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(Yonhap Feature) "Parasite" to give much-needed boost to S. Korean cinema

Features 08:00 February 25, 2020

By Kim Kwang-tae

SEOUL, Feb. 25 (Yonhap) -- In 1988, a South Korean man let several snakes loose in two movie theaters in central Seoul to protest the growing influence of Hollywood on South Korean cinema.

The incident was a desperate attempt by South Korean movie industry officials to try to scare moviegoers away from theaters screening "Fatal Attraction," the first American film distributed directly by an American company in South Korea.

Disgruntled movie industry officials later also carried out an arson attack on a separate Seoul theater, though the attack did not cause a big fire.

No one was hurt in either incident.

The episodes underscored widespread concerns about the effect Hollywood's direct distribution of films would have on South Korea's fledging movie industry at a time when moviegoers favored Hollywood movies over South Korean ones.

Fast forward to 2020.

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho has won four Oscars, including best picture, for his black comedy thriller "Parasite," a milestone in the country's century-old film history that would have been unimaginable three decades ago.

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho holds up his Oscar trophy and smiles at a press conference held at the London West Hollywood in Los Angeles on Feb. 9, 2020 (local time), after his black comedy film "Parasite" took four titles at the 92nd annual Academy Awards. (Yonhap)

"Parasite" is the first non-English language film to win best picture in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards. The other three Oscar titles are best director, best original screenplay and best international feature film.

Chung Ji-young, a movie director who spent about two months in detention awaiting trial over the snake incident, said he was overwhelmed with joy as he watched the live coverage of the Academy Awards ceremony. Chung received a two-year suspended sentence in 1989, as did the three others, including the man who let loose snakes in the theaters.

"It's like a revolution. It's a tremendous thing," Chung said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency at his office in western Seoul.

"Parasite" is a family satire that depicts the entrenched social class divide through the lives of two families, one rich and one poor, with Bong's unique humor and suspense.

Culture Minister Park Yang-woo has hailed the Oscar victory as "a great feat" in the 101-year history of Korean cinema and said that it will facilitate the globalization of "hallyu" -- the Korean wave of popular culture.

K-pop -- which mostly features choreographed singing and dancing by boy or girl groups -- has gained ground in not only Asia but Latin America, Europe and the United States in recent years.

K-pop and the broader Korean Wave have resonated with young people around the world, burnishing South Korea's image as a cool country, home to K-pop phenomenon BTS and "Gangnam Style," South Korean rapper Psy's 2012 mega-hit song.

South Korean movie industry officials said the Oscar honors could further generate new interest in South Korean films among mainstream American audiences and renew the impression of South Korean films in Hollywood.

A poster of "Parasite" provided by CJ ENM (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

"Parasite"'s worldwide gross of US$205 million includes $44.49 million in ticket sales in the U.S., where it now ranks as the fourth highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

In South Korea, the movie raked in 85.9 billion won ($72.2 million) and attracted more than 10 million viewers, roughly one-fifth of the country's population.

The feat is a sharp departure from the 1970s and 1980s, the darkest periods of the South Korean movie industry.

At that time, the South Korean government granted permission to import foreign films to production houses that either met a quota for production of domestic films or whose films received favorable evaluations from the government.

Chung, who directed "Black Money," a white-collar crime film that was released last year, said there was little incentive for producers to make good films because production of films was just a "means to secure a quota to import foreign movies."

Chung Ji-young (C), director of "Black Money," flanked by the film's two main actors, poses for photos at a news conference to promote his white-collar crime film at a CGV theater in southern Seoul on Oct. 10, 2019. (Yonhap)

Kim Hyeong-seok, a film journalist and a programmer for the PyeongChang International Peace Film Festival, said the South Korean movie industry was crumbling as the military governments enforced censorship and people made films just to win an import quota.

Not surprisingly, moviegoers jeered film directors who were protesting near theaters in 1988 against Hollywood's direct distribution of films, saying, "Try making better movies. You think we're crazy to watch Hollywood movies?" Chung recalled.

Jeon Yang-joon, the director of the Busan International Film Festival, has called on the local film industry to create an environment fit for talented and creative filmmakers to ensure there will be a second and third Bong Joon-ho.

Critics say they are skeptical about the possible emergence of more directors as successful as Bong, as major film studios rely heavily on top-grossing directors to make big-budget films and are reluctant to take risks.

Bong's directorial debut, "Barking Dogs Never Bite" in 2000, was a flop, but he was able to direct his second film "Memories of Murder" three years later after being given a chance by a producer who saw his vision.

"Memories of Murder" drew 5.25 million viewers in South Korea, a dramatic advancement from "Barking Dogs Never Bite," which drew only 57,469 in Seoul.

Nowadays, a director's career would end if his or her film failed in the way that "Barking Dogs Never Bite" did, critics said.

Bong said he thinks there are many talented people ready to blossom and he expects there will be dynamic clashes between the commercial and the independent sides of the film industry.

"Now we have to think about the way to revive the vital energy, trying not to be scared of taking risks but challenging them," Bong said Wednesday in a news conference in Seoul.


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