For breaking barriers in filmmaking—artistically, financially, and culturally
Being named the first non-English movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture wasn’t the only feat for Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. The Korean dark comedy also distinguished itself with stunningly authentic sets that drew viewers even more deeply into the tale. And the crew did it all on a modest budget, at least by Hollywood standards.
Parasite tells the story of the intersection between the struggling Kim family and the wealthy Park family, illuminating their contrasts in part through the design of their homes. The striking structures—the Kims’ cramped, cluttered half-basement apartment and the Parks’ sleek, sprawling mansion—are so convincingly rendered that many viewers assumed they were shot on location. In truth, the production team built all the sets from scratch to meet the director’s highly specific requirements.
“A lot of people ask us how we found the rich family’s house, or which part of Seoul the poor neighborhood is actually in,” Bong told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m always very happy when I get those responses, because it feels like we successfully built a real universe for this film.”
It’s all the more impressive given the production team created that universe while staying within the film’s budget of less than US$11.4 million— then raking in US$257 million at the global box office.
Here’s a look at how they created each home:
The Park House
About 60 percent of Parasite takes place in the modernist mansion, which entertainment news site IndieWire dubbed “one of the most astounding pieces of production design in recent cinematic memory.” Production designer Lee Ha Jun created a set that not only convincingly portrayed an architect’s beautiful abode but also met the script’s detailed demands for actors’ movements and sightlines.
Lee’s team built the house on an outdoor lot to take advantage of natural light, carefully planning the size and placement of each window. When it came time to shoot, the crew scheduled scenes depending on the sun’s position. The climax, for instance, which takes place in the mansion’s yard, was filmed early in the day to catch the morning sun.
“It’s very difficult to get that same mood or picture with artificial light, and that’s why we put in so much care when we were building the set,” Bong told IndieWire.
Lee knew it would take money to convey money. So his team invested in a handful of big-ticket items in furnishing the Park house, including a US$19,800 living room table and a US$120,000 piece of wall art by Korean artist SeungMo Park. The family trash can cost US$2,300, a price Bong reportedly balked at until he realized it had the cinematic quality he wanted.
Parasite’s plot pivots when the Kim family discovers that beneath the Parks’ basement lies a secret bunker. The production team built the basement, the bunker, and the stairs and passageway leading to them all as one multilevel set on a soundstage. The aim was to realistically capture the characters’ physical descent into the subterranean space.
The Kim Apartment and Neighborhood
Parasite portrays the high-low class divide literally—by placing the Parks up on a hill and the Kims in a half-basement apartment. Lee told Architectural Digest that he photographed soon-to-be demolished ghost towns as inspiration for the Kims’ faux apartment and street, which included 20 buildings and 40 households, each with its own intricate backstory. To capture the mood, the production crew scoured the city to find materials that evoked Lee’s research and even modeled old bricks in silicone to re-create ones he saw on his trips.
To capture the moment when torrential rains flood the Kim apartment and street, the team built the set inside a massive tank typically used for disaster epics. The production team planned the flood scene down to the last detail: There was no time or budget for do-overs. “Much of our resources, budget, special effects and preparation went to that [flood] scene,” Bong told Vulture.
3D simulations helped determine the right camera positions, avoid electrical damage, and ensure the team could capture the desired color and light through the rising waters. The crew shot the flood scene over three days, gradually increasing the water level. “We had calculated the amount and the level of water the set would be able to take per hour,” Lee told Vulture.