In the early summer of 2019, there was a stir among Koreans around the world who kept in touch with their family and friends back home. Supposedly, a new film by renowned director Bong Joon-ho had just been released, and it was the talk of the entire country.
The title itself was compelling: “Gi-saeng-choong” (기생충). Any Korean-speaking person would understand what the word meant, but no one could have guessed what the movie would entail — both in itself and in history.
Months later, the movie was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2019 under the name Parasite. From that moment, everything became history. The movie not only became Bong’s first movie to gross over 100 million USD across the world, but it was also the first Korean film to win the highest prize — the Palme d’Or — at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, and the first non-English language film to be named best picture at the 2020 Oscars. Every media report on an additional Oscar win for Parasite — including best director, best original screenplay, and best international feature film — set Koreans everywhere in a frenzy.
As a 17-year-old Korean student studying in Canada, it was a transformative moment to watch a film in my language in a Canadian theatre — knowing that everyone in the fully-packed cinema was cognizant of the movie’s cultural significance. Parasite was not simply a film grouped into a bigger category, together with other Asian countries with older cultural footprints in North America — it was distinctly Korean. The story’s background was filled with Korean neighbourhoods, Korean food, and even Korean accents and inside jokes even when characters were speaking English.
Fast forward to 2023, Asian media has generally become more accessible in the English-speaking world, and Hollywood is also increasingly casting more Asian actors. We now see beyond Asian actors getting typecast as nerdy STEM kids or ‘exotic’ girls who don’t speak English. The debate on defining the accurate reflection of Asian people in media can go on and on — but representation matters, and I am glad that the younger generation of North American Asians is growing up with people who look like them on the screen, encapsulating authentic, non-stereotypical human lives.
As part of a broader geographical group, the Asian influence and dominance over the arts today is not surprising when considering the combined population and economic power of Asian states. In addition to an extraordinary and longstanding history of arts in every respective country, there is a demand everywhere to satiate Asian palates.
However, people may not realize that it is nothing short of a miracle that South Korea has become a distinctive country among others in terms of economic, political, and cultural relevance. In the face of successful Korean films, Netflix shows, and K-pop groups, it seems like it’s only been a while since we were merely considered as the tiny — and divided — country stuck under the formidable North Korea and between the geographically and economically powerful China and Japan.
But as a student who has lived through the phase of a painfully invisible Korea to today’s dynamically exponential prominence of Korean culture, I find it important for others to understand why our cultural establishment is miraculous, and therefore distinct from other countries.
Simultaneously, there is a pressing need for us to pay attention to how past and present governments are tampering with Korea’s freedom of expression in art. Current and past conservative governments have made worrying encroachments on censorship and surveillance of art. If this persists, we risk creating and becoming a monotonous cultural entity with no distinction from others.
From rags to invisibility
Following Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonization in 1945, the Korean War erupted when the North invaded the South in 1950. The war took more than 2.5 million lives and only ended through an armistice agreement in 1953, leaving our nation still divided in two.
South Korea’s development from a war-torn country in poverty post-armistice to its current state happened over a mere 70 years, and I have always had immense pride in our country’s unprecedented ability to build from the ground up. In the simplest economic terms, we are a rare country that has gone from having a gross national income per capita of 57 USD in 1953 to 32,661 USD in 2022.
While I was raised in Korea to have profound respect for my country, I quickly realized that how others perceived us had not yet caught up to how we viewed ourselves.
My first several months in Canada left me with comments that remained with me the longest. Any mention of my country led to the ritualistic “North or South? Just kidding,” and wildly exaggerated impersonations of Kim Jong Un or dog eating. If I wasn’t met with those offensively unoriginal comments, there would be milder, awkwardly offensive remarks like, “I’ve always wanted to visit Japan,” or “Ni hao, konnichiwa,” that would always append my introductions.
Following this earthshaking realization and a great deal of blaming my naiveté, I pushed myself to let go of my identity in many ways. I refused to speak my language in public or discuss where I was from. I was perfectly antiseptic and thus blended in well.
