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South Korea's 'Parasite' celebrations tiptoe around brutal message

Oscar win highlights challenges President Moon faces in tackling disparities

Park So-dam and Choi Woo-shik perform in "Parasite." (Photo courtesy of NEON and CJ Entertainment)

SEOUL -- In a message congratulating the makers of "Parasite" for winning four Academy Awards, South Korean President Moon Jae-in described the genre-bending film as "the most Korean story."

Moon expressed joy that this tale of two disparate families captured the hearts of moviegoers around the world. But he stopped short of explaining just what made the movie such a hit in his country, and why it resonated with international audiences in a way no other South Korean film ever has.

The core themes of "Parasite" -- inequality and an increasingly rigid class divide between a rich elite and the majority -- dovetail with the main policy challenges Moon faces as president.

The liberal president came to office with a plan to create jobs, redistribute wealth and develop a fair competitive environment that would weaken the power of the nation's conglomerates, or chaebol.

Moon and others celebrating the film's unprecedented success generally have avoided mentioning the disparities that inspired director Bong Joon-ho to make the movie.

Also among those congratulating Bong was K-pop sensation BTS. The boy band posted an enthusiastic social media message that translates roughly as "really really really really congratulations so so much."

Some point to Bong and BTS as torchbearers for Korean culture overseas. At first glance, the polished boy band and the director of violent, dark comedies have little in common beyond their nationality, but both have found global audiences by attempting to speak honestly about problems South Korean society would rather keep quiet.

BTS members have inspired youth worldwide with their frank discussion of depression and other issues plaguing young people in South Korea and abroad, while the theme of working-class frustration in "Parasite" has struck a chord across the world.

The tone in the immediate aftermath of the Oscars victory was one of rejoicing, with moviegoers and analysts calling "Parasite" a step forward for the country. Many have celebrated the boost to South Korea's growing soft power.

"This shows the world that South Korean movies and cultural content -- not only smartphones, cars and televisions -- are the world's best," the Chosun Ilbo newspaper wrote in an editorial.

"China and Japan won Academy Awards before us, but not even they have achieved this," the conservative paper said. "South Korea's global brand is rising. We await the second and third comings of Bong Joon-ho."

South Korea has the highest proportion of seniors living in poverty among OECD members. (Photo by Jean Chung) 

But the structure of South Korea's film industry imposes a hard road to success for aspiring filmmakers, in the same way that other sectors of the country's economy -- dominated by chaebol -- leave small and upstart companies little room to operate.

The country's major cinema chains are owned by corporate production houses that put their own films on most screens, making it hard for smaller works to reach theaters. "Parasite" was produced by CJ ENM, the largest player in South Korean film production and distribution.

"The talent of auteur filmmakers like Bong can only be developed and nurtured in an indie film setting, not in a chaebol-driven blockbuster setting," said Nemo Kim, a film critic and professor at Soonchunhyang University in Seoul.

"Many in the Korean film industry feel that the success of 'Parasite' probably won't help the catastrophic monopoly of screens by chaebol movie companies in Korea, a situation that is literally killing off the Korean indie film scene," Kim said.

Moon has made efforts to chip away at the chaebol's hegemony, allocating state funds to assist small and midsized enterprises. He also has worked to boost the country's struggling middle and working classes through various measures intended to increase household incomes.

Some analysts decry how the response to the success of "Parasite" has been nearly all celebration, with comparatively little reflection.

"The fact that the movie is about poverty hardly seems important anymore," Yonsei University professor Cho Mun-young said. "Even though this movie was released, many poor people are still close to death."

Along with the domestic discussion, another question is whether the film's achievements will spur change in how the country promotes itself overseas.

South Korea differs starkly from the postcard vision the nation likes to project abroad. Seoul is an intense, hard-drinking city distinct from the fantasy presented in television dramas that give many international audiences their first glimpse of the capital.

The Seoul city government has released information showing foreign fans of the movie how they can visit some of the ramshackle filming locations, including the concrete staircase the characters use to flee near the film's climax.

Against this backdrop, the minor opposition Party for Democracy and Peace held a news conference on Feb. 10. After congratulating the makers of the movie, spokesperson Park Ju-hyun said the party hopes soon to see "an earnest start toward solving our society's main problems -- the poverty and polarization depicted in the movie."

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