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Tourists flock to 'Parasite' locations in South Korea

A set of stairs seen in the film Parasite has become a popular selfie location in Seoul. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
A set of stairs seen in the film "Parasite" has become a popular selfie location in Seoul. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- As South Korea continues to celebrate the remarkable Oscar success of director Bong Joon-ho's darkly satirical film Parasite, locations around Seoul featured in the film have become unlikely tourist destinations.

One new hot spot is Sky Pizza, shown in the film under the name "Pizza Age," tucked deep inside a warren of small streets in Noryangjin, a neighborhood best known for its enormous wholesale fish market.

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The tiny shop, selling pies with toppings such as kimchi, spicy chicken, sweet potato and even lobster, has seen a boom of curious visitors and media attention since Parasite gained international acclaim.

Sky Pizza's owner, 65-year-old Eom Han-gi, said she welcomes the attention and the boost in business the film has brought her.

RELATED South Korea president congratulates 'Parasite' director Bong Joon-ho

"I'm so happy," she said. "I'm always grateful for director Bong. Things were difficult at times because this is not a prominent location, and we aren't a branded franchise."

Eom began keeping guest books when foreign visitors started descending on the location after Parasite won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May. But ever since the film pulled off a stunning upset by winning four Academy Awards earlier this month, including Best Picture, interest has skyrocketed.

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"I came here because the film got so famous," said Kim Ha-young, 23, who traveled about an hour with a friend to snap photos for Instagram and to take part in what has become a nationwide appreciation of Bong's success.

RELATED 'Parasite' wins Best Picture, Best Director at 2020 Oscars

"I am a fan of Bong Joon-ho, and I feel like his win at the Oscars opened a door for Korean and Asian cinema," she said.

The pizza shop has embraced its Parasite connection, with a display of the Pizza Age boxes used in the film alongside a framed photo signed by the cast and a large autographed note from Bong.

Eom said the attention since the Oscars win has been overwhelming at times.

RELATED Oscar-nominated 'Parasite' builds expectations in South Korea

"It's all so sudden," she said. "We're finding it a bit hard to manage, but we're happy to accept the visitors."

The Seoul city government and its official tourism organization have been keen to capitalize on the film's success as well. The city's tourism portal started promoting a Parasite tour of four locations in November, and last week Seoul announced plans to expand operations by including locations featured in Bong's other films, such as The Host and Okja, and offer guided tours run by film experts.

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The city of Goyang, located on the northern outskirts of Seoul, also recently announced plans to restore the studio set where the film's flooding scene was shot.

The official celebration of Bong marks a start contrast from just a few years earlier, when the director -- along with many other left-leaning artists, including Parasite star Song Kang-ho and its producer Miky Lee -- was placed on a blacklist by then-President Park Geun-hye intended to deprive them of state funding.

Another stop on the Parasite tourism trail is Dwaejissal (Pork Rice) Market in Chunjeongro, which has seen a steady stream of curious visitors descend on its quiet neighborhood of squat brick buildings and wafting odors of doenjang, or fermented soy bean paste.

The grocery store, known as Woori Market in the film, was the site of a key early scene when Kim Ki-woo's friend suggests he take a job as an English tutor with the wealthy Park family.

A set of stairs near the store is also seen in the film.

Owners Lee Jung-sik and Kim Gyung-soon have been welcoming fans eager for a photo opportunity, invigorating a business they say has been stagnant for years, particularly since the rise of South Korea's almost ubiquitous convenience store chains.

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"After Parasite, business has been better," said Lee, who has owned the shop for 35 years. "We have just been killing time here at the store for years."

Lee said the couple were given tickets to screen Parasite by the producers and that he related deeply to the story.

"The film was like a biography of my younger years," said Lee, who grew up in a period of deep deprivation after the Korean War ended in 1953. "I used to live in an underground cave next to a sewer."

Neighborhood residents such as Kim Byung-Ki, 56, have also begun stopping in to take pictures with the store's owners.

"I am having friends over tonight and wanted to brag that I've been here," he said.

Kim, who owns a kitchenware store, said that seeing Parasite helped to open his eyes to social divisions right under his nose.

"The movie was about the gap between rich and poor," Kim said. "I learned about their living conditions and started to think about the lives of the poor more."

Not everyone has been as enthusiastic about the film's impact, however. Lee, the store owner, said the neighborhood has been marked for redevelopment and noted that some residents are concerned that the city's tourism plans will derail the process.

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"People are worried about the redevelopment," he said. "We don't know what will happen, if we'll still be here next year."

Other voices have also spoken out against a tourism trend that highlights the poor and working-class neighborhoods so prevalent in the film.

"I'm critical of trying to make poverty a tourism commodity without realizing the meaning of the movie," said freelance film journalist Sung Ha-hoon, who has written about the backlash against Parasite sightseeing.

City officials, however, are seeing the Parasite tourism bump as a boon.

"Looking at the tourism industry as a whole, we expect the creation of positive effects," said Lee Doo-ran, an official with the Seoul Tourism Organization. She said the city is hoping to help promote Korean film as the country's next big cultural product alongside K-pop and the Korean TV dramas that are popular throughout Asia.

Lee also said the city government is making efforts to spread the benefits of tourism to the neighborhoods surrounding the filming locations.

"We will guide tours that are organized with information on nearby commercial districts around the filming locations so that we can revitalize the local economy," she said.

For fans such as Jeoung So-jin, 32, who was taking social media snapshots with friends at stairs to Jahamun Tunnel, a location where the Kim family walked through the pouring rain in the film, the sites offer a chance to revel in a sense of local pride.

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"Parasite has been all over the news," she said. "I'm full of patriotism and so proud."

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