When Korean isn’t all Greek


  • So Aunty, So What?
  • Wednesday, 12 Feb 2020

Eyes on the prize: Bong posing with the Oscars for ‘Parasite’ following the 92nd Academy Awards in Los Angeles. — Reuters

DAE Han Min Guk!

That must be what South Koreans were shouting when Parasite won the ultimate Academy Award – Best Picture – on Sunday (Monday morning Malaysian time). It’s a rousing chant they use most notably at sporting events and from what I understand, it loosely translates to “great republic of Korea.”

Oscar night really provided a great, big euphoric moment of recognition for South Korea’s entertainment industry. As an admirer of Korean pop and traditional culture, I cannot overstate how happy I am over this achievement.

I have written several times about my love for and enjoyment of K-pop culture and have openly shared it with friends, some of whom have rolled their eyes and sniggered at it. So in a way, I feel vindicated by Parasite’s success.

I think British film critic Mark Kermode’s review entitled, A gasp-inducing masterpiece, is one of the best in explaining why it is a “flawless” tragicomedy deserving of the Best Picture, Best International Feature Film Awards as well as Best Original Screenplay and Best Director for Bong Joon-ho, the driving force behind the film.

Mind you, the feat is all the more amazing because it faced off against many strong contenders. Much as I wanted Parasite to win, I thought Sam Mendes’ awesome World War I epic, 1917, would be the victor.

For Parasite to win, it had to overcome so many obstacles, among them, getting foreign audiences to read subtitles to understand the Korean dialogue.

An AFP report in the South China Morning Post, contended that no non-English-language production had ever won the Best Picture Oscar because “the language of Hollywood, and of awards season, is English, and that will always be a stumbling block for films shot in a foreign language.”

But Bong, when accepting the Golden Globes best foreign film award for Parasite, said: “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

That is so true from my own experience. I grew up on a diet of English pop songs, movies and TV series.

But as an illiterate Chinese, I would watch Mandarin films with English subtitles. I also watched movies in other languages like the Hindi 3 Idiots and the Japanese Departures.

The APF report went to say that, “For many, the subtitle barrier is more than an inch tall. It requires you to focus on the bottom of the screen, meaning you may miss key visuals. Others, however, say that subtitles invite increased focus on a film.”

I agree with the latter view because I learned to embrace good subtitles that have enabled me to grasp the social nuances, sarcasm, irony and humour in the films. And it was largely Korean TV series and movies that honed my subtitle-reading ability.

Subtitles aside, the South Korean film-makers have won world acclaim and attention because they tell superb stories with extremely talented actors supported by top-notch technical skills.

Before Parasite, Train to Busan, the 2016 South Korean film directed by Yeon Sang-ho, was a breakout success in foreign markets, including Malaysia.

Even though it was about a zombie epidemic, it was also “an allegory of class rebellion and moral polarisation, ” as a Variety review described it.

That’s the beauty and the intelligence of many Korean films. There is often a powerful underlying message, despite the comedic elements. That is also obvious in Parasite.

What I also love about Korean film and TV series are the creators’ willingness to explore unique topics.

While there are plenty of feel-good rom-coms, there are also gripping, intricate political thrillers, jaw-droppingly good medical, legal and police dramas and powerful war movies.

A current series I am watching online is Stove League, which is about the South Korean baseball scene. I know nuts about the game and don’t care one bit about it but I am so into the series because of the storyline and characters!

Heck, even K reality shows are the most creative I have seen. They can make you laugh, cry and learn. What’s more the production values are exceptionally high.

That high production quality is apparent even in K-pop music videos. Numerous western YouTubers in their reaction videos have marvelled at that, saying they beat western artistes hands down.

South Korea’s soft power success didn’t come by accident. Several factors contributed to its growth. Among them listed by business and brand strategist Martin Roll, are two which I wish our government would take note of.

First, is the abolition of the censorship laws, which had prohibited many topics deemed controversial in film and on TV. In 1996, the Korean constitutional court banned such laws, giving film makers and other artistes the freedom to explore and experiment sensitive and difficult topics.

The other factor is the South Korean government’s support in terms of funding, promotion and building infrastructure.

According to Roll, the Popular Culture Industry Division in the Culture Ministry, has a generous budget to focus on Korean pop music, fashion, mass entertainment, comic books, cartoons and other products.

Today, the entertainment industry contributes billions to South Korea’s GDP and that includes K-pop artistes. There are many but the success of a single pop group, the seven-man BTS, has been so immense, it has stunned analysts.

Researchers reported that BTS contributed US$4.65bil (RM19bil) to South Korea’s GDP through album and concert ticket sales, merchandising and tourist arrivals, which is almost comparable to Korean Air’s contribution.

BTS is widely acknowledged as the most influential pop group in the world, effectively overcoming the language barrier to build a fan base in the millions called A.R.M.Y. (Yes, yes, I have written about BTS and full disclosure: I am a A.R.M.Y. member too).

While there is no stopping BTS’ continuing conquest of America – its concert tour calendar this year covers eight American cities – I do wonder whether Parasite will be a one-hit wonder or does it signal the start of acceptance of Korean movies in the US (and other western) cinema halls.

Will they take to other Korean box office successes like Extreme Job, Exit, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 and the latest disaster film, Ashfall?

But if the cinema chains are still mulling over this, foreigners (fellow Malaysians included) piqued by Parasite can check out Korean content on Netflix.

Bong’s earlier works – The Host, Snowpiercer and Okja (the latter two have significant English dialogue) – are available on the site. I would also recommend the six-episode Kingdom about zombies in 16th century Korea and the 16-episode modern political thriller, Designated Survivor: 60 Days which, to me, is a superior remake of the American series.

But here’s a friendly warning: Once you start watching, you may not be able to stop and your life will never be the same again. Once again, congratulations, South Korea. Chuka-hamnida!

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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