While they may seem like very different genres, what do the dramas Reply 1988 and Squid Game have in common? Apart from being renowned outside of South Korea for their unflinching representation of the country, they all have ties to one particular neighbourhood: Ssangmun-dong.
Located in the far northern part of Seoul close to the mountains, Ssangmun-dong is in the Dobong-gu district, which has had a reputation over the years as an undesirable neighbourhood and one of the less developed areas of Seoul. Many families still live in dingy, non-renovated homes – and half-basement homes (banjiha) you see in the film Parasite (2019) – and real estate rentals in Ssangmun-dong show a proliferation of cheap studios targeting those who work nearby or artists.
Proud to be Ssangmun-dong in Squid Game
In Squid Game we learn that Gi-Hun and Sang-woo are childhood friends from Ssangmun-dong – a fact that Gi-hun announces proudly.
When Gi-hun is seen in his home turf, he can usually be found walking by Baegun Market (Samyang-ro 154-gil) where he would visit the fish stall run by Sang-woo’s mother. He also runs into Il-Nam, the old gentleman who’s contestant 001, in the same neighbourhood at the Ssangmun Uicheon branch of the convenience store chain CU (Uicheon-ro 39-gil) where they both share a bottle of soju in the rain. The store was apparently chosen for the filming because few cars come around, and it feels like a store in the countryside. The half-basement home where Gi-hun lived is also right near the store.
One of the reasons that it was set in Ssangmun-dong was because Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk also grew up in this neighbourhood. Hwang wanted to reflect the competitive society we live in today, reflecting how “losers” struggle through the challenges of life and yet get left behind. The names of most of the male characters were in fact named after real people he knew.
In fact, Hwang’s life is reflected in the characters: he was raised by a poor single mother in Ssangmun-dong like Gi-hun, and he was also a graduate of the prestigious Seoul National University like Sang-woo, so he had to live up to high expectations all his life. Before Squid Game, he was living the life of Gi-hun: unable to make any money, he was supported financially by his mother.
The optimism of Ssangmun-dong in Reply 1988
One of South Korea’s most successful dramas is Reply 1988 (2015), which showcased a pastel-hued optimism Seoul in 1988 – the year when the country hosted the Olympics. The drama follows a close-knit group of friends, four boys and a girl, who grew up in Ssangmun-dong. The nostalgic series is a feel-good drama of a classic Korean neighbourhood where you have teen romance and family struggles peppered with colourful ajummas and appas, and a lot of traditional Korean food.
It may come as a surprise, but most of the drama wasn’t actually filmed in Ssangmun-dong, but in an actual film set in another district. Still, there were some scenes filmed in Ssangmun-dong, like the schools the teens attended. In the drama, Deok-seon attends Ssangmun Girls’ High School and boys go to Ssangmun High School. While the schools are fictitious, the actual models are assumed to be Jungeui Girls’ High School and Sunduck High School. You can also feel the in vibe of Reply 1988‘s nostalgia in the quiet residential area outside Ssangmun Station (Exit 4 to Jungeui Girls’ High School).
The “Brazil Tteok-bokki” store frequented by the friends was actually a real snack bar that existed until the late 1990s in front of Jeongeui Girls’ School. You can still get a taste of childhood nostalgia at the many tiny eateries in the area, except these days, the go-to dish for students is “cheese rice” which is fried rice topped with chopped seaweed and cheese.
While residents here are working poor (some of the families live in half-basements), Reply 1988 isn’t about the a toxic juxtaposition between the haves and have-nots – it shows a close-knit neighbourhood where everyone cares for one another. Rather than being a comment on the wealth gaps, it seems to lament about the good old days when the community spirit was strong.
Parasite‘s banjiha denizens
Oscar-winning film Parasite helped raise awareness of the thousands of these dwellings across South Korea, including their high concentration in Seoul, depicting a huge wealth gap between the haves and have-nots. While the wealthy Parks live in a villa, the poor Kims lived in a banjiha. In Squid Game the protagonist Gi-hun lives in one, as does Deok-seon’s family in Reply 1988.
While banjiha (half-basements) are present in most Seoul neighbourhoods and home to thousands of people, they didn’t just pop up overnight as cheap rental options. After the Korean War, apartments were mandated by the government to come with a basement as bunkers in case of war. While they were illegal to be rented out, the housing crisis in the 1980s changed that, and today you can find many singles living in these cramped, dark spaces for their cheap rent.
So far, two of the most popular Korean dramas have been set in Ssangmun-dong. While the neighbhourhood has been largely left undeveloped over the years, its status may change as more and more Korean dramas and films continue to showcase it to international audiences. Who knows if it’ll become the next tourism hotbed that can rival some of the most popular tourist spots in downtown Seoul?