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Is Korea overreacting to 'Parasite' success?


A big banner bearing the photo of director Bong Joon-ho raising his Oscar trophy drapes a wall of a building in Yonsei University, his alma mater. Yonhap
A big banner bearing the photo of director Bong Joon-ho raising his Oscar trophy drapes a wall of a building in Yonsei University, his alma mater. Yonhap

By Oh Young-jin

I may sound, well, unpatriotic. But if that is the risk, I would take it for my own patriotic reasons.

I think we are overreacting to the success of "Parasite" at the recent Academy Awards. There has been much depressing news lately ― a tanking economy, rudderless politics and endless bickering in our society. So our native son, director Bong Joon-ho, making Oscar history, has every reason to scoop us all for a temporary euphoric journey to an alternative world, so to speak.

True, it is nothing less than a monumental affair that Bong's class struggle thriller (that is by Marxist definition and the universal scourge of inequality by Piketty's) won the award for the best original screenplay, best international feature, best director and the best picture ― an unprecedented achievement.

President Moon Jae-in applauds at the news of Bong winning at the Academy Awards. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in applauds at the news of Bong winning at the Academy Awards. Yonhap

It is Bong who calmed us down, when he said, "We don't write for our countries," after winning the screenplay award, the first of the quartet. We are getting it out of proportion, aren't we?

The Oscars are a U.S. festival in Hollywood that represents the world's biggest film market. Gaining recognition there is worth celebrating, but we are acting as if it proved we are the best in the world and altered the course of the nation.

It is one of those cases that belie a sense of insecurity we feel that needs a constant supply of assurances from others. Maybe it is a characteristic of a small country that relies on exports for its livelihood ― their items well-made enough for other countries' consumers to buy.

Bong made a conscious effort to stand out from this collective Korean mentality when he said in an interview last fall, "The Academy Awards are not an international film festival, they are very local."

I doubt that Bong would like to repeat this line, which I believe he used as kind of hedge against not doing well on the way to this week's awards ceremony. Now with an Oscar halo and a place almost secured in the world's pantheon of movie master directors, Bong would not mind whether it was local or international. He would be forgiven either way.

Director Bong and the cast of his film,
Director Bong and the cast of his film, "Parasite," take the stage to receive the best picture award during the Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles. Yonhap

It is time to look the gift horse in the mouth ― did the Academy know what it was doing when it gave the screenplay prize to "Parasite," the first for the foreign-language movie? Screenplays are supposed to be about conversations between actors, and doesn't it strike you as odd that none of the cast were recognized? In a different genre, Han Kang's novel, "The Vegetarian," translated by Britain's Deborah Smith, won the Booker Award but as international literature.

If its English subtitles were superb enough to win, they are in places different from the original. For example, Seoul National University, Korea's top university mentioned in the movie, translates into Oxford, the British university to help non-Korean audiences understand it better. You may call it a factual discrepancy. Bong encouraged the audiences to overcome a "one-inch barrier" referring to subtitles at the bottom of a screen so audiences can see a lot more of the actual film on the screen. But there may be some disappointment for those who do.

"Parasite" works on a clever combination of synesthetic allusions and visuals ― the reason for murder, a key subplot is odor and "banjiha," a squalid semi-basement apartment inhabited by the poor class is a main locus where the plot is conceived and hatched. Then, would the Bong movie have deserved the cinematography award more than the screenplay?

Bong's movies defy our notion that he is a Korean director and confirm that he is the most internationalized Korean director. Now with "Parasite" he has become more international than Korean. His 2013 science-fiction film "Snowpiercer was his first English-language film with a cast dominated by American and foreign actors and actresses.

His 2017 "Okja" about the friendship between a girl and her genetically altered superpig was made with a budget of $50 million from Netflix, a U.S. OTT streaming service media firm with global reach.

It is well accepted that he made "Parasite" from a Korean perspective and that his local, unique Korean viewpoint about social inequality put a spell on global audiences. But considering his international background, the other way around could be true: his view was already more global than Korean when he made "Parasite," which made "Parasite" what it is.

There is little to find fault with celebrating Bong's achievement, but it would be uncool to claim ownership of it and get nationalistic by acting as if the film were a new source of Korean pride. Regarding it as our gift for the world to enjoy is how we can put "Parasite" to our best use. It would help us grow more mature and become surer about ourselves.


Oh Young-jin (
foolsdie@gmail.com, foolsdie5@koreatimes.co.kr) is content director at The Korea Times.



