Now that this year’s Oscars have put the South Korean feature “Parasite” on everyone’s radar, let us identify some likely reasons why it received such impressive accolades from the Academy, as well as was so warmly received by the western public in general. A significant part of this movie is social commentary, but limiting one’s view to merely that aspect of the movie does not do the film justice.
“Parasite”’ tells the story of two South Korean families that are situated on opposite poles of the modern capitalist society: one is extremely wealthy, the other is barely getting by. The latter infiltrates the former, becoming their houseworkers. A great deal of Bong Joon-Ho’s filmography deals with issues in society, but why is it that only the latest effort out of his repertoire received such massive attention? In one of his former features – “Snowpiercer” – the South Korean director not only allegorized the faults of capitalism, but did so by bringing in an all-star cast: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Octavia Spencer. This film, however, did not bring him so much as even a single Academy Awards nomination.
Moreover, there is a certain pitfall that a lot of societal films cannot help but fall into: contextuality. Their narratives tend to be restricted in applicability to the region where they are made or any place that the story is about. One could see that with such monumental features as Ingmar Bergman’s “Summer with Monika,” Vittorio de Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” and with contemporary examples such as Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” and even Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma.” What Bergman says of Sweden, de Sica of Italy, Pawlikowski of Poland and Cuarón of Mexico is not so easily translated for the audiences that are not from those places.
What Joon-Ho did with “Parasite” is create a balance between aspects that are only understood through knowledge of the Korean culture and aspects that could be applied universally. Not many a western viewer would understand why the director would include such an embarrassing scene as one where the daughter of the wealthy family suspects that her English tutor (the boy from the poor family) is attracted to her brother’s art tutor (the poor boy’s sister). It could be easily explained with the fact that Joon-Ho is simply making fun of the Korean film and TV industry which is absolutely filled with such stories (of course there may be something even deeper than that). On the other hand, what any viewer can intelligibly understand in “Parasite” is for example the very clear archetypes that are ubiquitous in the world today. Dissecting the rich family, we see that the father is a classic portrayal of a “provider” (almost a Korean Thomas Wayne), although we never know what he does for a living. The mother is clearly a not-very-intelligent trophy wife and the two kids are simple portrayals of spoiled children of rich parents. The other characters are classic archetypes of a poor family: the father who tries his hardest to provide, the mother who complains, the daughter is a genius and the other kid is presented with an unlikely opportunity to improve his whole family’s life. These are two stories that are often found in many cultures of the world, but Joon-Ho concocts them in a way that could be expressed as a mathematical formula: first story plus second story equals social drama, which revolves around motifs that are familiar across the globe.
“Parasite” is an epochal film not because it tells a story which criticizes the Korean society, but one that other societies can relate to as well, which not even enough Western pictures could be proud of achieving. It was indeed a good decision on the Academy’s part to postpone the long-rumored day when an international film would take home the main prize.