Recent zombie movies or streaming dramas set in Korea, such as "Train to Busan" or the Netflix drama "Kingdom," have become popular by creating a metaphor of stench that communicates fear and insecurity over disposable lives — ones that must be excluded, and therefore unseen, for capitalism to continue its mission. Capitalism's hygienic sensitivity is extremely high; one simply cannot expect to sell products very well in filthy conditions. Unlike these or other American horror films such as Jordan Peele’s "Us" that only permit viewers to cinematically imagine today’s growing job insecurity worldwide through fantasy genre, this year’s Academy Award’s winner "Parasite" depicts the growing fear of the poor and the parasitic unfiltered.
Director Bong Joon-ho chooses not to resort to the recreation of dystopian spaces of either past or future in order to sweeten his social themes, and instead opts to directly film poor people’s neighborhoods that are littered with waste, human excrement and foul odors. Among nine films nominated for the Academy Awards’ Best Picture category this year, "Parasite" was one of only two films (very personal "Marriage Story" being the other) that was not set in the historical past.
Ever since his first feature film, "Barking Dogs Never Bite" (2000), Bong Joon-ho has been fascinated by the vacant spaces left behind by the frenzied pace of Korean modernization. The countryside is beyond repair, cities exhibit the monstrous destruction of ecological harmony and dark secrets often lurk in basements and rooftop spaces. Not even a moment of lamentation for vanishing traditions is possible. The spaces of the ruined landscape are filled with contaminated, slimy water ("The Host," 2006); lines of black ants cover the decayed body of a woman who is found in a golden harvest field ("Memories of Murder," 2003); the lush green of a golf course is unbelievably artificial ("Mother," 2009); and gigantic slaughterhouses exhibit rows of artificially-created monster pigs lined up to be made into bacon ("Okja," 2017). "Parasite," Bong’s seventh and latest feature film, also recreates drama in the dark cellars and stinky, infested underground apartments that have been blotted out in the official story of South Korea’s economic miracle.
"Parasite" found both commercial and critical success by focusing on a drama that depicts the growing gap between the haves and have nots, contrasting the “stinky rich” who reside in picture-perfect mansions and those who are just literally “stinky” and work in and around the house. It sold a little over 10 million admissions in South Korea (a country of 50 million people). Interestingly, however, "Parasite" is unusual from the perspective of blockbuster genre since it effectively avoids a happy ending. But Koreans are used to this ending where justice, as it best reflects the social reality today, remains severely compromised.
As explained above, many Korean blockbuster films tend to depict historical events and social themes, even though Korean recent history is filled with inglorious and inauspicious drama for Koreans. Despite the fact that modern-day massacres, wartime violence and colonial subjugations have punctured a hole into the Korean soul over the past century, Koreans have found a way to positively spin filmic narratives where a focus on empathy with the sacrifices of victims and fallen protagonists in a collective society remains a priority over a happy ending.
As both director Bong and his executive producer Miky Lee repeatedly mentioned during the Academy Awards ceremony, it is Korean moviegoers who have made the success of Korean cinema possible. Korean cinema was able to articulate its local and national particularities of Korea’s unique culture while making its bold commitment to aesthetic movements or cinematic expressions because of its loyal local fans. Gritty-themed films by Bong and Park Chan-wook, for instance, have been welcomed into South Korea’s movie theaters while illegal pirating is also largely frowned upon by Internet users. Despite boasting the world’s fastest Internet speed and the world’s highest smartphone user rate, South Koreans still love going to the ‘big screen.’ Currently only Iceland boasts a better movie-going rate per capita than South Korea in the world. Throughout the 2010s, South Korea recorded 4.3 movie-going rate per capita while that of the U.S. had dropped to a rate well below four.
Also, the overwhelming majority of Korean moviegoers voluntarily choose to watch Korean films over Hollywood’s. In the face of the 21st century challenge of digitization and globalization that has confronted all cinemas, the Korean film industry has cleared the hurdle by developing and incorporating indigenous technology for computer-generated images and modifying and appropriating Hollywood genres such as thrillers, disaster films, courtroom dramas, Westerns and comedies for its own blockbuster productions and releases. It has also adopted Hollywood’s wide release marketing strategies in recent years.
Action franchise blockbusters featuring climatic clichés and reboot imagery have come to dominate not only Hollywood, but also the Korean film industry. Korean filmmakers have teamed up with technicians and computer engineers, including visual effects supervisors and digital animators, and are seeking to open doors in the Chinese film industry. Bigger budget blockbusters in China and Korea mean heavier reliance on digital characters and motion captures, which presents favorable opportunities for the Korean film industry to find a niche market in Asian film industries.
Korean cinema is currently afloat, not simply thanks to the Hollywood-ization of its business praxis, but also due to the thematization of its historical traumas and current social issues. In the top tier of Korea’s theatrical box office today, it is not difficult to find local titles that deal with tumultuous Korean history or tough social themes right along with Marvel Studio’s superhero movies. "Parasite" just happens to be one of those movies.
Kyung Hyun Kim is Professor of East Asian Studies and the Founding Director of the Center for Critical Korean Studies at University of California, Irvine. He is the author of "Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era," and a co-producer of the award-winning feature films "The Housemaid” and “Never Forever."