When "Parasite" director Bong Joon Ho received the Oscar for best film at the 92nd Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday, he put the spotlight on South Korean cinema, which has rarely been seen internationally. It's time, say South Korean film industry experts.
Bong was called up to the Dolby Theater stage four times during the event. In addition to the main prize, "Parasite" won the Oscar for Best Director, the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that Bong co-wrote, and the Oscar for Best International Film. "Parasite" thus prevailed against strong competition. Many had expected that the world war epic "1917" would receive the Oscar for best film. "Parasite" made film history by being the first non-English-language film to win the Oscar for Best Film. It was also the first time since 1955 that the Golden Palm winner received the most important Oscar award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Oscar for "Parasite" is a milestone
Bong's victory is "a milestone in many ways," says Patrick Brzeski, who reports on Korean cinema for "The Hollywood Reporter". "A Korean film has never been nominated for an Oscar in any category before this year," he says. "Critics and film lovers have long considered this to be a scandal, especially when you consider that the Korean film industry has tirelessly produced innovative and unforgettable cinema over the past 20 years." The Oscar for "Parasite" corrected an "embarrassing oversight", says Brzeski. "Given the ongoing outcry over lack of diversity and representation in Hollywood and at the Oscars, the fact that 'Parasite', which was filmed entirely in Korean and is cast with Korean actors that most Americans don't know, is the Oscar for best film won, a strong symbolic moment, "said Brzeski.
A few non-English-language films have received an Oscar in recent years. But Brzeski believes that "Parasite" has finally shown that "Movies from anywhere, in any language, are now able to earn Hollywood's highest honor. They are no longer being categorized as the best international movies." Bong's film is a social satire that revolves around two families living on opposite ends of the South Korean class system. He uses his sense of humor and tension to show how they interact. According to Brzeski, the quality of South Korean cinema has been an open secret for more than two decades, but "Parasite" has managed to appeal to a wider audience. The film captures fundamental problems of modern societies, especially the growing gap between rich and poor. At the same time, Bong is a skilful director who manages to bring difficult subjects to the screen in an entertaining way. He moves effortlessly between different classic genres, such as the crook comedy, the thriller, the black comedy, the horror and the family drama.
Bong's victory "triggered an outbreak of national euphoria," said David Tizzard, orientalist and assistant professor at Seoul Women's University. "As in western countries, when the national team runs into a soccer World Cup, the South Koreans share joy and suffering at cultural events like this, so the whole country was united behind 'parasite'," he says. "They may have different opinions about the government, North Korea and the economy, but there was absolutely no disagreement." Tizzard also believes that South Korean cinema has been overlooked by the rest of the world for too long. "'Parasite' has received great recognition from critics at home, and now it has the same recognition on the international stage. I think the rest of the world is now becoming aware of what is going on and seeing the quality that is in the Korean cinema exists, "he says.
Distributors of South Korean films are also likely to profit from Bong's victory. With a budget of just $ 11 million, the film has grossed more than $ 170 million worldwide. "This should encourage film distributors to take more risks on Korean and international content," said Brzeski. South Korean cinema had an early breakthrough in 2003 with the action thriller "Oldboy" by director Park Chan-wook. The film was later re-filmed by the American director Spike Lee. Nevertheless, Brzeski believes that "Parasite" is a good example for South Korean directors such as Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, Kim Bora, Lim Sun-ae and Lee Kyoung-mi. It shows how you can be successful internationally. Nevertheless, Brzeski warns against general statements: "I don't think that Bong can be equated with Korean filmmaking – apart from the fact that Korea makes excellent films and maybe part of the world only became aware of this fact late."
Subtitles are no longer a hurdle
Films in foreign languages face the recurring question of accessibility. Brzeski said Bong best explained this in January in his Golden Globe acceptance speech for the best foreign language film: "Once you have overcome the two and a half centimeter hurdle of subtitles, you can get to know so many other amazing films," said the Director at that time. After the Academy Awards, Bong withdrew his comment on subtitles from reporters: "People have already overcome this barrier through streaming services, YouTube videos and social media. In today's world, we are all connected." And further: "That's why I think that the day will come when it won't be a big deal anymore if a foreign language film wins."