‘Parasite’ Has Opened American Eyes to South Korea’s Reality

On February 9, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite will be the first Korean film to ever compete for an Academy Award. In a history-making sweep on January 13, it received six Oscar nominations, including one in the prestigious Best Picture category. Last Sunday, the Screen Actors Guild gave Parasite’s acting ensemble its top award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, selecting it above the legendary lineups for The Irishman, Bombshell, Jojo Rabbit, and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.

For Bong, Parasite’s manic and innovative director, it was overdue recognition. His brilliant exposure of the deep class fissures in South Korea has struck an evocative chord in America—and demonstrates that foreign cinema can penetrate the American psyche. “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” he said after Parasite became the first Korean film to win a Golden Globe.

Parasite’s success in the US market is a little surprising, in part because most Americans and the US media show little interest in South Korea’s internal dynamics and complex domestic politics. Yet, despite some criticism, including in this magazine, of Bong’s satiric take on inequality, the film has taught many viewers that there’s an intriguing and even revolutionary side to South Korea outside of K-Pop and the DMZ.

Now, if only someone could make a film to correct the myths and assumptions that have driven American policy on the Korean Peninsula for decades and led to the latest breakdown in the Korea peace process that began with such promise in the winter of 2018.

Just as the South is often stereotyped as a model capitalist economy that would not exist without the beneficent presence of US troops, North Korea is universally viewed in Washington as a kind of Forever Enemy ruled by an irrational family dynasty that, for no apparent reason, hates the United States and belligerently threatens its friends and allies with nukes. Why they built these weapons is rarely addressed. And the roots of the conflict—the division of Korea in 1945 at the hands of the United States and a war that has never formally ended—are generally ignored.

For example: The Great Successor, the acclaimed biography of Kim Jong-un and the nuclear crisis by Washington Post reporter Anna Fifield, doesn’t even mention the fact that the United States first introduced nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula in the 1950s and, after withdrawing them in 1991, still maintains a powerful nuclear force in Northeast Asia. Some commentators dismiss Kim’s fears of the United States—which laid waste to his lands during the Korean War—as sheer fantasy.

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