North American film critic Justin Chang once said, “The Oscars need Parasite more than Parasite needs Oscars,” and he pointed out exactly where Parasite stood in the film world. Parasite swept four Oscars at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020, including Best International Feature Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture, and it was an enormous feat that would go down in world’s film history. It was first Korean film to be nominated for Best Picture Award, and what is more, the first International film to win the Best Picture. It was such a giant leap, but Parasite’s achievement means more than a film’s winning prizes. As the expression “The Oscars need Parasite more,” goes, it shows the change in Hollywood-led global film market and in the whole business world of content.
Today we are witnessing the barriers of films are getting lower in every aspect. Barriers among different countries have already been down long ago through collaboration projects. American film market that used to be conservative on international films are now striving to increase the share of internationals at theaters. Among many other reasons is to revive the stagnant film market in the country. With the barrier between cinema and the content provided through OTT or online streaming services collapsing, film market is working to find different ways to extend its domain. Overcoming the language barrier which Director Bong Joon-ho expressed as ‘one-inch-barrier’ is one of such efforts. In the midst of this swift global changes, only competitive film works can be distinguished and finally survive. In that sense, Korean movies or K-Content are now given the opportunities to show their excellence to the world.
Korean films have been participating in international film festivals since late 1950s. Director Lee Byeong-il’s The Wedding Day won a special comedy award at the 4th Asia-Pacific Film Festival in 1957, being the first Korean film to be awarded at an international film festival. Later, Shin Sang-ok’s Romance Papa took the Best Actor Award in 1961, Sang-ho Park’s Birth of Happiness the Best Actress Award in 1964, and Shin Sang-ok’s My Mother and Her Guest won the Best Picture award in 1962, all at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival. Korean films started participating in more international film festivals after that, and actor Ahn Sung-ki won the Special Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1960 for his role in Defiance of a Teenager by Kim Ki-young. Moreover, in 1962, director Kang Dae-jin’s Mabu was awarded the Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, one of the 3 major international film festivals. Since the 1960s, Korean films have been drawing international attention, as is shown by Shin Sang-ok’s Thousand Years Old Fox that won the Golden Director Award at the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival in 1970, and Kim Ki-young’s Woman of Fire and Insect Woman that took the Best Actress Award at the same festival held in 1972 and 1973 respectively.
Even during the oppressive military government period from 1960s-1980s, Korean films have continued to be recognized outside of Korea. Lee Doo-yong’s The Hut won the Integrated Social Development Assistance Program Award at the 38th Venice Film Festival, and Hah Myung-joong’s Daengbyeot and Lee Jangho’s Declaration of Fools were invited to screen at the Berlin Film Festival in 1985 and 1988 respectively. In addition, Bae Yongkyun’s Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left For the East? was invited to Un Certain Regard at the 42nd Cannes Film Festival, and grabbed the top prize at the 42nd Locarno Film Festival. Director Im Kwon-taek were invited to many different international film festivals since the 1980s and was known as a representative of Korean films. His films Mandala and Gilsoddeum were invited to the official program of the Berlin Film Festival in 1982 and 1986 for each. The Surrogate Woman brought its leading actress the Volpi Cup for the Best Actress at the 44th Venice Film Festival. Im’s Chunhyang (2000) was the first Korean movie invited to the official competition of the Cannes Festival. Two years later, he finally grabbed the Best Director Award for Painted Fire at the 55th Cannes Film Festival. He also awarded Honorary Golden Bear at the 55th Berlin Film Festival in 2005. Now it seems natural for Korean films to be invited to or awarded at various international film festivals.
Based on this growth, Korean films have taken a quantum leap both in their quality and quantity since the year 2000, and new directors with unique styles of filming started to bring back a myriad of good news from international film festivals. Hong Sang-soo won the Tiger Award for his debut film The Day a Pig Fell into the Well at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 1997, the Silver Bear for Best Director for The Woman Who Ran at the 70th Berlin Film Festival in 2020, the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay for Introduction at the 71st Berlin Film Festival in 2021, and the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize for The Novelist’s Film at the 72nd Berlin Film Festival in 2022. He has proven that he is the director loved by the Berlin Film Festival. The list of acclaimed Korean films goes on. Lee Chang-dong was awarded the Best Director Award for Oasis at the 59th Venice Film Festival and the Best Screenplay Award for Poetry at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival. Park Chan-wook is called the director loved by the Cannes Film Festival, after winning the Grand Prix for Oldboy in 2004, the Prix du Jury in 2009 for Thirst, and the Vulcan Award for The Handmaiden in 2016. There are also Kim Ki-duk who won the Best Director Award at the Berlin and the Venice Film Festival, and Bong Joon-ho who took the Palme d’Or at the Cannes. Countless Korean filmmakers including all those above are drawing attention in the global film arena.
Winning prizes at film festivals does not guarantee the quality of the films. However, it is undeniable that Korean films have substantial significance in the circle of global films. It should also be noted that Korean films boast not only their aesthetics but the broad base that can be extended and attract the general public. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a good example. Although it made historic achievements, Korea’s film world does not dwell on its glory to produce a new Parasite for another achievement, wasting energy unnecessarily. It is impressive that the film world is listening carefully to different opinions on where it should head. It would not be an overstatement saying that the success of films like Parasite is credited to Korea’s cultural base where the audience have an eye for good films and higher standard on films than in any other place of the world. That way, Korean films stand at the center of the Korean wave of K-Content, looking for more opportunities to flourish.
* 《Cultura》 2022 May(Vol. 95) *