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'Badly overlooked' Korean cinema thrust into spotlight

February 11, 2020

While cinema aficionados have long acclaimed the work of South Korean directors, South Korean films have been glossed over at the global level. Bong Joon-ho's fourfold Oscar win for "Parasite" marks a watershed change.

South Korean director Bong Joon Ho
Image: Getty Images/A. Sussman

When Parasite director Bong Joon-ho accepted the Oscar for best picture at Sunday's 92nd Academy Awards in Los Angeles, he instantly shone a new spotlight on South Korea's internationally overlooked cinema. Those who know the country's film industry say it's about time.

Bong was called to the stage at the Dolby Theater four times during the event. In addition to best film, Parasite also won the Oscars for best director, best original screenplay (co-written by Bong) and best international feature film. It fended off strong competition for the best picture win, including from the World War I epic 1917, which many had expected to take the award.

Parasite made movie history by becoming the first non-English language film to win the best picture Oscar. It also marked the first time since 1955 that the winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or also took the top film award at the Oscars.

The team behind 'Parasite' came onstage to accept the Oscar for best picture
The team behind 'Parasite' came onstage to accept the Oscar for best picture, a historic first for a non-English language filmImage: Reuters/M. Anzuoni

Patrick Brzeski, who covers Korean cinema for The Hollywood Reporter, described Bong's win as "landmark in many respects."

"Prior to this year, no Korean film had ever even been nominated for an Oscar in any category," he told DW. "Critics and film-lovers long considered this to be a scandal, considering the Korean film industry's relentless output of innovative and unforgettable cinema over the past 20-plus years."

'Oversight corrected'

The Oscar honors for Parasite corrected an "embarrassing oversight," Brzeski said, adding that Hollywood's choice to award the film best picture also carried broader significance.

"Given the ongoing outcry over the lack of diversity and representation in Hollywood and at the Oscars, the fact that Parasite, a film entirely in the Korean language and starring an all-Korean cast whom most Americans don't know, won best picture is a powerfully symbolic moment," the film reporter said.

"Setting aside issues of identity, it also means that the Oscars are now a much less parochial affair," he added.

While a handful of foreign language films have received best picture nods in prior years, Brzeski believes Parasite has finally shown that, "Movies from anywhere, in any language, are now capable of winning Hollywood's top honor. They are no longer relegated to the best international film category."

Read more: Oscars: White and male nominees continue to dominate

A dark critical comedy

Parasite is a social satire revolving around two families that live at opposite ends of South Korea's class system. Bong uses his sense of humor and suspense to depict their interactions.

According to Brzeski, while the quality of Korean cinema has been an open secret for more than two decades, Parasite managed to strike a chord with a wider audience.

The film captures some of the universal problems in modern society, notably the widening gap between rich and poor. At the same time, Bong is a skilled director who manages to make weighty issues and themes entertaining. He is "effortlessly pivoting between various classic genres: the caper, the thriller, black comedy, horror, family drama and so on," Brzeski said.

A filmstill showing two actors in Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite'
Bong's 'Parasite' defies genre categories as it delivers dark humor and social criticismImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Koch Film

National elation

David Tizzard, an assistant professor at Seoul Women's University and a social commentator, said Bong's victory has "triggered an outpouring of national euphoria" in South Korea.

"Like in Western countries when the national team is playing in a tournament like the football World Cup, South Koreans have a shared collective joy and pain in cultural events like this, so the entire country was united behind Parasite," he told DW. "They may have differences of opinion on the government, on North Korea on the state of the economy, but there were absolutely no dissenting views on this."

Tizzard agrees that Korean cinema has been "badly overlooked" by the rest of the world for too long.

"[Parasite] has had huge critical acclaim at home, and now it has the same acclaim on the international stage, so I think this is a case of the rest of the world catching up with what is going on here and seeing the quality that exists in Korean cinema," he said.

Distributors of South Korean films are also likely to receive a boost from Bong's victory. With a budget of just $11 million (€10 million; 13 billion South Korean won), Parasite has already made more than $170 million globally. "Film distributors should be encouraged to take more risks on Korean and international content," Brzeski said.

An early breakthrough for Korean cinema came in 2003, with director Park Chan-wook's action-thriller Oldboy, which was later remade by American director Spike Lee. Nonetheless, Brzeski believes Parasite has established a new precedent for more South Korean directors, both male and female, such as Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, Kim Bora, Lim Sun-ae and Lee Kyoung-mi, to make significant profits in international markets. 

Overcoming subtitles

Whether a Korean-language film screens to an American audience or a German one, all films distributed to foreign-language viewers face the perennial question of accessibility.

Brzeski thinks Bong explained it best last month in his Golden Globe acceptance speech for best foreign-language film: "Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films," the director said.

Read more: Film dubbing as high art in Germany

However, the film reporter still cautions against sweeping statements: "I don't think you can really use Bong to generalize about Korean filmmaking overall, beyond saying that Korea makes excellent movies, and perhaps a chunk of the world is belatedly waking up to that fact."

Speaking to reporters after accepting his Oscars, Bong returned to his January comment about subtitles, saying, "People were already overcoming this barrier through streaming services, YouTube videos and social media. In the environment we currently live in, I think we are all connected."

"So I think naturally we will come to the day when [whether it is] a foreign-language film or not does not really matter, and a foreign-language film winning this won't be much of an issue later on, hopefully," he added.

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea