‘Sinkhole’ movie resonates with Koreans who can’t afford homes

SEOUL — In “Sinkhole,” this summer’s South Korean blockbuster, the breadwinner of the Park family toils in an office, putting away every spare penny toward his goal of buying a home. After 11 years of work, he cobbles together enough savings to purchase an apartment, an increasingly important milestone and class distinction in his country.

The new place isn’t fancy, but Park proudly exclaims “We’re homeowners!” as he moves in with his wife and son on a rainy day. Park hopes that his years of sacrifice will pay off and home ownership will anchor the family in the middle class.

The dream doesn’t last. Park notices the building’s walls are cracking and the family’s unit is so crooked that a marble rolls off into a corner after being placed on the floor. As the building lurches, Park knows he can’t sell his new home, but infighting means that he and his neighbors can’t agree on how to arrange for repairs.

The ground beneath the building where the family lives suddenly collapses into a 500-meter deep sinkhole. Struggle, sadness and tragicomedy ensue as the family and their neighbors attempt to salvage their livelihoods.

The film is resonating with audiences at a time when many South Koreans feel their fortunes slipping, with the coronavirus pandemic undermining economic growth and skyrocketing housing prices bringing the dream of home ownership out the reach of many. “Sinkhole” has topped the box office since its opening on August 11, bringing in more than $10.5 million and already ranking as the seventh highest-grossing film of the year, according to data from the Korean Film Council.

The economic themes of the film are playing out in real life. A study by the land ministry found that the rate of home ownership in South Korea fell last year for the first time since 2014, while the price-to-income ratio of houses in Seoul, where much of the population lives, rose to an all-time high. Aspirant homeowners need to work and save longer to afford a home.

Despite the pandemic, South Korea’s economy has stayed in positive terrain, buoyed by strong shipments of semiconductors and biohealth products. After setting an all-time record in July, exports in the first ten days of August were up 46% over the same time the previous year,

GDP increased 0.7% in the second quarter, according to the Bank of Korea, driven in part by a 3.9% increase in government consumption. The BOK expects the modest recovery to continue, while citing downside risks such as a delayed recovery in consumption due to spiking COVID-19 cases and the slow pace of vaccinations.

The government has carried out three rounds of stimulus spending throughout the pandemic, and in late July the National Assembly approved another supplementary budget, worth 34.9 trillion won (nearly $30 billion), to assist households and independent merchants.

The payouts are a welcome source of help during the pandemic, but not a long-term solution to an economy with a growing gap between successful international companies and waning small businesses, experts say. “The government stimulus has been substantial and that will continue to prop up domestic consumption, which would otherwise be really weak,” said Sung Won Sohn, a professor of business at Loyola-Marymount University.

South Korean politicians are already looking ahead to next March’s next presidential election, with the main parties in the midst of candidate selection. The Moon administration will want to continue stimulus spending to keep the economy growing, however slowly, until voters go to polls. But the slow-growing economy and overheated real estate market will be key pillars of the main opposition People Power Party’s efforts to unseat the ruling Democratic Party.

“After the election, the stimulus will probably tail off and that will weaken growth, as this kind of spending is not something the government can afford to sustain indefinitely. Essentially the government is right now borrowing growth from the future,” Sohn told Nikkei Asia.

A view from the observatory of the 123-story Lotte World Tower shows apartment complexes in Seoul on August 18.   © EPA/Yonhap/Jiji

While local media have described the premise of “Sinkhole” — years of work and savings going quite literally down the drain — as “the worst scenario a Korean can imagine,” the film isn’t all gloom, as it presents the Park family’s predicament with a grim humor and slapstick laughs.

Contemporary Korean cinema has long used disaster scenarios to explore themes of inequality and unrest, as well as the failures of government. “Sinkhole” director Kim Ji-hoon previously helmed 2012’s “The Tower,” a disaster film set in a luxury skyscraper. “Train to Busan,” a 2016 smash, a story of characters’ desperate efforts to evade a horde of zombies, was widely interpreted as a thinly-veiled critique of the country’s government.

A review of “Sinkhole” that ran on NoCutNews suggested that, coming as it does during a time of economic downturn and increasing frustration, the movie has something to teach viewers. “A greater fear than a house collapsing or the value of a house falling is the loss of the will to live,” the review states.

The characters in “Sinkhole” put aside their disagreements to come together and fight till the end. “Eventually they pull themselves up from 500 meters below the ground…maybe that’s the real message.”


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