In 2015, President Park Geun-hye’s administration blacklisted Bong, actor Song Kang-ho and producer Miky Lee along with more than 9,000 other artists, who in its view were too liberal and critical of the government. Just as “Parasite” tells an important story of the contradictions of capitalism, its making teaches an important lesson about how a free society is essential for the arts.
The history of Korean cinema closely tracks the history of South Korea’s emergence from military dictatorship to a flourishing liberal democracy. Under Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship, which ended in 1987 following a series of peaceful protests, censorship was rampant. The ensuing democratization, quickly followed by the 1988 Seoul Olympics, was a breakout moment for South Korea’s pop culture, and the newfound freedom led to the rise of all the cultural trends — including K-pop, television shows and movies — that the world has come to know well.
In 1998, President Kim Dae-jung emphasized the importance of soft power and set the goal of dedicating at least 1 percent of the national budget to support the arts and cultural products, under the principle of “support but do not interfere.”
Bong is very much a child of this period, which also saw the emergence of other Korean cinematic masters such as Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”) and Lee Chang-dong (“Burning”). Bong spent his formative college days at Yonsei University, one of the epicenters of South Korea’s democracy movement. As the cartoonist for Yonsei’s school newspaper, Bong showed a sharp and satirical eye for social injustice, depicting activist students returning to school after being expelled and custodians who were cleaning up after parties thrown by students.
As a director, Bong relentlessly focused on challenging various types of power structures. His breakout hit was the 2003 “Memories of Murder,” a gripping tale of serial murders and hair-pulling governmental incompetence. He followed that in 2006 with “The Host,” which tells the story of a monster created by the U.S.-led military industrial complex, and 2013’s “Snowpiercer,” which depicted the last surviving group of humans struggling with inequality among themselves riding a train around the world after it is destroyed through global warming.
But Bong’s career was jeopardized in the 2010s, after South Korea elected two conservative presidents with retrograde attitudes toward freedom: Lee Myung-bak, a former chief executive of Hyundai Group, and Park Geun-hye, daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee. Lee and Park Geun-hye turned Kim Dae-jung’s principle on pop culture on its head by using governmental support to interfere with pop culture. In the name of “balancing cultural power,” the Lee administration compiled a detailed list of left-leaning celebrities to cut off from public support and pressure away from major platforms.
The Park administration vastly expanded this blacklist to include nearly 10,000 names. Internal papers from the Park administration on Bong’s movies reads as if Joseph McCarthy were a film critic. “Memories of Murder” was criticized for “injecting negative impressions of the police by depicting them as corrupt and incompetent”; “The Host” “highlights anti-Americanism and governmental incompetence, pushing the society leftward”; “Snowpiercer” “denies the legitimacy of market economy and provokes social resistance.”
Because of the blacklist, Song Kang-ho recalls that he suddenly received no offers after starring in “The Attorney,” a 2013 biopic of former liberal president Roh Moo-hyun. Because Miky Lee’s company produced “The Attorney” and several other movies and shows deemed too liberal, the Park administration pressured Lee to resign. Bong himself recalls being blacklisted as “traumatic” and “nightmarish.”
If the blacklist continued, there was a good chance that “Parasite” would never have been made.
Fortunately, the blacklist was revealed in late 2016, becoming one of the flash points that led to protests that eventually brought down the Park administration. But even after Park was impeached and removed in 2017, South Korean conservatives’ antipathy toward Bong continued. Kim Moon-soo, former provincial governor of Gyeonggi Province and conservative heavyweight, even claimed “Parasite” was a “commie movie.”
In contrast, the current government of South Korea embraced the movie. In his congratulatory message, President Moon Jae-in noted: “ ‘Parasite’ moved the hearts of the world with the most Korean story.” To own “Parasite’s” harsh criticism of inequality in Korea’s society as “the most Korean story” reveals an important truth about politics and the arts: A free society, unafraid to look unflinchingly at its faults, is crucial for creating a masterpiece.