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'Parasite' marks a breakthrough for South Korean cinema

Film's unprecedented international success raises hopes of Oscars triumph

SEOUL -- Bong Joon-ho's highly acclaimed dark comedy "Parasite" has achieved unprecedented international success since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last May, where it became the first Korean-language film to win the coveted Palme d'Or prize.

On Feb. 2, "Parasite" picked up two major awards at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards in London. Fans are hoping it will have another big night at the Oscars in Los Angeles this Sunday.

Bong's seventh feature film secured six nominations in the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards, including ones for best picture, best director and best international feature.

"Parasite" has built up significant momentum since its launch in Seoul a few days after the triumph in Cannes, accompanied by a wave of media hysteria over Bong and Song Kang-ho, the film's lead actor, who returned from the festival to a rapturous reception at Incheon International Airport from a wall of photographers and journalists.

The film began dominating local news coverage while television programs competed to produce content about Bong. "Parasite" had its international market debut in France on June 5 and earned $11.9 million in the country. But it has generated the most headlines in the U.S., the most crucial territory for new films ahead of the awards season.

Top: A still from "Parasite." (Courtesy of CJ ENM Corporation, Barunson E&A) Bottom: Bong, fourth from right, poses with actor Song Kang-Ho, far left, and other "Parasite" cast members in Cannes, France. (Getty Images)

Launched in North America at the Toronto, Telluride and New York film festivals, "Parasite" benefited from strong word-of-mouth recommendations and Bong's infectious personality.

In October, the film achieved the highest theater average for a non-English language feature on its opening weekend after amassing $384,216 from three cinemas. News of its success flooded social media channels, encouraging Neon, its U.S. distributor, to open it on more screens.

"Parasite" won the best motion picture -- foreign language title at the U.S. Golden Globe Awards and became the first non-English language film to win best cast in a motion picture at the U.S. Screen Actors Guild Awards. It also won the top prizes at the Editing and Art Director guilds and it brought home best original screenplay and best film not in the English language at the BAFTAs. It has surpassed $160 million in global box office sales.

The film follows two families, one extremely affluent and the other very poor, exposing class divisions that are not unique to South Korea. Bringing together substance, humor and innovative storytelling, "Parasite" is markedly more original than standard Hollywood fare.

The widespread recognition won by the film marks a remarkable change in the international fortunes of South Korean cinema after none of its works secured a single Oscar nomination in the first 90 years of the awards. This year, aside from "Parasite," the powerful documentary "In the Absence" directed by Yi Seung-jun, which examines South Korea's 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, also got a nomination.

It is no coincidence that it is Bong who is leading South Korean cinema to new heights. His films are emblematic of the industry's best output, with many being released at significant moments for the industry.

His feature debut "Barking Dogs Never Bite" came out in 2000. Although the social satire was Bong's first and only box office disaster, it came at a time when directors and producers were being given more autonomy as the so-called "new Korean cinema" was born. All of his major Korean directorial rivals, with the exceptions of Park Chan-wook and Na Hong-jin, made their debuts between 1996 and 2000.

Like Park and fellow director Kim Jee-woon, Bong approached social issues differently from his predecessors, placing more emphasis on experimenting with genre. Changes in the industry in the 1990s that ushered in the "planned film" -- a production system that puts more emphasis on planning -- gave these filmmakers more creative control and bore further fruit.

Film financing also saw significant changes during this decade as the chaebol, the country's large family-led conglomerates, injected significant cash into the industry. New opportunities in film education, such as postgraduate programs at the Korean Academy of Film Arts, provided filmmakers like Bong with a training ground in which to learn their craft.

Director Kim Jee-woon and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger promote their 2013 film "The Last Stand" in Seoul. Like Bong, Kim has sought out audiences beyond South Korea.    © AP

Bong's widely admired "Memories of Murder," set in the 1980s, was released the same year as Park's "Oldboy," Kim's "A Tale of Two Sisters," Jang Joon-hwan's "Save the Green Planet" and Im Sang-soo's "A Good Lawyer's Wife."

Bong is well-versed in world cinema and has been influenced by renowned directors such as Alfred Hitchcock. His "Mother" (2009) is an ingenious spin on the Norman Bates/mother relationship from Hitchcock's iconic slasher film "Psycho."

Bong's monster film "The Host" (2006) is a compelling example of a localized blockbuster. Unlike film industries in many countries, South Korean filmmakers have sought to emulate the Hollywood blockbuster formula while tailoring it to local audiences. This has proved a successful strategy and a key factor in the industry's retention of a 50% local market share.

Bong's sci-fi blockbuster "Snowpiercer" (2013), his first English-language film, hit screens in the same year as Park's "Stoker" and Kim's "The Last Stand." Funded by a South Korean studio, the timing was significant, coming as the local film industry looked to overseas markets to secure growth, principally from China, Southeast Asia and North America.

Bong, seated at left, is joined by cast members of the South Korean/American sci-fi thriller "Snowpiercer" at a press conference in Seoul in 2013.   © AP

South Korea boasts the fifth-biggest film industry in the world, with 226.7 million tickets sold in 2019, but further domestic revenue growth looks difficult without ticket price rises. With relatively low ticket prices, South Koreans see an average of 4.4 films per year, among the world's highest filmgoing rates.

"Okja" (2017) underscored how Bong is at the forefront of changes in the industry. The film was Netflix's first major Korean production before opening an office in Seoul. With two English-language projects garnering critical affection on the global stage, Bong was in an enviable position ahead of the launch of "Parasite," with a high international profile and a tangible appetite among cinephiles.

Coming as the industry celebrated its centenary, the Palm d'Or felt like a celebration gift. However, the success of "Parasite" also highlights how reliant the industry is on its established directors. As local studios seek to exert greater creative control, it may be difficult for younger filmmakers to replicate Bong's success.

His generation emerged from a unique set of circumstances. Born in the 1960s, he and his peers went to university in South Korea's politically tumultuous 1980s and entered the film industry as it underwent widespread changes in the following decade.

"Parasite" demonstrates how far South Korean cinema has come, and any successes in the Oscars will rightly be celebrated as a triumph for the industry. The challenge will be how to take it further.

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