A Room of Her Own: Women’s Housing Experiences in Korean Megacities

  • onJune 12, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byOh Eungyo

Illustrations Copyright © minimalist.cult

Parasite, the globally acclaimed South Korean film, introduces various forms of housing that differ according to the social class of the residents. There are significant differences in location, size, function, and aesthetics of these homes as well as the views afforded from the inside. These views are telling as a sort of metaphor, as they offer us views into the future of the inhabitants. In the film, Mr. and Mrs. Park live in a secluded mansion situated on a hill that soars to the skies, while Chung-sook and Ki-taek live in a semi-basement apartment (banjiha in Korean) with unfettered views of random drunk men urinating in the street. Meanwhile, Moon-gwang and Geun-sae live in a fully underground bunker with no windows and, therefore, no view of the outside world. Mr. Park’s business is wildly successful while the Kim family struggles to escape poverty, but Geun-sae seems content with his current situation. This movie, which features a “scholar’s stone” (a naturally-occurring stone that resembles a scenic landscape) as a central motif, looks at the question of class stratification in South Korean society through the lens of real estate, or more specifically, people’s homes.


Parasite focuses on social class in sophisticated cinematic language, but it misses another aspect, namely, that housing is also fundamentally a gender issue. Rather than the enterprising mother and pragmatic daughter of the Kim family, it is the hapless father and confused son who are trotted out to represent the contradictions of Korean society. In contrast, the four stories described below illustrate how women living in the major cities of South Korea experience their housing situation. In so doing, the stories show that the issues tied in with housing, such as personal safety and privacy, are not only class issues inherent in a capitalist society but also problems that have gender politics and sexuality at their very core.


The Gosiwon in Kim Ae-ran’s “No Knocking in This House”

Gosiwon (cheap, furnished single unit rooms) buildings are traditionally located near university campuses. Their price range is dependent on the availability of personal bathrooms and windows, but the vast majority of gosiwons are pretty much identical. The rooms tend to be located along a single hallway and are next to one another with little or no soundproofing. The narrator in Kim Ae-ran’s “No Knocking in This House” is a female college student from a small town who is currently on leave from university and trying to save money by working part-time at a convenience store. Five other women in their early twenties live on the same gosiwon floor and are therefore intimately familiar with each other’s habits, preferences, and whether or not they have a lover—all without ever having seen each other. With their personal lives exposed so mercilessly to one another, they feel it is only polite to stay in the dark; to meet face to face would feel truly obtrusive. When a screaming, raving man bangs on their doors in the middle of the night, the women huddle in their individual rooms, united in their collective fear of the stranger. When they sneak into one another’s rooms to identify a suspected shoe and underwear thief, they are horrified to see how eerily similar their rooms are.


The Officetel in Jang Ryujin’s “Visitors that Come in the Night”

The officetel, a portmanteau of “office” and “hotel,” is a multipurpose building with both residential and commercial units. Officetels are typically located in downtown commercial districts and come with high monthly rents and utility bills. Single-person households account for the majority of the tenants, who are most often but not always, office workers. The protagonist in Jang Ryujin’s “Visitors that Come in the Night” is a single office worker who is extremely careful not to let anyone know she lives alone to the point that she doesn’t even receive deliveries directly. One day, however, she has several visits from anonymous men. She works as an online search engine monitor, scouring websites and scrubbing them of ads for sex trafficking establishments, but she soon learns that these men are coming to her door in the mistaken belief that her house is one of those very establishments, a so-called offi-bang that services male office workers with sexOnce, while observing these visitors who knock on her door in the wee hours, she sees the face of her ex-fiancé show up on her video door-phone.


The Oktapbang in Kang Hwa Gil’s “Room”

An oktapbang is a small room built on the rooftop over a space that is usually cleared to install water tanks and other utilities. Due to its issues with insulation and safety, the oktapbang is a hazardous place to live; together with the semi-basement banjiha, it’s a housing solution usually reserved for the urban poor. Kang Hwa Gil’s “Room” is a story of a lesbian couple. One lives in a semi-basement floor room in a gosiwon while the other shares a room with three co-workers. As a result, they can’t even talk on the phone in peace. They decide to move in temporarily to an oktapang that has been partly destroyed by an explosion while they save enough money for a larger rented apartment, one with actual windows this time. They toil all day, struggling to get by. The apocalyptic reality and unstable living conditions are a metaphor of the precarious lives of this lesbian couple. They talk of a rosy future while kneading each other’s sore muscles, but even before they’ve saved up enough money, one of them becomes sick with an infectious disease and dies while the other is forced to flee her job after being pressured to have sex with her boss. She finds herself once again in the abandoned oktapbang next to her dead lover as the city closes in all around her.


The Motel in Lim Solah’s The Best Life

The motel, or love hotel, is a common form of budget accommodation. The motels in the city, however, do more than serve as cheap places to spend the night; many urban motels have become highly eroticized and are often used as a sheltered place for sex by people who do not otherwise have that option. The three sixteen-year-old female protagonists in Lim Solah’s The Best Life decide to run away from their oppressive families and violent teachers and escape to Seoul. Although they are from the same town and school, their families are of different means and levels of wealth; when they leave home, however, they take on the same identity as penniless teenage runaways. The girls make do by slumming in the streets and in the emergency fire escapes of high-rise apartments, until one day, lured by adult men who offer them food and a place to eat, they head to a motel. The men variously expose themselves to the girls and whisper sweet nothings into their ears. The girls are soon raped and forced to trade sex in exchange for what they need. These girls, who run away once again, end up working in a bikini bar (where female workers dress in bikinis and service their customers) to pay their rent.


In 2016, a young woman was killed for no apparent reason in a public restroom near Gangnam Station, one of the busiest districts in Seoul. This senseless murder, dubbed the “Gangnam Station Murder” case, ultimately became a feminism reboot moment. Since the incident, the issue of women’s safety has become an important social concern and another wave in the feminist movement; however, because of lagging revisions to the legal code and ludicrously inadequate punishment, sex crimes in South Korea have become even more flagrant and taken on a monstrous life of their own. The “Nth Room” case is one such example, where young girls were forced to work as sex slaves and blackmailed into filming sadistic, sexually exploitative videos of themselves. South Korean society collectively went into shock when it learned that this chat room had tens of thousands of registered, paying members who would regularly plot rapes and murders against girls and women. In this way and more, sexual exploitation of women is evolving with the latest media technology and replicating itself across numerous online rooms. Will the day ever come when a woman can finally enjoy a safe and peaceful room of her own?


Oh Eungyo
Literary Critic
Translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim