Director Bong Joon-ho didn’t write Parasite’s Academy Award-winning screenplay to be representative of all of South Korea, as he made clear in his acceptance speech. But the movie’s four Oscar wins, including an unprecedented Best Picture victory for a non-English film, are nonetheless making waves in Bong’s home country, where the news has been met with a wave of media coverage, Twitter jokes, and congratulations from President Moon Jae-in.“I am proud of director Bong Joon Ho, the actors and crew. I am especially grateful to them for instilling pride and courage in our people as we come together to weather difficulties,” he wrote in a statement. “Parasite has moved the hearts of people around the world with a most uniquely Korean story.”
Critics, including Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times, have pointed out that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences needs Parasite more than Parasite needs it, and Bong was already a giant of South Korean cinema long before the Parasite “situation,” as he called his unexpected victory lap in a post-Oscars press conference with South Korean media. Buoyed by its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the Palme d’Or, Parasite was already a hit in the country, selling one million tickets within two months of its release in theaters. The Oscars win still came as a surprise, with prominent South Korean film critic Lee Dong-jin posting a statement on his blog apologizing for his “bizarre scream,” which could be heard following Jane Fonda’s Best Picture announcement in the broadcast he co-hosted on TV Chosun. “I’m happy to have been proven an idiot, incapable of predicting who would win despite my eleven live broadcasts analyzing the Oscars,” he wrote, having predicted instead that 1917 would win for both Best Picture and Best Director.
But in South Korea and elsewhere overseas, Parasite’s win says more about the Academy than it does about Parasite itself. On Sunday the phrase 미국놈들 was briefly trending on Korean Twitter. It roughly translates to “those American blighters,” though the accompanying tweets were cheeky rather than seriously condemnatory. (The same phrase is deployed by North Korean state media in a very different context.) The tweets convey a lack of respect for the Academy Awards as an institution and an ambivalence towards Parasite itself, but some still rejoiced over the fact that a South Korean film has shaken up the Oscars. Actor Lee Sun-kyun, who played the father of the wealthy Park family in the film, said in a post-Oscars press conference with South Korean journalists that he saw the victory not so much as South Korean film crossing the line to the Academy, but as the Academy venturing outwards.
At the same conference, Bong also tempered his now-famous Golden Globes comment about the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” standing between U.S. audiences and a wider world of foreign language cinema. “Many of the barriers had already begun to weaken,” he said, acknowledging how YouTube, Twitter and other streaming services have connected the world and pointing to the work of those who had come before him. Some of these compatriots, including Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, and Lee Joon-dong, the producer of Burning—which was nominated for the top prize at Cannes in 2008—publicly congratulated Bong on Parasite’s victory. Lee also spoke expectantly about greater openness towards South Korean cinema in the U.S.
Among those accepting the award for Best Picture on Sunday was Parasite executive producer Miky Lee, also known as Lee Mi-kyung, the vice chair of the CJ Group, which owns Parasite distributor CJ ENM and a popular chain of movie theaters. Since she’s also a member of Samsung’s founding clan—the brother Lee thanked in her speech is likely Samsung heir apparent Jay Y. Lee, who was arrested for bribery and embezzlement in 2017—her speech raised a few eyebrows, according to some reports in the South Korean media, where many perceive CJ ENM and other conglomerates’ monopoly on entertainment as unhealthy for film diversity. However, Lee has also campaigned aggressively to promote South Korean entertainment overseas, and was blacklisted at one point in 2015, along with thousands of other artists, including Parasite’s own Song Kang-ho and Bong Joon-ho, for left-leaning politics and criticizing the government.
While the reactions in South Korea may be mixed, Parasite’s Oscars triumph may have a long-lasting impact on outbound film production and distribution strategy there: Members of the industry are already talking of creating a “second Bong Joon-ho.”