South Korean film Parasite has made Oscar history. Yet despite acclaim in Hollywood, director Bong Joon-ho’s film received a mixed response at home, with some balking at its vicious satire. As Duncan Bartlett writes, Parasite is not the only intense cinematic drama to have tackled the dark side of life in urban Asia
There was a huge beam across Bong Joon-ho’s face when he became the first Asian to win Oscars for best film, best director, best original screenplay and best foreign film for Parasite. ‘I feel like I’ll wake up to find it’s all a dream. It all feels very surreal,’ he declared, before announcing that he was ‘going to drink until the next morning’.
Affable Mr Bong, 50, has become a celebrity and a hero in South Korea. What is more, his winning film has drawn international attention to serious social problems facing his country, as it focuses on inequality between rich and poor families. In doing so, it reveals the dreadful conditions endured by those living below the surface in Seoul.
South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, congratulated Bong on his Oscar success, saying that Parasite‘ has moved the hearts of a global audience with the most Korean of stories’. The president described the film as ‘joyful, yet sad’ and noted that it delivers a powerful social message.
Although Parasite is not overtly political, its director has a history of activism. Like most students of his generation, Bong was an anti-government, pro-democracy activist, involved in student protests. He has clearly retained his sense of social justice.
Asia cinema expert Tony Rayns explains in Sight and Sound magazine that ‘Bong’s films, up to and including Parasite [Gisaeng Chung], have always reflected both the Korea he grew up in and his generation’s deep misgivings about the way their country is run. Paramount is the sense of social inequality and class division which is, of course, not just confined to Korea’.
An undercurrent of resentment against an unequal society often informs Korean politics and inevitably influences some of its art. ‘The 1970s and 1980s were dominated by a struggle against authoritarian military rule with all its martial law provisions, censorship and its violent suppression of dissent,’ says Rayns.
Although South Korea is now a lively multi-party democracy, there are still frequent street protests. People often decide that marching behind a banner or yelling through a megaphone is the best way to influence the government. Demonstrations also take place against Japan and the United States, although these go largely unnoticed abroad.
A common domestic complaint is the immense power wielded by the oligarchical conglomerates, known as chaebol, including Hyundai and Samsung. The chairman of Samsung Group, Lee Kun-hee, is due to receive 470 billion won – US $400 million – in share dividends from last year, despite a sharp fall in the company’sprofits.
Allegations of drug-taking, corruption and malpractice swirl around the other senior figures at Samsung and a series of scandals has kept the company in the headlines. Yet Samsung and the chaebols retain their allure, partly because they offer jobs, especially to college graduates, who crave a stable income and the opportunity for career progression.
Unemployment blights the younger generation. People between the ages of 25 and 29 make up 21 per cent of all the unemployed in South Korea – the highest figure among the member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Resentment also affects those who have jobs. Government statistics show that workers went on strike more often than usual in 2019, losing 402,000 work days in total. According to the Korea Labour Institute, South Korea lost 43.2 work days per 1,000 workers to strikes, compared to only 3.1 days in the US and just 0.25 days in Japan.
Not that unequal
Yet South Korea’s economy is not just geared towards the enrichment of an elite, according to the journalist David Fickling. In a recent article for Bloomberg Opinion, he argued that ‘in truth, South Korea has done better than most other societies on earth in avoiding the inequality that so often plagues fast-growing economies. If there are losers from its economic model, they are more likely to be the young and the old – and women, who suffer from the rich world’s worst gender inequality – than the middle-aged characters who dominate the ensemble cast of Parasite.’
Fickling claims that when measured by the Gini coefficient, the most commonly used index of inequality, South Korea fares better than most European countries. He also suggests that ‘South Korea is east Asia’s most egalitarian society after tiny, poor Timor-Leste, according to the World Bank’s figures’.
Critics had developed a taste for intense dramas from Asia long before Paradise won its Oscars. A Japanese film called Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 for its unflinching view of child poverty and social exclusion in urban Japan. As with Parasite, its director drew remarkable performances from the cast, especially the child actors.
The Japanese film industry commissions many movies which expose social problems, such as school bullying or the mistreatment of women. Directors boldly offer their most challenging works to audiences at international film festivals. Many viewers may be shocked by stories which at odds with Japan’s polite and gentle image.
South Korea’s leaders are sometimes less tolerant of social criticism. Parasite’s director Bong Joon-ho was one of 10,000 filmmakers and artists included on a blacklist compiled by the culture minister during the previous Park Geun-hye administration.
The current president, however, distances himself from censorship. In a statement following the Oscars, Moon Jae-in promised to defend freedom of expression among South Korean filmmakers.
But in neighbouring China, censorship at the cinema has become rigid. The head of China’s National Film Bureau has decreed that movies ‘must have a clear ideological bottom line and cannot challenge the political system’. As a result, most recent Chinese films have taken an upbeat and patriotic tone, showing characters who succeed in sport, war and love.
In the last ten years, China has grown to become the second largest film market in the world. In 2019, the country took in nearly $9 billion at the box office – that’s more than the next six markets combined. However, in China it is becoming increasingly difficult to raise funds for films which expose the dark side of life.
For many centuries, storytellers from South Korea, Japan and China have drawn inspiration from each other’s tales. Today, the region faces common challenges. Many East Asian cities are under strain because of urbanisation. An economic malaise creates a chasm of wealth.
Politics influences the level of candour which filmmakers are prepared to take in showing such problems.
Yet directors have learned that audiences are prepared to empathise with characters who struggle on the margins. And the success of films such as Parasite and Shoplifters proves that critical acclaim can be earned when painful stories are told with integrity.