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The Real Neighborhoods of Oscar-Winning Film 'Parasite'


A still image from the film "Parasite"
The Real Neighborhoods of Oscar-Winning Film 'Parasite'
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South Korea’s Oscar-winning movie “Parasite” tells the story of class struggle through the sights and smells of Seoul.

“Parasite” made history this week when it became the first non-English language movie to win the Oscar for best picture. People all over South Korean social media celebrated.

The film is a story of two South Korean families - the wealthy Parks and the poor Kims. It shows the deepening inequalities in Asia’s fourth-largest economy. The story has been embraced by people around the world.

Visual signals in the film resonated with many South Koreans who call themselves “dirt spoons” -- those born to low-earning families. Many of these families have stopped trying to buy a home or gain better economic and social positioning.

Pig Rice Supermarket featured in South Korea's Oscar-winning "Parasite" is seen in Ahyeon-dong, one of the last shanty towns near downtown Seoul, South Korea February 11, 2019. Picture taken February 11, 2020.
Pig Rice Supermarket featured in South Korea's Oscar-winning "Parasite" is seen in Ahyeon-dong, one of the last shanty towns near downtown Seoul, South Korea February 11, 2019. Picture taken February 11, 2020.

On the opposite side, “gold spoons” are people born into wealthy families.

Much of “Parasite” was filmed on movie sets. But the idea for the Parks’ home and the Kims’ sub-basement apartment came from real neighborhoods in Seoul. A sub-basement apartment is a usually small, dark apartment built partly underground.

Poverty Downtown

Ahyeon-dong is one of the last of the poor areas near downtown Seoul. It is where the Kims are said to live in the film. The neighborhood made several appearances in the film.

Sitting on a hill near the main train station, Ahyeon-dong has steep, narrow streets. Many of them end in long staircases that people climb to reach their homes.

“Watching the film made me feel like they put my life right in there,” Lee Jeong-sik told Reuters news agency. He is the 77-year-old co-owner of Pig Rice Supermarket, which appears in the film. He and his 73-year-old wife, Kim Kyung-soon, have operated the store for 45 years. Pig Rice is open from around 8:30 in the morning until midnight each day.

The store used to open even earlier, at 5, for mothers who would come to buy things for their children’s school meals. But now the neighborhood is mostly older people, with few young couples or children, Kim said.

Local people said rents for sub-basement apartments in Ahyeon-dong have risen to around $340 each month. The rental costs there have more than doubled in the past 10 years.

People watch a TV screen showing images of South Korean director Bong Joon Ho during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020.
People watch a TV screen showing images of South Korean director Bong Joon Ho during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020.

Seoul's 'Beverly Hills'

Across town is the area of Seongbuk-dong. That is where the wealthy Parks’ home is set in “Parasite.” The area is home to many business families and diplomats. It is known as South Korea’s version of Beverly Hills – an extremely wealthy community in Southern California.

Unlike in Ahyeon-dong, the streets in Seongbuk-dong are clear of waste. They are also very quiet, with most homes hidden behind high walls, fences and security cameras.

Chung Han-sool heads a company called Peace Estate Agents, which sells houses. He said most of the houses in Seongbuk-dong have basements for home bars or small theaters.

Homes in the neighborhood usually cost around $6 million. Those rented to foreign diplomats are offered for $8,500 to $12,725 each month.

Chung said there are 48 ambassadors living in the neighborhood. A separate group of police officers protects them.

Even in Seongbuk-dong, signs of inequality can be seen at the “drivers’ diners” -- similar to one from “Parasite.” Although anyone can go to one of these low-cost restaurants, they got their name by serving meals to drivers, including drivers carrying the area’s wealthy residents.

“There are taxi, bus drivers and those who drive the CEOs who live around here,” said Bae Sun-young, who runs one of the drivers’ diners in Seongbuk-dong. He said the differences between the wealthy and the poor are extreme.

I'm Jill Robbins.

Reuters news agency reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

embrace –v. to hold someone in an expression of friendship or love

resonate –v. to have meaning or importance to someone

apartment –n. a rented room or group of rooms in a building

steep –adj. rising or falling very sharply

staircase –n. a set of stairs and its supporting structure

rent –n. money paid to the owner for use of a property

CEO (Chief Executive Officer) –n. an official who is responsible for supervising a company or organization

resident –n. someone who lives in a place

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