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Overcoming the “One-Inch Tall Barrier”: What the Success of Parasite Tells Us About the Film Industry

28 Dec 2020
By Sora Park
Parasite Director Bong Joon-ho and actors Choi Woo-shik, Cho Yeo-jeong, Jang Hye-jin, Park So-dam, Lee Sun-kyun and Song Kang-ho attend a press conference for the film at a Seoul hotel on April 22, 2019. Source: Kinocine PARKJEAHWAN4wiki

Parasite was named Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, the first non-English language film to take the top prize in 92 years. While this was a significant moment in history, it was not an isolated event.

This is an article published earlier this year and selected by our committee of commissioning editors as one of the best of 2020.

In the past decade, the visibility and awareness of Korean culture in global markets have rapidly grown. From kimchi to plastic surgery, from Galaxy phones to BTS, South Korea has become a major exporter of culture in recent years. The global influence of Korean pop culture is evidenced by its fan base. In 2018, Love Yourself: Tear by BTS, a Korean-language album reached number one on the US Billboard 100, the first non-Western group to top the charts. BTS was the most tweeted celebrity in 2017 and 2018. In 2012, Gangam Style became the first YouTube video to reach one billion views.

Three important elements, enabled by digital technology and connectivity, have led to the globalisation of Korean culture: the growth of domestic creative industries, the highly-networked audiences, and the adaptive cultural content.

Parasite’s global recognition has been translated into its commercial success. The movie has already made AUD 50 million in the US and AUD 265 million worldwide. To illustrate the impact of cultural goods, K-Pop group BTS brings in more than AUD 5.3 billion in revenues and another AUD 1.9 billion in indirect values to the country’s economy each year.

Outside of Hollywood and Bollywood, which are the global mega movie producers, where exports of their films exceed domestic consumption, there are only three countries in the world where the domestic movie market share is over 50 percent – Korea, Japan, and China. However, this was not always the case. In 1993, Korea’s domestic movie market share was only 16 percent. Now, Korean movies are exported to more than 170 countries.

The Korean government emphasised the importance of cultural and creative industries to the Korean economy and has implemented a strong industry support mechanism since the late 1980s, when global free trade agreement negotiations began. The government emphasises soft power and invests heavily in creative and cultural industries, and ensures that support policies are in place. Last year the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced an ambitious strategy, promising to invest AUD 2 billion of public funding each year, with a goal to grow the industry by 22.5 percent in 2022. Of the 11 strategic priorities in creative and cultural industries, film accounts for only about five percent of the market.

However it is growing steadily.  Since 1995, CJ Group – the producer of Parasite – has made more than 300 movies. The number of feature films produced in Korea more than doubled in less than a decade: 216 in 2011 and 464 in 2017. In the same period there was a 19 percent decline in the production of Hollywood films. In global film markets, there may be a slow increase in diversity.

The second element of Korean creative and cultural industries that led to success is that they are grounded in active and engaged audiences. CJ Group Vice President Miky Lee’s remark during the Oscars acceptance speech sums up the nature of audiences in Korea: “never hesitating to give us straightforward opinions that made us never about to be complacent, and to keep pushing the envelope.”

We live in a networked society where media convergence has empowered audiences to actively seek and consume new and dispersed cultural content. In the era of convergence, traditional and contemporary cultures merge, producers and consumers collaborate, and cultural content flows in and out of national borders. In a country of 50 million people, Korea’s cinema attendance exceeds 200 million a year. Not only are Koreans avid consumers of cultural content, they are passionate about it. Korean cultural producers have developed systems through social media to directly communicate with their audiences in real-time.

The third element of success is the entrepreneurship of Korean cultural producers that constantly push boundaries, experiment and innovate. Due to the small size of the domestic market, producers embed global strategies at the inception stage of a product. They take full advantage of digital platforms that have opened up unprecedented opportunities of transforming the transnational flows of popular culture. The industry has actively embraced multicultural, multi-genre techniques in the making and has transformed the content to meet global audiences’ tastes.

Koreans use the term “hallyu” (Korean Wave) to describe the phenomenon that has swept global cultural consumers. How did a country that speaks a language with virtually no presence outside of ethnically Korean communities appeal to the global audience, overcoming the “one-inch tall barrier”?

Parasite tells a story that is deeply localised in the Korean context but is understood by global audiences. Director Bong grew up in the 1970s and 80s, witnessing the country transition from military governments to democratisation, from poverty to a high-tech smart society. This personal experience is condensed into a surreal story of two families from different social classes, depicting both economic prosperity and the dark side of capitalism. His earlier work, Memories of Murder, is based on a true story also delving deep into the brutal reality in the 1980s, and has elements of a commercial success.

Within a short period of time, Korea has grown to become 12th largest global economy and 6th largest movie industry in the world. However, prosperity does not come without its perils. Korea has the highest suicide rate among OECD countries. Young people live in an extremely high-stress environment, where students must pass intense competitive exams to enter a handful of top universities to have any hope of a decent future. This compressed history is reflected in the popular culture.

Parasite’s success coincides with the 100th anniversary of the release of the Korean movie industry’s first feature film, The Righteous Revenge. Hollywood has always been the global leader of film and has received a great deal of criticism regarding this asymmetric flow. Perhaps now enough momentum has been created for Hollywood to finally embrace other cultures. While we cannot make hasty judgements, it may truly be the start of an era of genuine networked, global culture.

Sora Park is an Associate Professor in the News & Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra.  Her research focuses on the digital media, media markets and media policy. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.