Bong’s ‘Parasite’ focuses on plight of South Korea’s poor
Bong Joon Ho poses in the press room with the awards for best director for "Parasite" and for best international feature film for "Parasite" from South Korea at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. | Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Koreans are reveling in writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s dark comic thriller, “Parasite,” which won this year’s Academy Awards for best film and best international feature. The movie itself, however, doesn’t put the country in a particularly positive light.

No doubt, the international acclaim for “Parasite,” which also won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last May, highlights South Korea’s emergence as a global cultural power, a reflection of decades of focus on building world-class industries in one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia.

But it also hints at an uncomfortable truth: While the national successes have been spectacular — from Samsung’s rise as a global economic powerhouse to the explosion of K-pop in Asia and beyond — many South Koreans recognize that there’s been a dark side to that rise. Only a few years ago, Bong himself was blacklisted by the government, and the characters in his film reflect a society where many feel intense hopelessness.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who frequently praises mega-popular K-pop boy band BTS, tweeted that he’s grateful to Bong for “giving courage and pride to our people overcoming difficulties.”

But “Parasite”’s main characters portray South Koreans who have been left behind by the country’s dramatic changes. It’s a biting commentary on deepening inequality and other problems that have many young and poor people describing their lives as a hellish nightmare.

South Korea has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor among developed nations and is struggling mightily to deal with decaying job markets, rocketing house prices and a record-low birth rate as couples put off having babies while struggling with low pay and harsh work conditions.

Although fully Korean in language, humor and tone, Bong’s dark tale of poverty and class struggle resonates across borders because Western democracies are also experiencing similar social and economic problems, albeit not as “extreme” as in South Korea, according to Chin Jung-kwon, a prominent cultural critic.


Kim Tong-Hyung
Kim Tong-Hyung

Seoul-based reporter for the Associated Press.