South Korea’s media and public reaction to the Oscar news was understandably ecstatic. The country’s largest daily newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, wrote that “the Academy has long overlooked Korea’s rich film history.” It’s true: South Korea has produced a lot of excellent films that are little known in the United States. Bong himself, who is sometimes called South Korea’s Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, has a long record of directing domestic blockbusters such as “Memories of Murder” and “The Host.” But only his English-language movie, “Snowpiercer,” a post-apocalyptic thriller, had gained any notice in the United States — until now.
The irony is that “Parasite,” which is now one of South Korea’s most successful film exports, offers a brutal commentary on income inequality in this wealthy society. The plot focuses on the destitute Kim family, who live in a roach-infested basement without any WiFi (oh, the indignity). They survive by folding pizza boxes for money while trying to climb the social ladder by leeching off the privileged Park family.
At first it appears that the Kims — who gradually insinuate themselves into the Park household under false pretenses — are the parasites of the title. But by the end, it is clear that the appellation also applies to the Parks, who are leeching off the Kims, too.
The movie is a sharp sendup of the class tensions that are always present beneath the surface calm of South Korean society. Body odor, for example, is a crucial part of the plot, with the Parks constantly complaining that the Kims are malodorous. Cleanliness is highly important in Korean culture, but the Kims are plagued by the damp odor of their dingy basement flat. The condescension of the Parks toward the Kims sets in motion the movie’s tragic finish.
The backdrop of the film — familiar to all South Koreans — is the social problems they must deal with, even as their country has gone from poverty to wealth (it is now the 12th-largest economy in the world). South Korean society is plagued by rising housing prices, job insecurity, economic disparity, a plummeting birthrate and other woes.
The high-stress environment — in which students must pass highly competitive exams to enter a handful of top universities to have any hope of career success — helps explain why South Korea has the second-highest suicide rate among developed nations.
Income disparity is a major issue, with the top 10 percent of South Koreans holding 66 percent of the country’s wealth in 2015. South Korea is no South Africa or Brazil: It is actually more equal than other countries in Asia — or for that matter the United States. But job prospects in South Korea are often based on family and school ties that favor the privileged. South Korea’s justice minister, Cho Kuk, was recently forced to step down after months of controversy and massive protests over corruption charges, including an allegation that his daughter gained an unfair advantage in her admission to medical school.
In this context, the widening gap between “haves” and “have-nots” has become an increasingly popular theme for South Korea’s booming film industry; it was also featured in the 2018 movie “Burning,” directed by Lee Chang Dong.
North Korea claims that “Parasite” is evidence “that capitalism is a rotten and sick society,” while touting the “equality and fairness” of North Korean society. In truth, North Korea is far more divided, with top leaders enjoying foie gras and caviar while ordinary people literally starve.
The very fact that South Koreans can take pride in a movie that offers an unflattering portrayal of their country is impressive. In the past, while South Korea was developing economically under a series of military dictators, that kind of criticism would not have been tolerated — not only because the government would not allow it, but also because society would not allow it. South Koreans, part of a small country whose fate has been shaped by far more powerful neighbors such as China and Japan, have long felt they had to pull together against the hostility of the outside world. Self-criticism was not a luxury they could allow themselves.
Now it is. The reception of “Parasite” is thus a positive sign: It shows a society grappling with its problems rather than pretending they don’t exist.