Two weeks doesn’t seem like a very long time. You might think you can stick anything out for two weeks if you know it will definitely be over in 14 days, but what if you don’t know when or if it’ll end and 14 days turns into 28 with no sign it might not turn into 42? In some ways that might seem like a familiar situation at the present moment, but it’s one that comes to define the lives of an affluent upper-middle class family in Choi Yang-hyun’s pandemic allegory The Basement (지하실, Jihasil).
When the alert goes out that South Korea is under attack with a nuclear missile apparently on its way the Choi family dutifully obey the emergency text on their phone and take refuge in the basement intending to stay the advised two weeks until the radiation will have decreased to acceptable levels. Unfortunately, however, once down there they realise their preparations have not been thorough enough, the power is out and they’ve left the suitcase containing clothing and emergency supplies upstairs. With phone lines jammed, no radio reception, and no way of keeping in contact with the outside world they have no idea if the strike actually took place or if their friends and family members made it to safety.
Placed under such strain, it’s understandable that small grievances and tensions in the family are quick to arise. Wife Hayeon seems particularly irritated by her practically minded husband Dongbaek, describing him as “immature” and complaining that he’s never really put his family first preferring to spend his weekends playing golf with the boys. Not helping matters, Dongbaek sadly reflects that he “probably” won’t be able to go on that work jolly golfing in Thailand the following week which whatever way you look at it is not a primary concern in the present moment. She also complains that he made such a fuss buying all this expensive camping equipment that he hardly ever used but at least it’s paying off now during their accidental holiday in the dank and depressing basement of their well-appointed detached home in the suburbs of an area described as “Korea’s Silicon Valley”. Dongbaek meanwhile reflects that he’s glad they sold their Gangnam flat for a spacious house (even if they’re trapped in one room of it) because even if they’d probably have made a bundle on the housing market if this hadn’t happened, they’d be gonners as inner-city apartment dwellers.
Nevertheless, the first crisis occurs when the family begin hearing the sound of a neighbour frantically calling to them from outside apparently unable to reach her husband or son and looking for some kind of human support. Teenage daughter Jiseon wants to open the door, but her mother is conflicted and Dongbaek dead against it. The woman’s distress clues them in to the fact that something bad really has happened on the surface, but they’ve only so many resources and Dongbaek apparently doesn’t want to share while Jiseon can’t understand how he could be so heartless as to listen to someone screaming for help and not open his door.
He meanwhile is more invested in finding practical solutions, trying to solve the bathroom problem they neglected to think of previously while setting up a water still to catch moisture from the wooden ceiling beams, repeatedly making reference to his time in the army and disaster preparedness training. Yet the problem they can’t solve is the anxiety, how will they ever know if it’s really safe to come out especially as the radio, once it’s working, gives contradictory messages either suggesting everything’s fine or that North Korea has occupied Seoul. Practically speaking, they can’t stay down here forever, there’s only so much food and some of them are already beginning to experience ill-effects from staying so long in the dark and damp. Sooner or later they’ll have to overcome their growing sense of anxiety for the unknown outside and brave the new reality. A claustrophobic chamber drama starring only three actors with occasional outside voices, Choi’s pandemic adjacent drama explores how one family attempt to come to terms with impending apocalypse while combatting boredom in equal measure to fear and despair but discovers that togetherness and endurance are perhaps the key skills for survival.
The Basement streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.
International trailer (English subtitles)