MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The South Korean movie "Parasite" is an international sensation, and that is partly for its universal themes like the conflicts between rich and poor. In other ways, the film is specific to South Korea. One example, says NPR's Neda Ulaby, has to do with architecture.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "Parasite's" action puddles between a gleaming modernist mansion floating in the hills of Seoul and a squalid basement apartment where Wi-Fi is a luxury.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARASITE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking in Korean).
ULABY: The mansion could be in Berlin, Dubai, LA, anywhere. The basement apartment is Seoul 100%, says Gina Kim, who grew up in South Korea.
GINA KIM: Yeah, the basement unit (laughter).
ULABY: Kim works as a filmmaker and professor at UCLA. These basement apartments, she says, date from the days of the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union after the Korean War.
KIM: And they started to build bunkers in all the buildings, even in big apartment buildings.
ULABY: There's a real bunker in the movie. But renting out these semi-basement bunkers was illegal, she says. They were filled with mold and pests and prone to floods. But South Korea, in just decades, went from being one of the world's poorest economies to the 11th largest. Kim says the government had to legalize these semi-underground apartments to accommodate workers pouring in, but that did not mean semi-basement units became desirable.
KIM: People can look into them. People pee on the windows. People park their cars, blocking whatever little sunlight they can have.
BOON JONG-HO: (Speaking in Korean).
ULABY: "Parasite" director Boon Jong-ho says the family in the basement wants to rise, but they're mired in the muck, literally and figuratively.
BOON: (Through interpreter) These semi-basement homes are only half underground. That's very similar to the psychology of our protagonists. We became a wealthy country very fast, and people who weren't able to board that fast train towards wealth, they feel lost. And they feel a sense of inferiority. And the economy is not just about numbers. It also carries a lot of emotion as well.
ULABY: Anxiety over South Korea's economic situation is part of its popular culture. This 2008 indie rock hit, "Cheap Coffee," concerns young people failed by dreams of class mobility.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEAP COFFEE")
CHANG KIHA: (Singing in Korean).
KIM: This kind of goes like, I drink a cup of cheap coffee. It's not even lukewarm, but I still get heartburn.
ULABY: The metaphors here, says Gina Kim, are not especially subtle. But then again, neither is the story in "Parasite" and around the world of structural inequality.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.