SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - South Korean soft power might reach an all-time high soon thanks to "Parasite", director Bong Joon-ho's history-making film.
The dark comedy with a chilling message about economic inequality took home four Oscars at the 92nd annual Academy Awards February 9, including the ceremony's most prestigious accolade, Best Picture. It's the first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture title, and the first South Korean film to win any Academy Award at all.
"I was really surprised," said Kyung Hyun Kim, a professor of visual studies at the University of California, Irvine. "I thought [Parasite] had zero chance of winning ... I think it's big, and I think more chances and opportunities might now be given to filmmakers who have a vision."
Bong quickly went viral online as he repeatedly walked up to the stage to give acceptance speeches, at one point remarking that he would "drink until the next day" and later making the figurines on two of his Oscars trophies kiss as he walked the red carpet.
Now, the combination of Bong's internet-friendly personality and the massive success of his film has some experts wondering whether South Korean cinema is about to take off with even greater international recognition.
"It's the frosting on the cake — a real beautiful moment — and I feel that there is going to be more attention placed on Korean cinema now," Kim said. "But it's also important to remember that Bong Joon-ho is no Cinderella filmmaker. His critical acclaim has been 25 years in the making, and that goes for the rest of Korean cinema, too."
As it is, South Korea has capped previous milestones in its K-pop and K-beauty industries: Boy band BTS is thought to rake in some $3.6 billion for the nation's economy ever year, while the Korean beauty market reached an estimated worth of $13.1 billion in 2018.
The export value for South Korea's film industry is much smaller — just $41.6 million in 2018, according to the research department of Statista, a business data portal — but that doesn't mean it can't change.
"I know that my book on Korean cinema that came out eight years ago has suddenly started selling better on Amazon," Kim told VOA. "I am optimistic about the prospect of Korean cinema in the future for sure. And even though the economy isn't doing well, I think Parasite is an especially positive sign for Korea's artisan cinema."
From Persecution to Power
South Korea struggled through a dark period for thought-provoking, highly critical films like Parasite in recent years. Under former President Park Geun-hye — who was impeached and replaced with President Moon Jae-in in 2017 — directors like Bong were blacklisted for the political messages buried in their films.
Now, Bong is widely celebrated by the South Korean government as the nation's latest success story, regardless of the fact that Parasite critically highlights the stark inequalities between the country's rich and poor. As it turns out, Seoul's fresh combination of democratic values and art cinema might have been a recipe for elevated soft power, and one other nations such as China might come to envy.
"Korea was in a dictatorship and it's no coincidence that as Korea kind of came out of that and into a democracy, that's when the Korean film industry flourished. So, if China's looking at Korea then I think there needs to be political changes before you can see the film industry flourish," Jason Bechervaise, a Korean film expert who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Bong, told VOA. "I think Korea's neighbors in the region will be looking at Korea in envy and they'll be trying to replicate that success. But this hasn't happened overnight, and there have been significant changes over the years that enabled this to happen."
However, Jihoon Kim, an associate professor of cinema and media studies at Chungang University in Seoul, isn't as optimistic that South Korea be able to replicate "Parasite fever" and continue to increase its cinematic soft power.
"I'm proud of the the success as a Korean citizen and as a professional devoted to studying Korean cinema, but at the same time, I think Parasite's massive success is an exceptional case," he said. "I don't think that level of success will repeat over and over again for most Korean films."
Kim called Parasite a "remarkable film," but said that its success came from a combination of other factors. For example, winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the highest prize, set the film down a path toward fame. However, Kim said Parasite also used "good professional strategists" to campaign for Best Picture ahead of the Academy Awards — plus Bong himself added to the buzz by becoming an unintentional internet meme of sorts.
"The Parasite phenomenon and Bong Joon-ho's celebrity status are based on the rise of a new, social-media-oriented audience and a new taste for artistic film. It's very connected to social media," he said. "People began sharing his interviews and his comments online, and interest in the film has now been elevated into a fandom of Bong Joon-ho users on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, et cetera."
For now, it's hard to tell whether Parasite is a milestone for the Korean Wave — known as "hallyu" — or a popular counter to it.
"Bong Joon-ho and his counterparts are, in many ways, anti-hallyu. Yes, they cast hallyu stars, but they are not like k-dramas, which are these sugar-coated pills," Kyun Hyun Kim said. "These are films that are trying to upset and sometimes shock viewers with really difficult social messages. They make you think of the present-day social ills. That's not where K-pop is ... They're related, but it's hard to say there is overlap."
To date, Parasite has grossed more than $168 million worldwide, and theaters around Seoul are beginning to re-screen it in light of its record-breaking Oscar wins.
"Korean cinema has been selling out in the film festival circuit for over a decade now. Cinephiles and fans of international cinema already knew," Kyung Hyun Kim said. "But I think it has now gotten to the point where [casual movie-goers] understand: South Korea has great films out there."