparts, up to 10 meters high – more indicative of fortresses than domiciles.
“I don’t like the high walls, but I think people need protection,” said Jang. “And they don’t want others to see how they live.”
Namsan and Seongbuk abut poor neighborhoods – and according to one source, there are good reasons why the rich are suspicious of the poor.
Speaking on condition of anonymity in a downtown Starbucks last week, the source told a tale – and showed Asia Times related images, messages and documents – that bears strong resemblances to Bong’s masterpiece.
Art imitates life
“Ms. Kim” – not her real name – is a 60-something businesswoman and philanthropist married to a financier.
Kim was approached by a woman who pleaded poverty and begged to work for her. When the woman told her that her 14-year-old son was in a youth detention center, Kim sympathized, as she has a son of the same age. Kim offered the woman work in her office.
The new employee did well. Subsequently, she introduced her husband. As in Parasite, Kim offered him a position, too. The couple won Kim’s trust, and she granted them access to her bank account and home keys. The home housed Kim’s high-value collection of modern art; she often used it for functions.
All continued amicably until Kim took a lengthy trip to New York. While overseas, a friend in Seoul urgently contacted Kim, drawing her attention to a Facebook message that appeared to show Kim’s home. Alarmed, Kim logged on.
The post was written by an investor who said he had been invited to acquire artworks in what he had been informed was a “gallery.” Also in the photographs appeared the couple – in spruced-up clothing – who worked for Kim.
Kim was gob-smacked. She realized she was the victim of two sophisticated con artists.
Dashing back to Seoul, she discovered the couple had printed documents in which they identified themselves as owners of Kim’s business and assets. That sparked a three-year legal battle. Eventually Kim, in the company of bailiffs, forcibly entered the couple’s home to repossess assets.
The couple had fled. Traumatized, Kim left Pyeongchang for a luxury (and secure) downtown apartment. Subsequently, her son watched Parasite. He texted his mother, urging her to watch it immediately.
“When I saw it, I was freaking out, I was thinking, ‘This is my story!’” Kim said. “I think Mr Bong tried to represent them [the poor], not us [the rich], but he has very, very sharp eyes. It was very realistic.”
And there are other stories.
An interpreter known to Asia Times worked for a European expatriate couple who rented a high-end Seoul home. The couple employed a local housekeeper and left her in charge of the home when they returned to Europe for annual leave.
The couple was astonished, when viewing CCTV footage of their Seoul home, to see a party underway: The housekeeper had invited her own family and friends to a garden barbeque. Though nothing in the house was damaged or stolen, the couple subsequently sacked her.
According to reports, writer/director Bong’s inspirations for Parasite were his own experience as a tutor to a prosperous family, and the 1960 Korean film The Housemaid, about a predatory servant. And Asia Times has no evidence that Bong knew of Kim’s story – though parts of it leaked to the press.
However, tales of cons are common. Many, many South Koreans have experienced, or know people, who were duped by strangers, friends and even family members. This is partly a result of a culture wherein relationships and trust are prized over contracts and legalities.
“One of the themes of the film is that rich people are naïve and stupid – and it is true,” said a Seongbuk resident, who showed Asia Times around her home on condition of discretion. “People here give out bank accounts numbers and passwords and tell their subordinates, ‘Go and get some money out of the bank.’”
“Until the early 1990s, people would open bank accounts in the names of friends, families and employees,” Mike Breen, author of The New Koreans and a Pyeongchang resident, told Asia Times. “And yes, sometimes, those people did disappear with the money.”
In an environment in which the law is underused, some say it is also weak. “The reason we have so many scandals in Korea is because laws are not enforceable,” said Kim. “Many of us get ripped off – these high walls show how scared people are.”
Relatedly – as the polarization in Bong’s film makes clear – powerful egalitarian sentiments run through South Korean society. In old Korea, the peasantry lived communal lives, empowering envy. The Seongbuk resident quoted an old proverb: “If my cousin buys a rice field, I get a stomach ache.”
Authorities are today addressing the have-have not split Parasite highlights in diverse ways, from raising the minimum wage and trying to tamp down Seoul real estate prices, and tax the elite.
“Last year, property taxes were raised 80-100% over the previous year,” said Jang. “I protested at the tax office, but the young lady there said they will probably go up again next year.”