[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers.]
The luxurious Park mansion in Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” and the baroque middle-class German house in Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” are evocative examples of home design as metaphoric characters, which help set the mood, define the people, and propel the action. On top of that, they both contain secret hiding places to flip the stories on their heads (the bunker in “Parasite” and the attic in “Jojo Rabbit”).
“Parasite” masterfully explores class divide in Korea, with the struggling Ki-taek family occupying the Park household as part of a sly gig-economy con. The exquisite home’s vertical design expresses space and division, highlighted by wood, glass, and spare furniture. “In the film, we wanted all the interior and architecture to be simpler, wider, and sometimes denser than complicated,” said production designer Lee Ha Jun. “Director Bong commented that in the film, the [architect] character Namgoong Hyun-ja intended to design the living room of the first floor to enjoy the view of the garden.
“That was the character’s philosophy of architecture,” added Lee. “So, there is no TV in Park’s first floor living room. To keep the purpose, the window glass was customized in 2.35:1 ratio, which makes people feel the garden and the living room as a nice piece of photo or an art work. To emphasize the contrast between interior and the exterior, we mostly used dark wood and grayish materials for interior.”
The Park house was designed as an elaborate series of sets (main, open, and soundstages): “We built the set in one whole,” said Lee, “especially for the soundstage of the basement and the secret passage to the secret bunker, where Geun-sae [Park Myung-hoon, the hidden “parasite”] lives. So the stairs from the first floor kitchen to the basement, the wooden shelves that hide the secret passage to the bunker and the secret bunker itself was just one set. We built a vertical soundstage from all the way up from the ceiling to the bottom of the set. It was because the director wanted to shoot the scene following the character heading down to the secret bunker with Steadicam as one cut.
“So the set was, in some ways, recklessly huge, but all in all, I believe it was a perfect choice to make it into one set, regarding efficiency of the production process and for actors to concentrate, since it is a unique, unfamiliar space for anyone on set, they would be stifled as they walk down the stairs. [The] actors could take advantage of the structure to pull out their maximum potential.”
There was another reason the designer built the set this way: to delineate vertical economic movement: “I believed that Geun-sae in Park’s house is also in the same state as the Ki-taek family,” added Lee. “If we go down all the way to the bottom, Geun-sae would be at the lowest part, even under the Ki-taeks or at the same level as them. Also, the entire film is designed to have different looks depending on the movement that travels from top to bottom endlessly. Such intention is well delivered via those many stairs.”
For example, when the Ki-taek family run from the Park house on a rainy night down many, many stairs, said Lee, “I wanted to capture the gradual increase of density that is from the class divide of high and low while they leave Park’s and head to their own poor neighborhood, which shows two very different looks. The stairs at the Park home have the same meaning. When the Park family appear, they usually walk up the stairs, but the others usually go up and down the stairs repeatedly. So, the boundary of social class became more obvious, which was almost forgotten for a while. In ‘Parasite,’ the space presents a tragedy, which is more dreadful than death.”
Meanwhile, the design, layout, and decor of the house in “Jojo Rabbit” served as a playground for the conflict between love and hate. The eponymous German youth (Roman Griffin Davis) idolizes Hitler (Waititi) to the point of conversing with him as an imaginary friend, but then his innocent world is shaken by the discovery that his mom (Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a Jewish teenager in their attic (Elsa, played by Thomasin McKenzie).
Production designer Ra Vincent built the modular set at Prague’s Barrandov Studios, which allowed scenes to be shot in any direction by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare and the crew. The set also crucially reflects Rosie’s buoyant personality, making use of such diverse design movements as Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Bauhaus, and Surrealism. Vincent additionally emphasized a warm, heightened color palette indicative of Rosie’s forward-thinking sensibility.
“This baroque house brightened up the broken down period with panache, and brought up the subject of German society as being vibrant and progressive,” Vincent said. “I was fortunate to work with special art department people in the Czech republic who helped us source antiquities. We had some really beautiful, period-accurate furnishings and lighting. And the set was built on stage so we could have full control over color and rolling walls. And enough space to pull ceilings out. All those intimate spaces acted like individual story moments or emotional beats.”
The house consisted of Jojo’s bedroom, painted gray/blue and very officious-looking, adorned with Nazi propaganda posters. “We also brought some traditional wall paintings that wouldn’t made it stand out too much from the rest of the house,” added Vincent. The living room and kitchen were pure Rosie with family heirlooms and photographs: “The things that have filled their lives and are all around the house and are tasteful for the time,” he continued. “And because Jojo’s parents possibly own a factory, they are a [prosperous] German couple that could afford some of the more stylish, popular pieces of the time.”
While it was hard designing the bedroom of Jojo’s late sister, Vincent reinforced a world that had lost its innocence with artistic details. This also served as the location of the attic, where Elsa hides. It’s dark but they poked little holes in the tile and roof to allow light to bleed through, and added shafts of light rays with dust to create a spooky sensation. But once Jojo accepts and befriends Elsa, they spend more time in his sister’s bedroom, where she becomes a surrogate sister.
“The film comes full circle with the end of the war and springtime, and more optimistic tones return to the sets,” Vincent said.