A big banner bearing the photo of director Bong Joon-ho raising his Oscar trophy drapes a wall of a building in Yonsei University, his alma mater. Yonhap
A big banner bearing the photo of director Bong Joon-ho raising his Oscar trophy drapes a wall of a building in Yonsei University, his alma mater. Yonhap

By Oh Young-jin

I may sound, well, unpatriotic. But if that is the risk, I would take it for my own patriotic reasons.

I think we are overreacting to the success of "Parasite" at the recent Academy Awards. There has been much depressing news lately ― a tanking economy, rudderless politics and endless bickering in our society. So our native son, director Bong Joon-ho, making Oscar history, has every reason to scoop us all for a temporary euphoric journey to an alternative world, so to speak.

True, it is nothing less than a monumental affair that Bong's class struggle thriller (that is by Marxist definition and the universal scourge of inequality by Piketty's) won the award for the best original screenplay, best international feature, best director and the best picture ― an unprecedented achievement.

President Moon Jae-in applauds at the news of Bong winning at the Academy Awards. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in applauds at the news of Bong winning at the Academy Awards. Yonhap

It is Bong who calmed us down, when he said, "We don't write for our countries," after winning the screenplay award, the first of the quartet. We are getting it out of proportion, aren't we?

The Oscars are a U.S. festival in Hollywood that represents the world's biggest film market. Gaining recognition there is worth celebrating, but we are acting as if it proved we are the best in the world and altered the course of the nation.

It is one of those cases that belie a sense of insecurity we feel that needs a constant supply of assurances from others. Maybe it is a characteristic of a small country that relies on exports for its livelihood ― their items well-made enough for other countries' consumers to buy.

Bong made a conscious effort to stand out from this collective Korean mentality when he said in an interview last fall, "The Academy Awards are not an international film festival, they are very local."

I doubt that Bong would like to repeat this line, which I believe he used as kind of hedge against not doing well on the way to this week's awards ceremony. Now with an Oscar halo and a place almost secured in the world's pantheon of movie master directors, Bong would not mind whether it was local or international. He would be forgiven either way.

Director Bong and the cast of his film,
Director Bong and the cast of his film, "Parasite," take the stage to receive the best picture award during the Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles. Yonhap

It is time to look the gift horse in the mouth ― did the Academy know what it was doing when it gave the screenplay prize to "Parasite," the first for the foreign-language movie? Screenplays are supposed to be about conversations between actors, and doesn't it strike you as odd that none of the cast were recognized? In a different genre, Han Kang's novel, "The Vegetarian," translated by Britain's Deborah Smith, won the Booker Award but as international literature.

If its English subtitles were superb enough to win, they are in places different from the original. For example, Seoul National University, Korea's top university mentioned in the movie, translates into Oxford, the British university to help non-Korean audiences understand it better. You may call it a factual discrepancy. Bong encouraged the audiences to overcome a "one-inch barrier" referring to subtitles at the bottom of a screen so audiences can see a lot more of the actual film on the screen. But there may be some disappointment for those who do.

"Parasite" works on a clever combination of synesthetic allusions and visuals ― the reason for murder, a key subplot is odor and "banjiha," a squalid semi-basement apartment inhabited by the poor class is a main locus where the plot is conceived and hatched. Then, would the Bong movie have deserved the cinematography award more than the screenplay?

Bong's movies defy our notion that he is a Korean director and confirm that he is the most internationalized Korean director. Now with "Parasite" he has become more international than Korean. His 2013 science-fiction film "Snowpiercer was his first English-language film with a cast dominated by American and foreign actors and actresses.

His 2017 "Okja" about the friendship between a girl and her genetically altered superpig was made with a budget of $50 million from Netflix, a U.S. OTT streaming service media firm with global reach.

It is well accepted that he made "Parasite" from a Korean perspective and that his local, unique Korean viewpoint about social inequality put a spell on global audiences. But considering his international background, the other way around could be true: his view was already more global than Korean when he made "Parasite," which made "Parasite" what it is.

There is little to find fault with celebrating Bong's achievement, but it would be uncool to claim ownership of it and get nationalistic by acting as if the film were a new source of Korean pride. Regarding it as our gift for the world to enjoy is how we can put "Parasite" to our best use. It would help us grow more mature and become surer about ourselves.


Oh Young-jin (
foolsdie@gmail.com, foolsdie5@koreatimes.co.kr) is content director at The Korea Times.


Oh Young-jin foolsdie5@koreatimes.co.kr


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