Well, nobody had believed it would ever happen. At least, I was almost so sure after seeing the movie Parasite at home. As one of many film-critics had said before, this otherwise mundane story about haves and have-nots in Korea was not believed to make any news at all. It had won numerous film awards elsewhere, but I doubted the old stubborn Oscars. To my surprise, the Academy Awards at the L.A. Dolby Theater on February 9 shattered the glass-covered world by spouting prize after prize to the movie. Parasite won a whopping four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Picture. Some acclaimed it as historic and others touted it delightfully unexpected or seismic win.
Now, after the unbelievable velvety miracle has been draped over us, many have come to ponder what made the Parasite awards inevitable. Some in the U.S. said the award opened a new vision for non-white off-mainstream film artists. Indeed, the Oscars have been too “white” for too long, and public outrage against it has been mounting ever more overwhelmingly. The argument hints that this affirmative award of the Academy was a deliberate political decision to quench the thirst for the seeming rebellious. No matter what was behind the award by the century old saga of American fairy tales, all that concerns now is to figure out why Parasite had to win the prizes in multiple. There must be real reasons worthy of appreciation for the Korean black-comedy film directed by Mr. Bong Joon-ho winning the Oscars.
At last, the entire world has begun to apprehend the enormous potential of Koreans in the film industry. They have found in Parasite immense capabilities of acting talent, directing, producing, screen-writing, musical arrangement, mixing, audio works, film editing, costumes, distribution, and finance. It is really surprising that the feat of awards for such a small country like Korea producing only 340 films annually, which is 1/5 of India’s and about 1/2 of the U.S. or Japan. In terms of population or the size of economies, Korea is no match against the U.S., Japan or India. And yet, the Korean film industry has shocked the world by creating a series of prize-winning movies at international film festivals.
In fact, Korean movies and directors have won a series of awards in prestigious film festivals around the world for some time. At the Cannes Film Festival, Korean movie directors, actors and actresses have won awards almost every year including Parasite, winning the Golden Palm Prize in 2019. Other famous pictures won Cannes awards are Miryang directed by Lee Chang Dong in 2007, and Safe, directed by Moon Byung Gon in 2013, winning another Golden Palm. At the granddaddy of all Venice film festivals, Pieta directed by Kim Ki-duk won the Golden Lion prize in 2012, eight years after winning the Silver Lion with 3-Iron in 2004. Director Lee Chang Dong had won the Silver Lion (Best Director) with Oasis in 2002. In 2011, Paranmanjang, co-directed by Park Chan-kyong and Park Chan-wook won the Golden Bear prize for short movie genre at the Berlin International Film Festival, followed by the same prize in 2015 to Ho-san-na directed by Na Young-kil. In 2004, Kim Ki-duk won the Silver Bear prize for Best Director with the movie Samaritan Girl.
All these awards and prizes at prestigious film festivals unequivocally tell the world that Korean movies and directors are world-class competitive. Only the Oscar Academy was the last to appreciate that. They should have known about the capability of the Korean film industry a lot earlier. The global frenzy created by other entertainment industry super stars had already foretold it. In 2014, three Korean musical groups, namely 2NE1, Wonder Girls and Exo, entered the Billboard 200 for the first time in history. Just two years later came the K-pop pandemonium created by BTS, which shattered the musical world with the highest chart ranking ever made by a Korean singer or group. “Fake Love” by BTS peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2017, the highest on the chart and the first to make the top ten. Now, with the Oscar awards, incredible talent of Korean players at the entertainment business has become finally approved. Players in the arena are competent, enthusiastic, dedicated, passionate and above all, hard working. They have gotten all their teeth to overcoming obstacles so far.
The next task on our part is to broaden the scope of the Korean entertainment industry worldwide and to perpetuate its success down to the next generations. Appreciating the economic importance of the service industry for the future, there must be fundamental preparation to transform this small film industry success into an industrial juggernaut leading the Korean economy. First, many talented candidates should be made to pursue their professional careers at well accredited institutions with plenty of financial support. Proper national supervision of the art and entertainment institutions should be accompanied by sufficient grants and financial aid. Second, the film and music industry have to be liberated from all sorts of regulations and shackles. Almost perfect freedom and competition should be allowed in the industries to foster creativity and originality which are key elements for their existence. The world is so wide for the Korean entertainment industry to do business. After finding its potential, the real task is to make it the next life-saving industry for Korea after the semi-conductor industry.
By Professor Se Don Shin
Dean, Sookmyung Women’s University
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of KOTRA