South Korean film has had to contend with powerful competitive forces. Within South Korea, Hollywood juggernauts capture a huge share of audience attention and box office revenue, squeezing out local competitors. (At one point, “Avengers: Endgame” took up more than half of the screens in the country.) In 2019, six of the top 10 releases in the Korean box office were Hollywood films; that same year, in the United States, no foreign-language films made the top 50, and “Parasite” barely cracked the top 100. Korean filmmakers are also perennially blocked from accessing neighboring market China — which in 2019 had an overall box office of $9.2 billion — because it imposes political bans on Korean content.
After Korea’s 2016 decision to host the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system, China has blocked a wide range of Korean cultural products from being exhibited publicly, from pop concerts to films. Before Sunday night, winning best picture seemed like an impossible dream for South Korean filmmaking — long considered a scrappy upstart in the global entertainment industry.
The struggles of the Korean film industry have long been entwined with the U.S. presence in the country. Under the U.S. Army Military Government from 1945 to 1948, Hollywood films dominated the market, with only a small number of Korean movies distributed each year. During the Korean War, the destruction of Korea’s industrial base led many filmmakers to work for the U.S. Army, shooting newsreels and war documentaries. From 1956 onward, to protect the country’s nascent film industry, Korea instituted policies to protect it. A film import quota limited the number of foreign films that could enter its market. A parallel screen import quota instituted a minimum number of days per year to screen domestic films. From 1986 to 2006, Korea’s screen quota required Korean films to be played on Korean screens 146 days a year.
Under mounting pressure from Hollywood and the United States, Korea halved its screen quota to 73 days a year in 2006, in the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. At the same time, the government continued to offer financial incentives in support of the Korean film industry. Within this supportive environment, the Korean Wave — a flowering of film, television and music, also known as Hallyu — emerged. Bong Joon-ho is now one of its most famous exports (though still second to global boy band sensation BTS).
Global filmmakers such as Bong often build their careers in their home countries first. With government funding, and with the protection of the robust pre-2006 screen quota, Bong made early, critically acclaimed films, building local audiences. He went on to make two of the highest-grossing films in South Korean history: “The Host” and “Snowpiercer.” Through success in the South Korean and other global markets, Bong made himself into a known box office commodity. Those triumphs propelled his rise in the U.S. market, leading to his 2017 film “Okja,” a Netflix production shot in both the United States and South Korea. In many ways, his career trajectory mirrors that of Ang Lee’s, the only other Asian director to win best director. (Lee, for his part, won for “Brokeback Mountain,” an English-language cowboy romance.)
Bong’s triumph obscures a parallel struggle for Asian American filmmakers. Despite critical acclaim and winning an Independent Spirit Award for best picture, Lulu Wang’s heart-wrenching family drama, “The Farewell,” did not garner any Academy recognition. Pathbreaking multicultural, multilingual dramas such as hers suffer a double bind: Hollywood studios remain reluctant to fund films with Asian American stars; overseas financiers are reluctant to support uniquely American stories. Box office quotas in China, Korea and other countries pose additional difficulties, spurring studios to stack their global release slate with boilerplate content that is instantly recognizable as Hollywood studio fare. Asian American talent can’t take advantage of Hollywood studios’ new interest in recruiting known Asian stars to draw in foreign audiences. In many ways, Bong’s career path — building on box office wins in his native country before striking out for Hollywood — is simply not available to American directors of Asian descent like Wang.
The Oscars shone a positive light on Bong Joon-ho, on South Korea’s film industry and on the Academy’s widening interest in the global film industry (an economic necessity, now that the China is on the brink of overtaking the U.S. film market in size). But this year’s edition of what Bong once cheekily called a “very local” film festival also exposed how much Hollywood might learn from South Korea about nurturing new voices here at home.