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Behind 'Parasite' success is Korean film industry playing catch-up

Entertainment executive Miky Lee has been driving production since end of censorship

| South Korea
A still from "Parasite." (Courtesy of NEON and CJ Entertainment)

When South Korea achieved its latest cultural triumph on Sunday, as Parasite became the first non-English-language film to win the Academy Award for best picture, credit justifiably went to the film's satirical commentary on capitalism and director Bong Joon Ho's genre-bending delivery.

Behind the successful comic thriller, however, are a woman masterminding South Korea's entertainment industry and filmmakers playing catch-up after years of censorship.

Miky Lee, 61, delighted the Oscars audience when she gave her onstage remarks after the film's best picture win. "I really, really, really want to thank our Korean film audience, our moviegoers, who have been really supporting our movies and never hesitated to give us straightforward opinions," she said.

Heir to the CJ Group family-run conglomerate, which is involved in everything from logistics to food and film, Lee is also South Korea's most valuable cultural ambassador. Since 1998, she has headed CJ Group's entertainment and media division, CJ E&M.

Along with her siblings, she inherited the country's leading food company and turned it into the biggest Korean pop culture exporter within two decades.

Director Bong Joon Ho poses with the Oscars for "Parasite" in Los Angeles on Feb. 9.   © Reuters

Obsessed with Hollywood movies, Lee, granddaughter of Samsung's founder, wanted to broaden Korea's barren cinema landscape with American content. In 1995, she persuaded CJ Group to invest $300 million in DreamWorks, the nascent American animation studio that later produced popular franchises like Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon.

This secured international content, but Korea's cinema infrastructure was still lacking, so Lee and her brother, Lee Jay-hyun, built South Korea's first multiplex; their cinema chain now operates at 455 locations worldwide.

Finally, Lee moved into encouraging domestic filmmakers. In 2000, she launched CJ Entertainment, which soon became the country's biggest film production company. CJ first financed director Park Chan-wook's Joint Security Area, his first blockbuster, and kick-started a new wave of Korean cinema that is now attracting attention overseas. CJ also financed four of Bong's movies, hitting the Oscar jackpot with Parasite.

Miky Lee accepts the award for best picture for "Parasite" on Feb. 9: Lee is also South Korea's most valuable cultural ambassador.   © AP

Lee was not alone in promoting Korean cinema, but all government measures to boost the local film industry were largely ineffective while it retained a tight grip on freedom of expression and tried to impose screen quotas.

It was not until 1996 that the Constitutional Court ruled that film censorship was unconstitutional and without this emergent liberty, Korean filmmaking would not have flourished.

Kim Soo-Yong, a retired Korean director, said that the country's film censorship had delayed the advance of Korean cinema for 30-50 years. China's struggling film industry is a testament to repercussion of state censorship: as the Communist Party imposes stricter censors, Chinese filmmakers often have to recycle safe plots or resort to animal stories to bypass content control.

Korea's Motion Picture Law, first introduced in 1966, has also been revised numerous times over the years to impose a quota system for how many and how long Korean films must stay on cinema screens.

The law's initial approach to limiting imported films and boosting domestic production proved to be counterproductive: local quota quickies flooded the market, leaving Korean cinema in decline while other industries took off. Some distributors even ignored the quota because imported films were simply more profitable.

By the 1990s, trade liberalization allowed hundreds of films to be imported to Korea every year while the screen quota supported domestic productions and thus cultural exchange. During the 1998 financial crisis, President Kim Dae-Jung's administration decided to invest in local talent to shape Korean cinema into a competitive business product. The budget allocation to culture industries was increased by more than a hundredfold.

A free market without state-led censorship, along with collaborative efforts between the conglomerates and the government, prompted a renaissance of Korean cinema.

A still from "Joint Security Area": a free market without state-led censorship prompted a renaissance of Korean cinema.   © Reuters

Talented filmmakers like Bong, Park and Lee Chang-dong have shocked international cinema since the early 2000s, carving a unique space for Korean horror and thrillers. But popular genres are finding favor too: not just Parasite, but Lee Byeong-heon's low-budget action comedy Extreme Job, the second biggest hit in Korean film history. The movie adaptation of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 sparked a heated conversation on the country's sexism, a taboo topic.

Korean cinema still needs to find its footing at home amid its newfound international recognition. Admission figures for domestic films are in decline, especially for independent and art house movies. Conglomerates like Lotte and CJ are a paradox: these media giants were criticized for discriminating against smaller players and controlling the distribution market, but they also provide the resources to sustain and accelerate the industry. The conglomerates are also the only ones who can potentially rival Disney's box office dominance domestically in Korea.

CJ E&M's market share in Korea has already shrunk drastically because of Disney and Sony blockbusters like Aladdin and Spider-Man. Yet Parasite's sweeping victory at the Oscars has paved the way for Korean cinema's ascension to the global stage, instilling a great sense of national pride back home.

Parasite's historic success may not only expand international markets, but also encourage Korean moviegoers to rally behind their domestic productions again.

Daphne K. Lee is a journalist based in Taipei and New York City. She mainly writes about human rights, film and culture. Her work has appeared in Goldthread, Popula, and The News Lens.

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