Korea Chair Explains - Why Parasite’s big win at the Oscars is a game changer


By Young-in Lee

Parasite (2019), a satirical masterpiece directed by South Korean helmer Bong Joon-ho, became the first non-English language film awarded the Best Picture in the 92 years of history of the Oscars. The film also won three other major awards including Best Director for Bong, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film. The critically lauded film has been sweeping international awards since its premier and winning the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, including Golden Globes and BAFTAs, but also achieved a remarkable market success for a subtitled piece, currently ranked the sixth highest foreign language film of all-time at the US domestic box office. The win is, however, not a mere surprise or an exception but referred to as a ‘Game Changer.’

What does the win signify in the world politics of the cinema industry?

This is a response from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (AMPAS) which has long been criticised for its conservative white male dominant exclusiveness. The triggering point was the 2015 awards when the nominees were predominantly white and a boycott has been rallied with the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. As a response, AMPAS started to invite a large number of new members from diverse groups including women and non-white professionals. As an ‘inclusive’ gesture, Moonlight (2017) became the first all-black cast and the first LGBTQ film to receive the Best Picture award in Oscars history, regardless of the wrong envelop delivery mishap. But just a year ago, the ‘fortress’ proved again its US centric world view by awarding the Best Picture to white saviour drama Green Book (2018) instead of Roma (2018) by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, which was a shoo-in as predicted by a majority of critics.

However, the win by Parasite reveals Hollywood’s new determination to be part of an ‘international’ circuit rather than what Bong once called ‘very local.’ The long-debated ‘inclusive’ now goes further than the studio empire of Hollywood and becomes a global conversation. It is envisaged as a globalisation of the world’s most influential ‘local market’, and Parasite is expected to be a global reference of the new paradigm, not only for Korean cinema but also for the world cinema of ‘the others’, propelled by the second and the third successors outside of the fortress.

How does this influence South Korea’s soft power?

It is not the first instance of a major Korean popular culture success in the US. BTS, a South Korean boy band, has won big at the American Music Awards 2019 and topped the Billboard chart with three number one songs. The growing presence of K-pop in the American market has been significant for the past years, yet it was seen as ‘youth pop culture’ or ‘a part of cultural varieties’ rather than a mainstream discussion, evidenced by BTS being left out from the Grammy Awards. The Oscars’ win paves the way to elevate South Korea’s soft power to another level, beyond a minor cultural product factory for ‘youth culture’ or ‘pop cult’ to a major cultural powerhouse and emitter into the world.

Parasite will be a watershed shifting the soft power discourse orbiting around K-pop towards cinema and other cultural domains, which deserve much larger attention given its size of the industry and the worldwide acclaim received in the past years. The South Korean government, who has been at the forefront of the K-wave expansion, is expected to develop a new strategy in the international promotion of Korean culture as a follow-up plan. As a start, President Moon Jae-in tweeted immediately after the Oscars and thanked Bong for giving pride and courage to Korean people, alluding to a ‘national win.’ The historic victory of Parasite shows that a cultural product is not just a product but can be a real game changer.

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