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Parasite: South Korea’s barrier-breaking satire

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Parasite producers Kwak Sin-ae (left) and Bong Joon-ho (right) accept the award for Best Picture for Parasite during the 92nd Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on Sunday. AFP

Parasite: South Korea’s barrier-breaking satire

South Korean thriller Parasite – a dark comedy about modern poverty and wealth that has brought down language barriers to open new audiences to foreign film – can now call itself a history-making Oscar winner.

The movie snapped up four Academy Awards on Sunday – becoming the first non-English-language film to take home best picture honors – the most coveted prize in Hollywood.

Its best original screenplay Oscar was the first Asian win in that category, and the first for a Korean in any category. It comes after the 100th anniversary of Korean cinema last year.

Parasite also snapped up the prize for best international feature film, as was widely expected.

“I feel like I’ll wake up to find it’s all a dream. It all feels very surreal,” filmmaker Bong Joon-ho – who also won for best director – said backstage after the historic night.

The vicious satire about social inequality had already scooped up the Palme d’Or in Cannes last year and the award for best foreign language film at last month’s Golden Globes – also firsts for a South Korean movie.

It was the first foreign-language film to win the coveted top prize for best ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild awards, and snapped up two Baftas for best non-English-language film and original screenplay.

Bong’s film had a broad appeal that transcended individual societies, said Jason Bechervaise, a professor at Korea Soongsil Cyber University.

“There’s a great deal of political rage worldwide exacerbated by a tangible sense of widening social inequality, and Parasite feeds into this very effectively,” he said.

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Writer-director Bong Joon-ho, winner of the Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and International Feature Film awards for Parasite. GETTY IMAGES/AFP

‘Money is an iron’

The film follows a family of clever scammers from South Korea’s underclass, plotting for each of them to secure work in an affluent household in Seoul – as tutors, a driver and a housekeeper.

All unemployed at the start of the movie, the four live in a dingy, roach-infested basement flat – whose damp odour clings to them beyond its confines – without access to WiFi in one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries.

Along their way, they forge a university degree and orchestrate a series of lies – which later lead to harrowing violence at the spacious house where they work, whose elegant decor hides a host of secrets.

Critical reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

At one point, the mother declares: “Money is an iron; it smooths out all the wrinkles”, and John Lie, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said the characters’ poverty was both absolute and relative.

The film “does a good job of [showing] how poverty and wealth are inextricably intertwined; the rich are parasitic on the poor, as the poor are on the rich”, Lie said.

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Actors of the Korean movie Parasite Yeo-jeong Jo (left), So Dam Park (centre) and Woo-Sik Choi arrive for the 92nd Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on Sunday. AFP

Setting an example

The success of “Parasite” comes despite the global dominance of the English language, a perennial challenge for filmmakers working in other tongues and doubly so in the world’s biggest cinema market.

Bong called out American moviegoers at the Golden Globes, telling his Hollywood audience in his acceptance speech: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Bao Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American filmmaker, said Bong’s Oscar win was an “example to aspiring Asian and American filmmakers to follow”.

Parasite was “deeply rooted in its depiction of Korean society without having to pander in any way to foreign audiences”, he said.

Its success will open more channels to other movies, predicted Deborah Shaw, a film studies professor at the University of Portsmouth in Britain, saying it would “make international producers and distributors more likely to invest in non-English language films”.

It proved “that a strong story expertly told and with universal appeal can overcome” the language barrier, she said.


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