It’s not just ‘Parasite.’ Korean cinema has a deep, rich history

To many South Koreans, “Parasite’s” historic win at the Oscars on Sunday wasn’t just about a movie winning at an awards ceremony. It was about the entire country gaining global prominence.

The film’s acclaimed director, Bong Joon-ho, expressed it best in his acceptance speech for best original screenplay: “We never write to represent our country, but this is very personal to South Korea.” This was the first time a South Korean film had won an Academy Award, let alone four.

In Korea, the response in the media was largely euphoric. Every major news outlet headlined “Parasite’s” Oscars victory, praising how Bong is now a “mainstream director in Hollywood” and how Korean cinema is “finally standing at the top of the world.” Even the president of South Korea thanked the members of the film for “instilling pride and courage in our people.”

An op-ed in Yonhap, Korea’s largest wire agency, went even further: “Korean cinema, long marginalized, has now overcome its inferior environment,” it read. “[Korean cinema] has grown and is standing at the world center of cinema: Hollywood.”

But is this really the moment Korean cinema finally made it? Or is it just the first time Hollywood and the West decided to take notice?

Last October, Bong told Vulture that the absence of Korean films in Oscars nominations was “a little strange, but it’s not a big deal. The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” This fueled a growing debate within Korea about Hollywood’s “cultural myopia,” which gained steam after a viral tweet with a clip in which an American interviewer asks the Parasite cast, “What’s the best part about being famous in America?”

There’s a lot wrong with this U.S. and Eurocentric gaze. The predominantly white institutions of European and North American cinema still lag behind in acknowledging the richness of films from other countries or in other languages. The Oscars are no exception. Its outdated international film category, which allows only one non-English language submission per country, is unlikely to structurally change how the Academy views cinema anytime soon.

But Korean cinema was worthy of celebration long before “Parasite” became a household name. It has a rich and complex history that spans more than a century. For years, South Korean films have been capturing the turmoils, joys, fears and hopes of our country’s past and present — and helped shape the way our society has evolved in the process.

Cinema came into Korea in the early 20th century under Japanese colonialism. “The Righteous Vengeance,” a mix of film and theater, was widely seen as the very first Korean movie when it came out in 1919. After the Korean War in the 1950s, cinema continued to grow despite the challenges of poverty and state censorship. Yu Hyun-mok’s “Aimless Bullet” in 1961 and Kim Ki-young’s 1960 “The Housemaid,” which greatly influenced “Parasite’s” Bong, are some must-see classics from the post-war era.

The industry really experienced a renaissance in the 1990s and 2000s, as large family-owned conglomerates (or “chaebols”) began investing heavily in entertainment. In time, films became not only more varied, but also more willing to discuss critical social issues that had previously been ignored.

For instance, adapted movies such as Kim Do-young’s 2019 “Kim Ji-young: Born 1982” fueled important debates about feminism by showing the life of a young mother living in a patriarchal society and struggling for an identity outside the home. This kick-started conversations about gender that were still taboo in many parts of the country. And documentaries such as “A War of Memories” by Lee Kil-bora in 2018 shaped conversations about less-discussed, but vital, subjects such as Korean atrocities committed on Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War.

Today, an increasing number of Korean films are earning notice beyond our borders, like Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” in 2016 and Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” in 2018, which many believe should have been an Oscars contender last year. And more female directors are working, producing films such as Yoon Ga-eun’s 2016 “The World of Us” and Kim Bora’s “House of Hummingbird” in 2018. With “Parasite’s” success abroad, the Korean movie industry may experience another golden age — and all signs suggest this trend will continue.

It’s disappointing that so many in the West are ignorant of this history. Yet it’s even more jarring that, in many parts of society, South Koreans have internalized the largely white barometer of “global” — particularly Oscars — success and consider our cinematic products before “Parasite” “marginal.” “Parasite” was not created in a vacuum.

It is wonderful that “Parasite” performed so well at the Oscars and that Hollywood is finally recognizing a South Korean movie in historic terms. But even as we’re celebrating the victory, we shouldn’t ignore the cinematic history that brought us to this moment, simply it took the Oscars years to recognize this. Especially considering how “local” the Oscars can be.

Haeryun Kang is a freelance journalist in Seoul and a videographer at media start-up videocusIN.

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