Bong Joon-ho holds the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film, Best Directing, and Best Picture for Parasite at the Governors Ball after the Oscars. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Bagging four of the six awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture, was a good way for the team behind South Korean film Parasite to end the year’s awards cycle, one that involved many firsts for South Korea’s film industry. The film directed by Bong Joon-ho had been picking up awards at all major international film festivals this past year.
In the 92-year history of the Academy Awards, it was the first time a foreign language film had won the Best Picture award. Parasite also became the first South Korean film to ever win an Oscar. After the film’s win, social media platforms in South Korea and around the world erupted with congratulatory messages, expressing pride and joy, including tweets from President Moon Jae-in’s office. “Parasite has moved the hearts of people around the world with a most uniquely Korean story,” said a statement released by President Moon’s office.
— The Office of President Moon Jae-in (@TheBlueHouseENG) February 10, 2020
The dark satirical comedy highlights class and socio-economic disparities prevalent everywhere in the world within the framework of a distinctly Korean setting. For many South Koreans, it is an exaggerated depiction of everyday life. According to Bloomberg news, six per cent of Seoul's residents live in the semi-basement apartments depicted in the film, called banjiha in Korean. In the film, the family of Kim Ki-woo, one of the protagonists, represents the common man’s everyday struggles in a deeply hierarchical South Korean society, with fixed class structures that can seem impossible to scale.
"The film brings satirical commentary on (the) coexisting of (the) rich and poor (in) modern-day Korea," Jongsuk Thomas Nam, managing director, Network of Asian Fantastic Films (NAFF) at Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, told indianexpress.com. Nam has been associated with film festivals in South Korea for over three decades in various capacities. "With the current administration's policies, the lives of everyday folk aren't getting any easier and the film remarks on that with (the) sly tactics (used by) Ki-woo's family."
South Korea is a deeply image-conscious nation and the depictions of desperate poverty and socio-economic challenges in the film, projected on an international platform could not have been easy to accept for some. However, according to Nam, the domestic reception of the film has generally been positive since its release. "A few right-wing folks did not appreciate Bong's sardonic humor towards the privileged, but (the film) was definitely one of Bong's popular titles if not most popular."
The film provided a temporary reprieve from the chaos of domestic politics in South Korea, allowing political parties and their news media mouthpieces to temporarily set aside their differences and come together to celebrate Parasite's remarkable win. The Chosun Ilbo, one of South Korea’s largest and conservative newspapers, ran with the headline, “Can you believe that ‘Parasite’ won the Academy best picture? It rewrote the Academy’s 92-year-old history.”
Veteran producer Jonathan Hyong-joon Kim, 59, who has served two terms as the Chairman of the Korean Film Producers’ Association and has spent 30 years working in various capacities in the Korean film industry, told indianexpress.com: “Many people thought it was depressing but (that) it was a good film. Depressing (because) it actually reflects the naked truth about our society, I guess.”
For Kim, the film represents the realities of life, and he rejects any suggestion that the portrayal of poverty, desperation and squalor projects negative images of a South Korea that has rapidly developed in the last three decades. “Koreans do not care about that any more. We are a more grown-up society now. No country has only the rich.”
Will the Oscar win push more Korean or Asian filmmakers to seek validation from the West, then? Nam says it isn’t necessary unless commercial values are being considered. “The US is still the biggest media market and the recognition from it is needed to validate Asian films and filmmakers’ entries into Hollywood.”
For Kim, these awards just mean more people in the western world are discovering the best of Asian cinema. “I think now the west is slowly finding out that there are other parts of the world with people who have their own interesting stories that can also affect their lives.”
— Twitter Korea (@TwitterKorea) February 10, 2020
It's the basement smell, says the character of Kim Da-hye coldly, that never leaves the bodies and clothes of those who reside in its subterranean depths, a statement that becomes the overarching theme of the film. “The smell won’t go away till we leave this place.” Class structures and socio-economic disparities are so severe that it is impossible for the Kim family to truly escape it. It is a story that feels familiar no matter where one watches it in the world.