The movie "Parasite" by director Bong Joon-Ho is the Best Picture of this year's Oscar Academy Awards. This is the most prestigious accolade the movie has earned after numerous film awards and critical acclaim from both fans and critics. But what makes this movie so outstanding that it outperformed other Hollywood blockbusters and instant classics? The simple reason is it honestly depicts the core of modern South Korean society to an extent that few movies have been able to do of any society.
Bong Joon-Ho's movies tend to hide the brutal reality of societal imbalance and injustice behind a veneer of light-hearted comedy. In Parasite, it is no different. A struggling family of four manages to find themselves a mansion as their new home, by "infiltrating" a family clan of extraordinary wealth. They become the wealthy clan's tutor, chauffeur and housekeeper using falsehoods and made-up connections. The humorous situation quickly becomes a tragedy, when the family discovers a certain secret living beneath the glitz and glamor of their new home.
Society as depicted in film
What makes "Parasite" really stand out among this year's films is how much it blows open the lid that hides the ugly reality of South Korean society.
Few can boast of the success that South Korea has over its history, especially when it comes to economic growth and development. Korean pop culture has also become a global phenomenon whose dancing and singing artists continue to dazzle youths from all over the world.
And yet, a survey of young Koreans points out that 3 out of 4 people from the age of 19 to 34 want to leave the country. They cite reasons such as overwork, risk of unemployment, lack of pensions, cut-throat prices on essentials like housing, and a complete disregard towards fellow humans.
The Ministry of Employment and Labor in South Korea states in 2015, that workers in the country have the highest turnover rate in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an economic organization of the most developed countries. This is all the more surprising when South Korean workers already work 300 hours more than the average of the OECD countries. One-fifths of Koreans are temp workers, which is the fifth-highest among the OECD.
Opportunities are also scarce for aspiring career workers if you are not one of the prestigious SKY graduates. SKY is the abbreviation of Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. SKY graduates form the upper echelons of Korea's elites, and less-prestigious graduates dwell in the underbelly of South Korean society.
The youths of South Korea have invented a phrase to illustrate the kind of social stratification that has engulfed their country: Hell Chosun. The phrase takes after the last Korean dynasty, the Chosun, who ruled over united Korea for over 500 years before the kingdom was annexed by the Empire of Japan in 1910. The defining feature of the Chosun dynasty was its hierarchy, that favored social status over abilities. By calling their current country a Hell Chosun, South Korean youths are expressing their sense of entrapment and helplessness as if they are trapped in hell. They feel there is no escape from the Chosun-like society that was supposed to be a thing of the past.
The movie itself showcases a gradual descent to hell for our struggling family. When they come down from the mountain mansion, they see that their old home is now full of feces. It is as though the lower rungs of society must suffer from what is reserved for those punished in hell.
People against people
In the movie, companions and co-workers are constantly at each other's throats. Police despise one another and doctors make it clear that they cannot get along. And this disregard for other humans, too, displays itself publically in Korean society like in politics. The South Korean government is full of politicians taking down one another by bringing up scandals and prosecuting criminal charges that they all seem involved in some way. The 2017 political saga of South Korea is a testament to that.
It is the young daughter of the struggling family who starts to make questions on how to deal with the current predicament. This implies Bong Joon-Ho anchors the hope of change on the young people when the older folks are incapable and unwilling to move society away from its morass. But even doing so would require young people to learn how to step on others to know how to succeed.
Young Koreans are forced to become, essentially, a parasite, or even a zombie that feasts on living beings like in Yeon Sang-ho's "Train for Busan" (2016). One can signal a cry for help, but in Hell Chosun, the ground-dwelling elites cannot and do not want to hear it. Some of the Hell denizens might try to break their damnation by stepping on others to do so. But the movie suggests that such efforts are futile.
The Hell we created for ourselves
Bong Joon-Ho, as a director, does not intend for his motion picture to be a rallying cry to upend the system in Korea whose rot has infected the people deeply. But he does seek to send a message to those who can listen, that people of Hell Chosun are crying out. Every economic crisis in South Korea hardens the grip that economic and political elites have on the citizens, who previously have allowed the noose to tighten. But in "Parasite," Bong makes it clear that the current generation is not remaining silent and their struggles need to be heard. The people stuck in Hell Chosun do not need an alleviation of their predicament, they need to be able to walk on the ground above just as any Korean deserves, not just a select few.
The level of popularity that "Parasite" has enjoyed in international markets suggests, or even clearly indicates, that the "South Korean" hell isn't something particular to the country. There is a hell in many of the countries where this movie spoke to on a personal level. How the Hell denizens of the world choose to correct their circumstances is an open question.