South Korea revels in Oscar wins of ‘uniquely Korean’ film ‘Parasite’

Members of a film society at Yeonsei University in Seoul celebrate as they watch "Parasite" win top honors at the Academy Awards.
(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

Shin Kyung-chul’s humble rice store in a hilly Seoul neighborhood is a world away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

But between delivery runs on Monday, the 49-year-old watched a live broadcast of the 92nd Academy Awards with rapt attention, rooting for the film “Parasite” as if he’d been part of the crew. He’d seen Bong Joon Ho’s dark thriller — parts of which were filmed just over the hill from his store — four times.

Not only did he find it wickedly entertaining, but he also saw his life reflected in it — the disinfectant-spewing fumigation trucks of his childhood, the down-and-out neighborhood where he makes his rice deliveries in Seoul.

“The American Oscars, they don’t give that to just anybody,” a beaming Shin said Monday, waiting to make a delivery with his motorcycle idling, just hours after “Parasite” triumphed at the Academy Awards and made history as the first non-English-language film to win best picture. “It got over that wall.”

In South Korea, average moviegoers as well as film industry hands, politicians and the president celebrated Bong’s Oscar win Sunday as their own, the way a nation collectively cheers on and basks in the win of an Olympic athlete.

Producer Kwak Sin Ae, left, and director Bong Joon Ho pose in the press room Sunday at the Oscars after their best picture win.
(Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

It was a resounding victory for South Korea’s film industry, which dates back a century and has been getting recognition from European film festivals and audiences since as early as the 1980s but has struggled to make inroads in Hollywood. No South Korean film had ever been nominated for an Oscar before “Parasite” and “In the Absence” — the latter a documentary short that lost in its category.

That “Parasite” was the film to gain commercial success with American audiences and nab four honors at Hollywood’s biggest fete — for director, screenplay and international feature film, on top of best picture — was all the more welcomed because of how thoroughly Korean the film was. Unlike Bong’s two most recent features, “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” “Parasite” was wholly Korean in location, dialogue and funding — yet connected with audiences around the globe.

“‘Parasite’ has moved the hearts of people around the world with a most uniquely Korean story,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in a congratulatory message. “I am especially grateful to them for instilling pride and courage in our people.”

The Oscars and every detail of the ceremony — Bong’s remarks, the actors’ outfits, reactions from Hollywood stars in the room — dominated headlines in South Korea. “A splendid feat to go down in the history of Korean cinema,” film magazine Cine21 proclaimed. “Toppled the impregnable fortress of Hollywood,” a newspaper headline read. Television stations ran hourlong special programs on Bong Joon Ho on Monday evening following the Oscars broadcast.

Cast members on the set of "Parasite," which won four honors at the 92nd Academy Awards.
Cast members on the set of “Parasite,” which won four honors at the 92nd Academy Awards.

Gina Kim, a South Korean filmmaker and film professor at UCLA, said that although the Korean film industry had for years obsessively tried to cater to Hollywood, Bong’s film broke through without any deliberate attempts to target American audiences or studios.

“Now we see we can make things our way and tell our story, and it will resonate worldwide,” she said.

Kim said that, as much as “Parasite” was profoundly Korean in many ways, the chasm between rich and poor that’s central to the plot transcended languages and borders.

“Everyone around the world is acutely feeling class divisions, regardless of country,” she said. “Bong spun that out in a very Korean tenor but with such a universal emotion of rage. That really seems to have resonated.”

Bong noted in a backstage news conference after the film’s wins that his previous movie, “Okja,” had been a co-production between South Korea and the U.S., yet “Parasite” was gaining far broader acclaim.

“That’s making me think,” the director said, “perhaps the deeper I delve into things that are around me, the broader the story can become and the more appeal it can have to the international audience.”

Bong has long been a household name in South Korea. He began making feature-length films just as South Korea’s film industry was going through a renaissance in the early 2000s, with an influx of creative talent and deep-pocketed conglomerates taking an interest in funding them. His dark and stylish breakout feature, “Memories of Murder,” based on a real-life unsolved serial killer case, was released in 2003 and established him as a critically acclaimed and commercially successful auteur.

A scene from “Parasite,” whose central theme is the gulf between rich and poor.
(Neon / CJ Entertainment)

Kim Seonah, an associate professor of film at Seoul’s Dankook University who worked with Bong in his assistant-director days, said Bong’s Oscar triumph was a testament to the growth of South Korea’s film industry.

“It’s the result of his hard work and talent,” she said, “but also the fertile ground of the Korean movie industry that allowed him to bloom.”

Her aspiring-filmmaker students were responding ecstatically to the news Monday, like when star figure skater Kim Yuna won gold in the Olympics, she said.

Commentator Jake Kim wrote on Facebook that “Parasite” winning at the Oscars would broaden the horizons of a generation of Koreans.

“Just 10 years ago, if a film student said, ‘I’m going to get an Oscar,’ they would’ve been treated like a crazy person. But now, it became reasonable say, ‘Bong Joon-ho got it, so if we make a good film it could be possible,’” he wrote.

Throughout the day Monday, a stream of tourists and television news crews showed up at a hillside corner supermarket where some of the early scenes in “Parasite” were filmed.

Lee Jeong-sik, the market’s 79-year-old owner, said he and his wife knew next to nothing about movies and had never before watched an Academy Awards ceremony. On Monday, they watched the live broadcast, the picture grainy on their 8-inch television, at the behest of a reporter.

Before watching “Parasite” — they were sent free tickets — it had been several decades since they’d seen a movie. They were always too busy making a living, manning the store and, when those profits were lean, collecting boxes and other recyclables off the street for modest additional income.

Even so, the movie’s wins felt like his own, he said Monday.

“It’s world famous now,” he said. “I’m so excited and thrilled.”

His wife, Kim Kyung-soon, was also all smiles as she bagged two bottles of soju for a neighborhood regular.

“Business is good today,” she said.