For nine years, South Korean poet Shin Hyun-rim and his daughter resided in an underground world seven steps down the street.
In the heart of Seoul, just steps from the presidential residence and the skyscrapers that house people like Samsung, Shin and his daughter lived in a banjiha – an apartment in the basement, with little sunlight and cheap land rent, which for many South Koreans is the last resort, a rite of passage or a low pit stop on the way to something better.
"You don't know if it's day or night," said Shin, 58, who moved into a room on the fourth floor two years ago. "It is a good place to dream. Your imagination is what makes you go through this.
Half a meter banjiha prominent figures in South Korean director Bong Joon Ho's dark comedy "Parasite", a stark depiction of rock bottom existence in which the film's Kim family tries to break free and then return to the cinema. Bong said the tempting noon in the basement was a great inspiration to make his thriller explore the class disparities, which connected with audiences worldwide and made history at Sunday's Oscars by becoming the first film in English other than English. gain the best image.
"Banjiha it is a space with a peculiar connotation … It is undeniably underground and yet you want to believe that it is above ground ", Bong said last may after the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. "There is also the fear that if you sink a little, you may be completely hidden."
Director Bong Joon Ho and actor Song Kang Ho on the set "Parasite", representing the house of the Kims, a semi-basement banjiha apartment.
Bong said the film's translators struggled to find the right word in English and French because there was no direct equivalent. They finally settled in the "semi-basement".
For many in South Korea, Bong's homeland, the film brought back memories of months or years spent in banjiha dwellings – the desolation, the animals, the smell of mold that comes from a perennial humidity. Like Hong Kong and Brazil cages shanty towns, a banjiha in many ways, it symbolized a segment of South Koreans squeezed by increasing density and less and less accessibility, huddled in invisible corners of a city where the rich get richer and occupy more and more space.
"I must have wanted to lock the semi-basement in the basement of my subconscious," a South Korean blogger I wrote, saying he had forgotten that he lived in one as a graduate student until he saw "Parasite". "My self-esteem fell just as much as the floor was high against the window."
“Banjiha is a unique space. It is undeniably underground and yet you want to believe that you are above ground ".
Director "Parasite" Bong Joon Ho
More than 36,000 South Koreans live in semi-underground homes, according to the most recent survey conducted in 2015, the vast majority of them in the greater metropolitan area of Seoul. Many were built in the 1970s as bunkers from a possible North Korean attack and later modified randomly as independent rental units to meet a growing demand for housing.
As at the climax of the film, when the Kims roam the rising waters of their home during a storm, many banjiha the houses are vulnerable to flooding and were submerged during monsoons. During a particularly severe flood in 2010, Seoul officials said that most of the more than 9,000 rain-damaged homes were semi-underground units. They pledged to phase out banjiha homes and provide other forms of affordable housing.
Shin, the poet, moved to one with her five-year-old daughter around 2007. It was the only unit the single mother was able to afford in the area after she was forced to leave her previous home.
"It's the last place you go down when you're broke," she said. "It looked like a grave."
The poet Shin Hyun-rim, on the right, is interviewed in his semi-basement house in central Seoul.
The three-bedroom space received so little sunlight that she had to keep the lights on during the day. It felt like she was developing a deeper sense of hearing, she said – steps, conversations, wind, rain. Shortly after moving in, the house was invaded, the thief easily entered through the street level window. She had bars similar to prisons installed.
Over the years she lived there, however, she began to draw inspiration from the sense of worldliness that home seemed to generate. In 2017, she published a poetry book, entitled "Banjiha Alice", based on how she felt when she moved, as if she had been thrown into a strange world, as the protagonist of Lewis Carroll.
My remaining days keep decreasing
But we are all setting up a tent soon
I may be worrying like a flower of the day shaking in the wind
But if I taste the sadness
Maybe something fun will happen
Maybe a white rabbit runs by
– from "The Happiness of Banjiha Alice", by Shin Hyun-rim
"It could only have left that space," she said of the book.
Choi Hyun-jung, 34, has lived in a semi-basement house with her sister since 2012 in the city of Incheon, about an hour west of Seoul. With their modest budget, all units they considered an option were semi-basement.
On rainy days, she would go out into the street to make sure the sewers weren't clogged, nervous about the floods. At work, she worried about going home and finding her life submerged. Night after night, the sisters were treated to the sounds of drunks leaving the bar next door.
A few years ago, she started drawing a comic book on the web about her sister's life and titled it “Banjiha's rent room”. She exposed her challenges – the insects, the mold, a recurring leak in the ceiling – but she also shared how they were making their own home and using it as a springboard for young adults' lives. The story seemed to speak to other young people who have gone through similarly difficult times. It was popular enough that Choi was hired as a full-time cartoonist for the Daum portal.
Choi Hyun-jung's web comic, "Banjiha Room For Rent", is about his life in a basement apartment with his sister. "The water is dripping from the ceiling again," says Choi's sister in this scene.
(Choi Hyun-jung / Daum Webtoon)
"It is a necessity for people who are so desperate," she said. "It is not really a suitable place for human life."
Kim Nam-hyeon, a 21-year-old college student, said that while watching "Parasite", he found himself wondering how much rent would be for a place like Kim's fictional home.
Originally from a seaside town on the southern tip of South Korea, Kim has lived in a basement apartment near his college in Seoul about two years ago. He thinks that about 1 in 10 of his classmates lives in banjiha units for cheap rent, he said.
He is eager to save enough money and get a good enough job after graduation to allow him to leave the basement and go to an above-ground space. The existence in the middle of the basement is motivating you to work hard to move up in life.
"I'm telling myself it's an experience," he said, "but I don't want to live in one ever again."