The most tragic moments of this process were when I met Korean-Canadian peers who had clearly gone through an identical life trajectory earlier than I had and refused to identify with me. We avoided discussions of our country, let alone speaking in our language. We were not from a geographically formidable country nor a culturally significant one. Our country was unlike neighbouring countries and therefore did not matter, but was close enough to them that we were clumped together.
Separation of colonizer and state
Then came Parasite, Squid Game, BTS, and the series of Korean films, shows, and artists that firmly crystallized the Korean identity.
While the success of our culture is part of the overarching success of Asian culture, it’s important that Korea and its arts are not only perceived but clearly understood as a distinct entity. From my perspective, this is part of a justified demand to be seen in separate terms from the country that used to colonize us.
Japan’s colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945 involved the ethnic cleansing of at least 6,000 Koreans through the Kantō Massacre, the killing of over 7,000 peaceful protestors demanding independence at the March First Movement, the burning of over 200,000 Korean historical documents, the forced abuse of up to 200,000 Korean women and girls as ‘comfort women’ by Japanese troops, and the coercion of at least 1.2 million Koreans into forced labour in mines, factories, and airfields and eventual death under barbaric conditions.
Japan’s attempts to physically and culturally erase Koreans during its years of colonization are parts of our history that no amount of rapid economic development can force us to speed past. When our people have been massacred and our history has been scraped off by another country, it is vital for us to establish our individual cultural identity without being conflated with the colonizer.
Writers have frequently criticized the limited scope of the term “Asian American,” and its inadequate representation of the wide-ranging racialized group. As the term is sometimes seen to exclusively encompass East Asians, it therefore contributes to income, healthcare, and economic disparities between Asian diaspora communities. As a result, the discourse over it is nuanced, but I find the fundamental logic of this argument congruous with mine: no country should be clustered or conflated with another because what constitutes each nation’s identity is delicately distinct from that of any other.
Parasite: Before and after, in cinema and beyond
Parasite in 2019 was a monumental turning point in the history of Korea — conveniently, on the 100th year of Korean cinema, a century after the 1919 screening of our first film, Righteous Revenge. While Bong’s cinematic commentary on Korea’s social stratification and class inequality marked the moment Korean films became mainstream in the English-speaking world, the 100 years of our cinema have birthed a plethora of esteemed cinematographers.
My personal favourite director is Lee Chang-dong, whose films like Peppermint Candy, Poetry, and Burning have transformed how I digest movies and life. The sentiment is evidently transnational, as you can find a large poster of Burning on the second floor of TIFF Bell Lightbox. I admire Lee ardently for how in touch he is with what people live to burn for — the youth and the elderly, regardless of time. His understanding and storytelling about each generation he writes about transcends the generational divide, and that is generationally rare.
In the last several decades, directors like Park Chan-wook have also achieved widespread acclaim. Park made his name via his Vengeance trilogy — Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance — and his later works like The Handmaiden and the recent Decision to Leave. His early work commonly depicted the story arc of hatred causing violence and revenge bringing further revenge rather than relief. Park Chan-wook’s main characters are multidimensionally anti-heroic, whose actions are cruel but motives are not. Similar to Bong, a major tool Park uses in his films is criticism of our country’s social and judicial system. In recent years, he has increasingly portrayed the generally underrepresented woman’s gaze by collaborating with screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung.
Bong’s work has actually differed greatly from that of Park, however, by being less grotesque. With actor Song Kang-ho as his frequent on-screen persona, Bong has actively packed in his message on how the world is a system in which the poor and the rich are constantly parasites to each other: wisdom that echoes throughout his renowned films The Host, Snowpiercer, Okja, and Memories of Murder.
These Korean masters of cinema all have a spot on any list of the most influential directors in the world. However, these three directors have been disproportionately affected by the Conservative Party’s recent reigns. Over the tenure of two presidents between 2008 and 2017, the Conservative Korean government introduced a once-discreet artist blacklist, which listed all three directors, among many others.
