In the 2019 film Parasite (spoilers within), we are introduced to each family by way of where they live.

The opening shot shows hung-dry socks against a window at ground level. We pan down to reveal Kim Ki-woo and his family, searching for illicit wifi signal within a semi-basement.

Contrast this with our introduction to the Park family. The alley of the Kim home is dark, unbordered, and littered with the detritus of other lives. We follow Ki-woo away from here as he climbs to a clean, walled, and sun-filled place. We learn that the Park family home was designed by a great architect, Namgoong.

The underground bunker of this house, like any social underbelly, is a sad and wretched place - but it exists by design. Namgoong was ashamed of it, even as he built it with intention. It is equipped for light, plumbing, leisure, and even worship. It is a low place in a high hill, so it does not flood. It is a place where people can live indefinitely. And like all disenfranchised pockets in societies of abundance, it only occasionally erupts into violence.

As Moon-gwang’s husband pounds out a message against the light switches, Park’s wife remarks from upstairs, over an absurd combo of jjapaguri and expensive Hanwoo beef, that “the sensor is going batty”. There is no sensor, and it will never occur to her investigate how the lights are wired in her own home. She is emblematic of a clueless elite. It’s not that they don’t care about the murder happening in their own basement: they don’t even realize that there is a basement.

As the Kim family returns home during a downpour, they go down what seems like an impossible number of stairs. Each flight brings them closer to a place where no human was ever meant to live. A home is supposed to shelter, but this one doesn’t protect them from insecticides, electric shock, rainwater, sewage, or even literal piss. Instead, their home literally seeps into them, with a smell that forever betrays their non-belonging. Built environments reflect social order, and the Kim family survives within the cracks of both.

The built environment in Parasite also embodies the tension between totalitarian dysfunction and capitalistic degeneracy. In either system, it is somehow always the people at the bottom who end up fighting each other. The housekeeper laments, in a manner familiar to anybody with a grumpy Communist party cadre for a grandparent, that a golden era has passed, and that Namgoong’s house has gone to people who do not deserve it. Namgoong is an exalted, cult-like figure who we never actually meet. His noble masterwork of centralized planning has now become a playpen for a spoiled child, trashed by a drunk and jaded working class.

Yet these are the excesses of the very same capitalism that paid for Moon-Gwang’s meals, the Kims’ salaries, and allowed this luxurious home to be built in the first place. Who deserves the fruits of each mad rush towards a new modernity? Who should be left behind? Thoughts on class tensions rarely contain any nuance, or even awareness. It is impressive that this film - and its architecture - were crafted with both.