Bong Joon-ho’s acclaim at the Academy Awards means ‘Hallyuwood’ has hit the big time – but questions hang over Korean films’ faltering diversity
By Andrew Salmon – Asia Times
South Korean writer and director Bong Joon-ho lifted four Oscars and made history twice for his film Parasite at the 92nd Academy Awards, held on Sunday night at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles.
The awards were for Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature, Best Director and Best Picture.
Before his black class comedy Parasite landed its formidable haul, no foreign-language film had ever won Best Picture – and no Korean film had ever even been nominated for an Oscar.
At the podium, Bong also delivered the top quote of the evening: “I am ready to drink until tomorrow morning!”
Earlier he had drawn howls from Entertainment Tonight interviewers when he candidly confessed, on the red carpet, to being “a fucking weirdo.”
Bong’s wins were lauded by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who referred to last year’s anniversary of the centennial of Korean film. “Taking home four Oscars, after winning the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, can be attributed to the accumulated efforts of every Korean film maker over the past 100 years,” Moon wrote, in a message sent to foreign reporters. Korea’s first-ever film, The Righteous Revenge was made and screened in 1919.
Even so, one film critic warned that the outlook for the Korean film industry is not nearly as bright as it may look from afar. Film production and distribution is in the hands of major companies that churn out formula pictures, rather than the quirky and creative film-making that Parasite represents.
A paradigm-smashing win
Pre-ceremony predictions had this year’s Oscars as a largely two-horse race between Parasite and director Sam Mendes’ World War I epic 1917. The latter was particularly noted for its remarkable cinematography – shot in (almost) a single take. Parasite was championed not just for its remarkable craftsmanship, but also for its up-to-the-minute focus on global middle-class angst. 1917 was the conventional choice; Parasite ignited the most buzz.
Parasite won the Palme D’Or – the top prize at Cannes – last year but success on the European festival circuit has never been an indicator of success at the stuffier, Anglophone Academy Awards. Bong’s work subsequently won a slew of American and British awards in the run-up to the Oscars, but Parasite is subtitled, and no foreign-language film had previously won an Oscar for Best Picture.
Parasite was also nominated for, but failed to lift, the Best Editing and Best Production Design awards.
Hallyuwood leaps from music to movies
The film’s Oscar success is a landmark moment for hallyu – “The Korean Wave” of pop and cultural products, which had not previously seen its success at the pinnacle of the Western world leap beyond music. “Hallyuwood” emerged at the end of the 1990s, benefiting from three key factors.
Firstly, after massive people-power protests, Korea democratized in 1987, ending over four decades of authoritarian rule. Censorship was lifted and social mores liberalized, encouraging greater artistic freedoms.
Secondly, democratization enabled international travel. Koreans flooded abroad in the 1990s, both as tourists and as students, bringing home a wealth of new experiences, skills and ideas.
Thirdly, the East Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 cleared much dead wood from the entertainment sector, providing a space for new-wave entertainment personalities and companies to fill the vacuum.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Korean soap operas and boy- and girl-bands surged across East Asia – Japan, China, Southeast Asia – leveraging both new cable networks and digital distribution.
The movement did not charm the West until Psy’s breakout hit Gangnam Style – complete with a catchy refrain, zany video and lyrics mocking the playground of Korea’s nouveau riche – hit global airwaves in 2012. Psy proved a one-hit wonder, but retains his following in Korea, and was followed by BTS. The seven lads, with their clean-cut images, superbly choreographed dance numbers, self-penned hits and sincerity won a giant international following.
But prior to Parasite, no Korean film had won over mass Western eyes the way Gangnam Style won over mass Western ears.
However, Korean writer-directors had enjoyed major wins in European festivals. Park Chan-woo’s noir revenge thriller Oldboy (2003) won Cannes’ Grand Prix, while Kim Ki-duk’s savage morality tale Pieta (2012), bagged Venice’s Golden Lion
Bong had won the eyes of Korean audiences with Memories of Murder (2003), a film about the hunt for a serial killer that also subtly critiqued the military dictatorships of the 1980s, and The Host (2006) about a dysfunctional family taking on a man-eating monster in Seoul’s Han River.
His directorial brilliance was rewarded with two Hollywood projects, the sci-fi thriller and social critique Snowpiercer (2013) and the whimsical fantasy Okja (2017).
However, there is little doubt that Parasite’s success on Sunday night tops all prior triumphs.
Big biz overshadows Indie film
While Bong’s wins will doubtlessly lead to many champagne and soju glasses being clinked across Korea, one local film insider issued some words of warning.
Nemo Kim, a film critic and lecturer at Soonchunhyang University, told Asia Times of her “shock and pleasant surprise” at Parasite’s success, but said she was “not 100% happy.”
“We have a very serious problem with the monopoly of screens being held by two-three chaebol companies,” she said.
Chaebol are the family-run conglomerates that dominate the Korean economy. They are lauded, on the one hand, for the excellence of their products, services and brands, but chastised for their abuse of smaller companies, refusal to respect the law and misgovernance.
Parasite was funded by CJ E&M, a dominant force in not just the production, but also the distribution of Korean films, via its chain of theaters CJ CGV.
The same is true for Lotte Cultureworks, which both produces and distributes film, via its Lotte Cinema chain. The third company in the trio is Joongang Media group, which distributes via Megabox cinemas. This market dominance makes it extremely difficult for up-and-coming directors and arthouse films to win audiences as the major companies focus on formula films and blockbusters.
“The screen quota system is not being implemented, basically, so Parasite is a film about the rich and poor but it is feeding off the suffering of the poor to feed the fat cat,” said Kim, who was until last year general secretary of the Korean Film Critics’ Association.
“The fact that someone like Bong was able to make this film is because he was trained at the beginning of his career in the indie movie scene,” Kim said. “That scene was small, and is smaller now as the influence of the chaebol film companies is getting even bigger. There is no viable indie scene here, so many critics are worried will not be any more Bongs – he could be the last generation in the industry.”
Bong did not speak after Parasite won the Best Picture Oscar, but CJ Group’s Vice Chairperson Miky Lee did.
She may have had some of the criticism that has come CJ’s way in mind when she told the Oscar audience: “I really, really want to thank our Korean film audience, who has been really supporting all our movies and never hesitated to give us straightforward opinions…”
Against this backdrop, Moon vowed to support Korean film in his congratulatory message to Bong and the cast and crew of Parasite. “The government will stand with those in the film industry so that they can stretch their imagination to the fullest and make movies free from worries,” the president wrote.
The trailer for Bong’s monster movie The Host. Some say monstrous business forces are at work in Korea’s film industry. Video: YouTube