During their administrative periods, former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye kept an expansive list of cultural figures that were deemed ‘leftist’ or anti-government. Lee Myung-bak’s list consisted of 82 artists who were then put under government surveillance, but Park Geun-hye dramatically expanded the list and intensified the degree of surveillance over the industry. The 2015 version of her list had more than 9,000 cultural figures logged, and it barred them from government-controlled support programs.
Among the thousands of people were Park Chan-wook, Bong and his stand-in Song, and Lee Chang-dong. Park Chan-wook and Bong had been long-known for their support and membership in the then-Democratic Labor Party of Korea, while Lee had served as the Minister of Culture and Tourism of South Korea under the liberal president Roh Moo-hyun.
But establishing one’s support for a non-Conservative political party was not even the set threshold for making the list in this Orwellian system. Anyone and everyone was added to the list if they were ‘suspected’ of supporting Park Geun-hye’s political rivals, or if they demanded an investigation into the 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy — where she was absent from her office for seven hours, when her call was necessary to rescue students and travellers onboard a sinking ferry, 304 of whom eventually drowned. One of the Conservative government’s actions that hit close to home was the 2015 targeting of my home city Busan’s International Film Festival — one of Asia’s biggest film festivals — for screening a documentary on Sewol. After refusing to take down a film about the tragedy, the festival lost half of its government funding.
Unfortunately, to a certain extent, this was true to form. Park Geun-hye’s father, dictator Park Chung-hee who ruled South Korea for nearly two decades, had censored newspapers and persecuted artists who criticized the government. But the fact that this inhumane practice seeped into our state post-democratization testifies to how far we are from the country we want to be.
The future of Korean cinema is dark in the government’s hands
South Korea has had former Prosecutor General Yoon Suk-yeol as Conservative president since 2022, and he has appointed Yoo In-chon as special advisor for culture and sports. The predictable plot twist is that Yoo served as the Minister of Culture and Tourism under Lee Myung-bak, the Conservative president who originated the blacklist.
Ever since the current president stepped into power, artists have been scrambling to evade censorship and protect free speech in art. Under Yoon’s limited administrative period, however, things are looking dire. The administration censored a documentary on a lesser-known massacre in Korea by banning the EBS (Educational Broadcasting System) channel from showing it at its International Documentary Festival. It halted the distribution of a composer’s translation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which he translated using the word “freedom.” Over the last year, it has further attempted to limit or censor a diverse list of other exhibitions and performances.
I believe that being complacent under governments that surveil and censor art will inevitably lead to a more bland Korean identity and make it easier to assimilate into other cultures that are different from ours in history and identity. This is a haunting potential future of our country — congruous to my time in Canada pre-Parasite, when Eleanor Yuneun Park was either Chinese, Japanese, or from some other Asian country. For the past several years, I thought this would never be repeated in generations that succeed me — but the possibility is especially concerning because, as of now, we are stagnant.
It is not uncommon to hear critics in Korea expressing their concern over how the future beyond Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook looks bleak. Even when looking at the five Korean directors featuring their films at TIFF this year — Hur Jin-ho, Ryu Seung-wan, Jason Yu, Kim Taeyang, and Um Tae-hwa — we can tell how most of them do not have the filmography that translates to ticket power. The influence is still in the hands of Bong and Park.
The films that have pushed us to examine our society through a critical lens from history have grown to establish South Korea as a prominent presence in the global arts scene. With films like Parasite bringing in 86 billion won in revenue and groups like BTS creating an economic effect of nearly 1.5 billion USD, South Korea is a modern prototype of an economy and society fueled by arts and culture.
But I am afraid of what our country’s future will bring to artists and younger generations. We’ve come so far to stand alone as a country — economically, socially, and culturally — because we have been able to stand on our distinct history of being torn by war, colonized, and polarized.
No matter how devastating it is, we don’t exist without our history. Given our country’s nature, I believe in fighting for a government that allows for free, artistic expression. Just as our culture transcended national borders, we need your interest too — from wherever you are.