Bong Joon-ho and Parasite: A Triumph of Messy and Real Korean Culture

By Kyu Hyun Kim

At that moment when the venerable Jane Fonda, perfectly poised and still glamorous beyond belief, opened the envelope and gazed meaningfully around the audience gathered in Hollywood’s Dolby Theater, I knew in my heart that Parasite had nabbed the Best Picture award. The South Korean film had already claimed the Best International (formerly Foreign Language) Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Director prizes at the 92nd Oscar Ceremony. It was an astonishing and exhilarating breakthrough moment for the Oscars, for South Korea’s film industry, and for the future configuration of cinematic arts in the global networks of production, consumption, and distribution.

That was February 9 of this year. Since then, the English-language media has been fairly inundated with many articles, essays, and opinion pieces regarding the motion picture and its talented director, Bong Joon-Ho. Interest in the film and Bong has reached the point of producing self-aware meta-media pieces commenting on this very flood of writings (for instance, this rather entertaining catalogue of articles curated by Kristen Thompson). Not surprisingly, this interest has extended to the South Korean cinema and film industry as a whole—certainly a gratifying situation for a student of Korean culture.

Yet, South Korean cinema (often designated “New Korean Cinema”) supposedly sprung into existence around the late 1990s and has not been an unknown item among Americans. By the mid-2000s, New Korean Cinema had already gained considerable notoriety among the Euro-American cognoscenti, especially the fans of outré fares and such genres as horror, science fiction, fantasy, martial arts, and film noir—those always looking out for the exotic, the outrageous, and the in-your-face. By the mid-2010s, it was by no means the exclusive domain of fans-in-the-know. According to David Scott Diffrient and Seung Hye Chung’s research, the streaming giant Netflix in 2014 already carried 135 Korean titles (plus 53 more available as DVD rentals), compared to 152 Sinophone and 89 Japanese titles. Around that time, I remember browsing the now-defunct Borders Books in Emeryville, CA, and discovering a whole shelf entirely devoted to English-subtitled DVDs of Korean films and TV dramas.

Indeed, I would argue that it was global filmmakers—screenwriters, directors, producers, actors, and other film industry professionals, including those from the U.S.—who have possibly shown the greatest appreciation of New Korean Cinema. And it is this appreciation by “those in the same trade” that appears to go a long way in explaining the explosively positive responses of the Academy members toward Parasite and its director. For sure, South Korea has never lacked for auteurs, such as Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong, and (now disgraced) Kim Ki-duk, whose intensely personal “literary-poetic” films have received great support from film scholars, critics, and connoisseurs of cinematic art. Yet, few members of the Academy gathered for the Oscar ceremony would have regarded the Korean film industry as a hothouse for rarified art that once in a while yields beautiful orchids such as the films of Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong) and Tsai Ming-liang (Taiwan). Instead, many in the Academy would have thought of Korean cinema as a relatively small but formidably vibrant industry that, while churning out its share of humdrum potboilers and would-be blockbusters, is seemingly capable of generating a consistent level of quality with budgets often many times smaller than those of mainstream Hollywood projects. New Korean Cinema would have been known as an industry with world-class talents, not just in the fields of direction and acting, but also in such “technical” fields as cinematography, special visual effects, special effects makeup, stunt action, and conceptual design. In other words, New Korean Cinema is not merely raising rare strains of orchids: it is also producing with gusto the most delicious yet low-priced apples, tomatoes, garlic, and other fruits and vegetables. The Best Picture Oscar (as well as the 72nd Cannes Film Festival’s Palm d’Or Prize) awarded Parasite stands as a culmination of this two decades-long saga of the development of New Korean Cinema, rather than an isolated incident of a genius filmmaker hitting upon a lucky break.

However, there might be another, hidden angle to the international, especially American, success of Parasite and other New Korean Cinema works not immediately obvious to analysts, even some specialists in Korean culture. The clue to this angle may be found in Bong’s acceptance speech during his Best Director award. In the speech, he movingly paid tribute to Martin Scorsese as one of his early inspirations and then pointed to Quentin Tarantino as someone who had championed (rightly or wrongly) Asian films in North America and helped create the conditions of acceptance for his films and those of other Korean directors. Finally, he referred to a “Texas Chainsaw” he wished he could use to dismantle the statue into five pieces so that he could share these with his fellow nominees. Some Korean internet posts questioned Bong’s “weird” taste for mentioning an extreme horror film such as Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) during such a momentous occasion. But, they are most likely not aware that the film belongs to the permanent collection held by the New York Museum of Modern Art and has been ranked as no. 183 in the world’s 250 greatest films list by the British Sight and Sound critics in 2012. Bong clearly does not share the “beautiful orchids are the only worthwhile artwork” perspective, and, it appears, neither does the majority of the Academy members.

I suggest that it is this striking sense of commitment shared between certain South Korean filmmakers such as Bong and the figurative and literal descendants (not to mention its surviving doyens such as Scorsese) of New American Cinema that is the secret genealogy connecting the former with contemporary American filmmakers. This genealogy is only “hidden” because, dare I say, many Koreans still choose to put on blinders of nationalist ideologies that willfully deny the messy actualities of South Korea’s cultural history, specifically its hybridity and its voracious incorporation of the foreign into itself.

And how do I know this? Because I, too, am a part of this genealogy. I am three years older than Bong Joon-ho and the same age as Park Chan-wook. I was the Korean preteen who grew up watching Japanese TV animation like Majinga Z and Cyborg 009 on Korean TV, and uncensored, English-dubbed versions of Italian and Filipino horror films and German crimi thrillers on the late night AFKN broadcasts. I was the Korean teenager who wandered around the underground shopping malls in Sogongdong, Seoul, looking for elusive VHS grey-market copies of The Empire Strikes Back, Taxi Driver, and, yes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Bong’s cinematic works, as do the films of Park Chan-wook, speak personally to me on a level that is wholly beyond my ability to understand the language (Korean) spoken in them, their subject matter, or their locations. Their works speak the dialect of hybrid Korean culture that I comprehend on a deep level, in my film-lover’s soul. And, paraphrasing Obi-Wan Kenobi’s chastising of Darth Vader, those who try to ideologically pigeonhole these films are like dinner plates trying to taste the food placed on them. Good or bad, neocolonial or not, this messiness, hybridity, and, most importantly, the great desire on the part of top creatives to overcome the politically and ideologically enforced normal manifest in the modern cultural history of Korea, are, I argue, some of the hidden keys unlocking the mystery of Parasite’s worldwide “success.”

Kyu Hyun Kim is Associate Professor of Japanese and Korean History at the University of California, Davis.