When Bong Joon-ho lept on to the stage to pick up the best picture Oscar for his dark comedy Parasite, South Koreans watching at home brimmed with pride.
The film, which skewers the inequality and class tensions in Korean society, took home four Academy Awards on the biggest night in cinema and became the first foreign-language feature to win best picture. The industry hopes that Sunday evening’s Hollywood haul will herald a boom in Korean cinema as well as bigger audiences and greater financing.
“I felt like I was dreaming, it was amazing . . . I genuinely thought I would see unification with North Korea before seeing a Korean film winning four Oscars,” said Yoo Soon-mi, a film producer. “I actually got goose bumps,” said Kim Ga-hae, a PR executive who watched the ceremony with colleagues in Seoul, one of whom compared it to the precious national memory of hosting the Olympic Games in 1988.
The acknowledgment of the talent in an industry that has long been acclaimed by critics is being seen as a watershed moment that will open the door to a new wave of interest in Korean cinema, and Asian films more broadly.
“There’s an audience out there that desperately wants to see stories that represent them,” said Tiffany Hsiung, a documentary maker based in Toronto. “We all just want to be seen and heard.”
South Korean films are a key component of the country’s extensive cultural exports — which also includes the music genre known as K-Pop, soap operas and gaming. These industries netted nearly $9bn in foreign revenues in 2017 and are poised for more growth on the back of the success of Parasite.
Albert Yong, head of Seoul-based hedge fund and entertainment investor Petra Capital Management, predicted that the clutch of Academy Awards would boost interest among international investors in financing Korean films. “Investment may not surge immediately but I am expecting a gradual increase,” he said.
The South Korean public has a deep attachment to domestic-made films and overwhelmingly favour local movies over Hollywood blockbusters. The industry ranks near the top five in the world in terms of domestic revenues.
After decades of censorship, a new era for Korean cinema began in the late 1980s and early 1990s as state controls were loosened and fresh ideas introduced.
This cinematic “renaissance” emerged with “socially conscious” and “experimental” films such as Im Kwon-taek’s 1993 drama Seopyeonje, Jinhee Choi of King’s College London noted in her history of Korean cinema — a focus that paved the way for the human themes of Parasite.
A critical moment came in 2002 whem Mr Im was named best director at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival for Chihwaseon, a biopic of a 19th century painter. Two years later Park Chan-wook’s crime thriller Oldboy, which rapidly developed a cult following, won the Grand Prix award.
Mr Bong, who made his first feature in 2000, comes from this new generation of filmmakers — drawing influence from the vicious government crackdowns and political upheaval during South Korea’s post-war democratisation.
“I think the drama and humour in my films ultimately comes from Korean society . . . Korea is a place more dramatic and more absurd than your ordinary classic literature or film, a place that boils like a furnace, so I get inspiration from that,” the director said in an interview with the Korean Film Council in 2011.
For many South Koreans, Parasite’s Oscar victory is especially sweet because the story of two families, one rich and one poor, is packed with nuance that only Koreans can understand. It accurately depicts the same cruel inequalities many have battled.
Yet Mr Bong’s time as a film-maker has come during a period of increased dominance of the industry by entertainment companies that spawned from Korea’s chaebol — the family-owned businesses that run much of the country’s economy.
Parasite was backed by the mogul Lee Mi-kyung, vice-chair of CJ Group, which owns Korea’s biggest entertainment group as well as interests in pharmaceuticals and retail. Ms Lee, who is the granddaughter of the late Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul, was also credited for championing Parasite internationally.
For some, producing films that are financed by the chaebol is antithetical to the purpose of the art form, and Ms Lee is a glaring symbol of the huge wealth gap in Korea that Parasite aims to highlight.
“Even though the movie depicts social problems — like the divide between rich and poor — I felt like the whole film was a fraud the moment I saw CJ in the credits,” said one industry professional, who asked not to be named.
Critics also point to a lack of gender diversity in Korean cinema and the abuse of women in the country’s society exposed in the 2019 K-Pop scandal, which has seen two celebrities jailed for rape and, separately, two female singers take their own lives. Ms Choi estimates that only about 10 per cent of Korean directors are women.
“For some younger Koreans, misogyny is a more important issue than the divide between rich and poor,” said Hyun-joo Mo, an expert in Korean culture at University of North Carolina.