The Year We Lived in Someone Else's House

From 'Parasite' to 'Jojo Rabbit', why was squatting a recurring theme in the films of 2019?

Last Black Man

A handful of films in 2019 showed heightened anxiety regarding the idea of squatting. Storylines have protagonists living in a house that’s not their own, but what exactly does this show about the current state of homes and property ownership? While the world in which these characters live is in no way a utopia, the houses of these films serve as the only way out — herein lies the gut-wrenching fear of hierarchies, as they’re presented through one’s living space.

Paul Downs Colaizzo’s debut feature, Brittany Runs a Marathon, hides this anxiety within a subplot. When Brittany (Jillian Bell) grows tired of her roommate’s rude behavior, she decides it’s time to move out. There’s one huge problem: Brittany has no money. She’s a millennial in New York City, too busy filling the stereotypical needs of endless social media binges and clubbing. Brittany tries her hand at the job market, finally earning a dog-sitting position at a wealthy couple’s house. After she figures out that the owners have pretty much abandoned the house, she moves in.

The house squatting in Brittany Runs a Marathon speaks to both the flighty spending habits of the American millennial and anxieties towards the steep cost of living, especially as a young person with college debt and a lower-paying job. Brittany’s inability to pay for a new apartment, much less a fully-furnished house, is a highly relatable issue for younger generations.

While it’s only a subplot in that film, Bong Joon-ho’s widely celebrated Parasite is devoted to wealth and the dreadful costs of living. Though Parasite’s tale of class warfare is mainly between the Kims and their rich employers, the Parks, it equally involves ex-housekeeper Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee) and her husband Geun-se (Myeong-hoon Park). As the Kim family begins to infiltrate and adapt to the Park family’s rich way of life, they find an estranged Geun-se taking shelter in the Parks’ hidden bunker. Moon-gwang, who has come to retrieve her husband from the basement after being replaced by the Kims, reveals that he’s been living under the Parks for the entire four years in the house. Under the shroud of the Parks’ mansion, Geun-se is protected from debt collectors, participating in the workforce, and the cost of living.

Brittany Runs a Marathon isn’t in the same thrilling vein of Parasite, but both are pretty horrifying. The horror really comes into play when characters are forced to cope with the hopelessness of their finances and its effect on their living spaces. Brittany has no way out, which is scary, until she can seek solace in someone else’s house, and inherently, their life. Both the Kim family and Geun-se are perturbed by their penniless lives, but everything becomes much easier in the Park household. Geun-se even sends morse code messages to Mr. Park through the light fixtures, sending his “respect” to the incredibly wealthy patriarch of the house.

Generational wealth and classism come into play in the visually-dazzling The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a collaboration between director Joe Talbot and actor/writer Jimmie Fails. Fails, who plays himself in the film, is obsessed with the Victorian home his grandfather built in San Francisco. Though he believes the beams, archways, wooden floors, and painted sidings belong to him, a wealthier couple owns the home. When they must move out, the house sits, unsold and empty, on the lot.

Jimmie moves in, almost as an instinct. Like the squatters of Parasite and Brittany Runs a Marathon, he is prancing on a thought-dormant territory, running upstairs and shouting out of windows in a house that isn’t his. None of the listed films are horror films, none loaded with jump scares, but when the actual owners of these houses return home, it’s hard not to gasp. It’s horrifying to watch these scenes, in which characters are discovered and tossed out like a bag of trash. What do they do after they’re seen? In the words of Kim daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), they run like cockroaches under a light.

Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is a film with only slight ties to this bunch, as a political satire set during the Holocaust. Jojo Rabbit is about young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a boy training to be a Nazi, his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), and Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teenager seeking refuge in the walls next to his bedroom. But it still falls in line with these anxieties of being seen and of trying to forge an identity through someone else’s house. Elsa hides in the house, but she also attempts to blend into Jojo’s Aryan-looking family when the authorities arrive.

Living underneath the confines of another creates a warped sense of intimacy. In Parasite, Ki-woo can’t help but crack into his student-turned-girlfriend Da-hye’s (Ji-so Jung) diaries. He hops on her bed with her journal as if he, himself, were a rich teenage girl. When Ki-Jung cracks down on her brother’s ignorant invasion of privacy, he claims it’ll only benefit their relationship. 

As Elsa and Jojo of Jojo Rabbit grow as companions in their quarters, they share a similar kind of connection. The pair grow to know each other through the relics they hang on walls, the journals they scribble emotions into, and the literature left sitting on desks. The sibling-like bond between Elsa and Jojo is not only contextualized by their conversations and arguments but also painted in the quarters they share. 

But this sense of shared intimacy is flawed — this is someone else’s house. These belongings belong to someone else, and these memories are written in another’s handwriting. Elsa discovers Jojo’s anti-semitic comic book, and she also figures out that he’s been lying to her through his forged letters meant to be written from her boyfriend. In Parasite, Ki-woo later announces that reading the diaries will help him fulfill his long-term plan to marry Da-hye, and therefore actually infiltrate the Park Family. Ki-woo isn’t trying to be a better boyfriend. He’s trying to become a Park.

Ultimately, the protagonists of these films attempt to build some sort of identity within the walls of another. The Last Black Man of San Francisco finds Jimmie at a turning point in his life when he’s crushed to learn that the house was never actually built by his grandfather. For years, he’s left his identity within the confines of a meaningless piece of architecture. Without a place to pinpoint as home, nor an identity to tag along with it, Jimmie leaves the Victorian painted lady and sets out on a small boat in the ocean. 

In Parasite, a few of the squatters leave their identities in the confined quarters of the house. Moon-gwang and Geun-se are killed as they try to escape. After Ki-jung is pronounced the oxymoronic rich member of the Kim family, she is just as soon trapped within the walls of their household. Her luxurious style fits in too-well with the Park family and their house, claims her brother. Entirely unknown to her employers, she has been the one controlling almost every aspect of their house. She dies next to Mr. Park — but which one died as the true owner of the house?

These films show the loss of identity that comes with the loss of ownership. By the end of each film — Parasite, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Jojo Rabbit, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco — the squatters step out of the house that is the “other” in their life. They may not know, like, or accept where they’re living, but they’ve removed themselves from some separate identity. Anxiety towards architecturally structured hierarchies may still exist, but the characters must move out in order to start anew.

Student and writer of film. Frequently enticed by mockumentaries.