How Did South Korean Movie “Parasite” Become a Global Phenomenon?

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Parasite (2019)

Over a month after the South Korean movie “Parasite” swept the Oscars, people are still talking (and writing!) about it. That has left me wondering: Of all the cinematic masterpieces to have come out of South Korea over the last two decades, why was “Parasite” the one to receive such widespread attention, winning four Oscars including Best Picture — the first foreign language film to nab the award in the Academy’s 92-year history — and over 170 other awards (including top honors at Cannes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Writers Guild Awards, the BAFTAs, the César Awards, etc.)?

Perhaps Director Bong Joon-ho’s previous films like “Okja” (2017) or “The Host” (2006) — both featuring grotesque CGI-animated monsters — were a bit harder for audiences to relate to. Perhaps “Memories of Murder” (2003), another one of Bong’s films, came out too early for international audiences to fully take notice. Timing really is everything, and with the globalization of culture and the growing discontent over Hollywood’s lack of diversity, perhaps the time was ripe for a well-crafted non-English language film to dominate the festival circuit and take the top prize at the Academy Awards.

Memories of Murder (2003)

In the past, Korean films that have done well at international film festivals have generally turned out to be box-office flops in South Korea. Im Kwon-taek’s “Chihwaseon,” Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis” and “Secret Sunshine,” Park Chan-wook’s “Old Boy,” and Kim Ki-duk’s “Samaritan Girl” and “Pieta” were all awarded honors at Cannes, Venice, or Berlin, but they were box-office failures in Korea, perhaps because many local audiences perceived these films to be too violent, sexual, or just plain difficult to watch.

On the other hand, most Korean films that have been hugely successful in South Korea have not been popular with international audiences. For example, Choi Dong-hoon’s “The Thieves,” Lee Byeong-heon’s (not to be confused with the actor Lee Byung-hun) “Extreme Job,” Yoon Je-kyoon’s “Ode to My Father,” and Lee Hwan-kyung’s “Miracle in Cell №7” are some of the highest-grossing Korean films of all time, but they haven’t received much international acclaim.

So then what made “Parasite” resonate so well with Korean and non-Korean audiences alike?

While the setting, characters, and dialogue are all Korean, the movie grapples with the universal theme of class warfare, the eternal struggle between the haves and the have-nots that exists in every country. Combine this with the film’s clever plot twists, unique storytelling, and timely relevance in an era of rising concerns over capitalism and inequality, and you have the perfect recipe for a buzzworthy film with global appeal.

And yet although the original Korean dialogue was undoubtedly brilliant, all of it could’ve easily gotten lost in translation had the English subtitles not been so masterfully done. While accepting his award for best original screenplay at the Writers Guild Awards, Bong himself said, “The script is written in a foreign language, but to know that you have loved the film and understood the structure of the story and the nuance of our dialogue is amazing.” If English-speaking audiences understood the nuances of the film’s dialogue, it was largely because the subtitles were written with a clear understanding of Western culture. There were multiple moments during the film when I thought the jokes would fall flat and wondered, “How can something so Korean be translated into English for Western viewers?” But then in that same instant, subtitles would flash on the screen, and people around me would burst out laughing. Even something as simple as translating KakaoTalk as WhatsApp or Seoul National University as Oxford probably helped the dialogue resonate more with Western audiences. And sure enough, it turns out that the English subtitles were created by an American film critic and translator living in Korea named Darcy Paquet, who worked in close collaboration with Director Bong.

Of course, the popularity of “Parasite” was also boosted by well-orchestrated plans to promote the movie both in Korea and abroad. CJ Entertainment — whose vice chair Miky Lee was the film’s executive producer and gave the acceptance speech for Best Picture at the Oscars — reportedly spent about 10 billion won ($8.45 million) to market the film. That apparently paid off, as the movie nabbed the top prize at Cannes and received dozens of accolades at numerous other film festivals, and eventually won four Academy Awards. Celebrities, movie critics and film aficionados who saw “Parasite” early on kept raving about it, sparking interest in the film via word of mouth and social media (the #BongHive is very real). When I attended the New York Film Festival last year, someone who had managed to watch the New York premiere of “Parasite” went around telling other attendees that the film was a must-watch, which convinced me to see the movie a few weeks later.

But is “Parasite” the best Korean film I’ve ever seen? No, though it’s definitely near the top of my list. I personally liked Bong’s “Memories of Murder” better (though I might be in the minority). And Kwak Jae-yong’s “The Classic” and Lee Joon-ik’s “The King and the Clown” are still my two favorite Korean films. I’d probably add “Old Boy” too if it wasn’t so unapologetically violent and Kim Ki-duk’s “Time” if it wasn’t so eerily disturbing. But if “Parasite” is what it takes to get more people to watch Korean films, to make award shows like the Oscars become more inclusive, and to help millions of ethnic Koreans (and by extension, people of Asian descent) feel represented and proud of their Asian identity, then heck, I’m not complaining.

The King and the Clown (2005) poster
The Classic (2003)

This article also appears on www.reginakim.com.

Comms director by day, occasional freelance writer by night. I like to write about Korean culture & the Asian American experience. Writings at reginakim.com.

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