Lessons from ‘Parasite’
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Korean film “Parasite” snatching up four major wins, including the top honor of Best Picture — the first non-English-language film to do so — is a miracle. The British journal The Times in 1951 observed that a democracy in South Korea was like wishing for a rose to blossom from a trash bin. South Korea looked hopeless — not to mention its dreams of democratization — in its shambles amid the war. It was utterly poor and uneducated, without technology, capital or human resources.
“Parasite” proved the world wrong once again. South Korea has defied cynicism and bloomed into a democracy. The world has again turned its attention to the unexpected source of such power from a small, Far Eastern country. Director Bong Joon-ho’s cinematic art has been recognized through the Oscar on Best Director.
The Best Picture may have been awarded for a clever portrayal of the universal theme of the conflict between the haves and the have-nots. No black comedy in such a ludicrous setting has so bluntly bared the crude gap in the social class and inequalities in contemporary world.
The K-power in entertainment, backed by rich capital and talents, also takes credit. Lee Mi-kyung, the executive producer behind Parasite and other films of director Bong Joon-ho, was the last to speak on the Oscar night to celebrate the new status of Korean cinema. She mentioned her brother Lee Jae-hyun, chairman of food and entertainment conglomerate CJ Group, twice on the podium when the entire crew went onstage to share the glory of the top prize.
CJ has invested incessantly in money-losing entertainment business. Its two related companies are publicly traded. Despite the high risk in the small non-English market, CJ has helped to keep up the K-wave, Hallyu.
Korea achieved what no other Asian countries did — not even the Japanese or Chinese — in the heart of the Hollywood, thanks to the gradual buildup of K-wave. Korean dramas and pop songs have become familiar all across the world. BTS has been invited to perform at all three major American music awards, including Billboard’s. Koreans back home may not have been so aware or appreciative.
One gets the feel of the K-power only when experiencing it abroad. Actor Lee Seo-jin in 2009 came to Aomori, a rural area near to the northern tip of Japan, for a fan meeting. Female fans in their 40s and 50s came from everywhere. I watched a K-pop concert in Macao in 2016. The performers shone on the stage while the audience of 20,000 fully packed the arena.
“Parasite” has won top awards in Europe and North America. The movie has been showing in over 1,000 cinemas across America. Once ridiculed as a basket case, Korea has not only matured as a democracy but has also become a hub for soft power. Koreans were able to dominate the Academy Awards largely thanks to its economic advance. The country was finally able to afford democracy after modernization. Soft power could sprout on such riches. We now proudly introduce ourselves coming from Korea, all thanks to the recognitions our nationals and companies have gained on the international stage.
The movie portrayed the shadows of industrialization and its wealth. It gave lessons, no answers. Lesson one was that a society cannot co-exist peacefully if capitalism is preserved in the form of winner-take-all. Second, envy and hatred cannot solve inequalities in the society. Politics must answer these questions. Both the right and left should sit down and give them a deep thought. Growth through competition that fuels inequalities — or populist income-led growth — cannot solve discrepancies in the society.
In his acceptance speech for Best Director, Bong paid tribute to the big names nominated in the category, including Martin Scorsese, to whom he made special salute. “If the Academy allows, I would like to get a Texas chain saw, split the Oscars trophy into five and share it with all of you.” The thought of “sharing” may have been the biggest message he wished to tell through the landmark movie. The message also applies to policymakers who have pushed lopsided economic policies.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 12, Page 30