Parasite: Bong Joon Ho’s Innovative Set Design

Ashley Zhao, Writer

Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s four time Oscar-winning film Parasite has garnered great praise for its deep insight into the realities of class warfare, but its set design is equally as impressive. The movie finds the poor Kim family skillfully worming its way into the affluent Park household, gradually taking over their lives, and approximately 60% of Parasite takes place in the wealthy Park family home. However, most viewers may not realize that the entire set was entirely built from scratch. 


Although stated in the movie that the marvel of modern architecture was designed by renowned fictional architect Nangoong Hyeonja, it was actually the brainchild of Parasite’s production designer Lee Ha Jun. “Since Mr. Park’s house is built by an architect in the story, it wasn’t easy finding the right approach to designing the house,” explained Lee in an email interview with IndieWire. “I’m not an architect, and I think there’s a difference in how an architect envisions a space and how a production designer does. We prioritize blocking and camera angles while architects build spaces for people to actually live in and thus design around people. So I think the approach is very different.”


In the story (and this is a spoiler), “no one says there should only be one parasite in a host,” Bong said, “so the story is about discovering that there are already parasites that settled down in the host, much before them.” When asked about his approach to creating the house, he explained that the building was “like its own universe inside this film. Each character and each team has spaces that they take over that they can infiltrate, and also secret spaces that they don’t know. So the dynamic between these three teams and the dynamic of space, they were very much intertwined and I think that combination really created an interesting element to this film.”


Another aspect of set design that many film fans may have noticed is Parasite’s usage of highs and lows, as it is similar to Akira Kurasawa’s film High and Low. “On the top of the hill is a rich guy and in the bottom, there is the criminal kind of structure,” Bong explained, “It’s basically the same in Parasite, but with more layers.” Since the story is about the rich and poor, they had to take an obvious approach in terms of designing the sound and lighting. “The poorer you are, the less sunlight you have access to, and that’s just how it is in real life as well: You have limited access to windows,” said Bong. On the contrary, the Park family house has an entire wall of glass that lets light flood the room, which made the sun’s direction important when designing the set. “We had to remember the sun’s position during our desired time frame and determine the positions and sizes of the windows accordingly. In terms of practical lighting, the [cinematographer], Hong Kyung Po, had specific requests regarding the color,” recalled Lee, “He wanted sophisticated indirect lighting and the warmth from tungsten light sources. Before building the set, [he] and I visited the lot several times to check the sun’s movement each time, and we decided on the set’s location together.”


The descent into the “density” of the places in which each family lives in is also something that the team behind Parasite made sure to highlight throughout the movie. Lee described Mr. Park’s house as “minimal, uncluttered, large and orderly. It’s a large house with a large garden consisting of controlled colors and materials—a contrast to the semi-basement neighborhood.” Although more colorful, the team “minimized the color tones as much as possible so that no particular tone stood out. Instead, the textures are rough and the space is denser compared to the rich house. I wanted to show the increasing density that reflects the class difference between elevated areas and lower ones as appearances change from the rich house to the semi-basement neighborhood.”


Having the protagonists living in a semi-basement apartment, where the floor of the building is half below ground, doesn’t just show a more Korean element of the story. “There’s a more specific meaning behind it,” said Lee, “because the semi-basement is basically of the middle of high and low. There’s this fear that you can fall even further below but you still feel hope that you’re still half above-ground, so it really reflects this liminal space that they’re in, and the spaces in this film are even more compartmentalized and all connected through a very complicated staircase.”

By taking meticulous consideration into building each of the many sets entirely from scratch, the team behind Parasite not only provides their audience with breathtaking visuals, but they also play a vital role in highlighting the valuable messages to take away from the film.