“Parasite’s” Success is a Triumph for Expanding Global Cinema

Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers for Parasite.

It’s no secret that Parasite, the latest film from South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, has swept the globe. With its shocking twists, its meditated commentary on wealth inequality, and its historic accolades, Parasite is not only a critical and commercial success, but also a personal win for its Asian and Asian-American fans at Oberlin.

This past Saturday, College fourth-years and East Asian Studies student representatives Will Cramer and Liam Hefta organized a free dinner and discussion followed by a group screening at the Apollo Theatre, with support from the East Asian Studies Department, Oberlin Korean Student Association, and Asian American Alliance. While Cramer personally enjoyed the film, he also saw it as an opportunity to promote East Asian cinema and the East Asian Studies department to interested students.

“I thought it would be good to showcase East Asian cinema, and there are [professors like] Keren He who teach on East Asian cinema,” Cramer said. “And then Parasite on its own is such an amazing movie, so it was a way to draw people in, get them interested.”

Cramer and Hefta approached Associate Professor of History and East Asian Studies Emer O’Dwyer with the idea, who said she was “all for it.” 

Parasite presents its audience with two families: the Kims and the Parks. The Parks live in a private lot with a wide green lawn, a personal housekeeper, and the best private tutors for their children. In contrast, the Kims lead a more modest life; we first meet the Kim siblings Ki-woo and Ki-jung as they scuttle about their semi-basement apartment trying to pick up on a free Wi-Fi signal while their father, Ki-taek, lets pesticide spray inside as “free extermination.” There is no reason for these families to ever cross paths — but when Ki-woo’s friend Min asks him to take over as Da-hye Park’s English tutor by faking his credentials, it is an economic prospect that Ki-woo cannot resist. 

Thus begins an erratic, nearly unbelievable string of events all motivated by lies, deception, and greed. Parasite teeters wildly between genres, but it retains a dark satirical commentary on the pitfalls of capitalism throughout.

While Parasite is a contemporary film about South Korean society, it includes wider global issues and influences that intertwine seamlessly: wealth inequality, classism, and climate change. Midway through the film, a torrential rainstorm hits Seoul, flooding the Kims’ apartment and forcing them to take shelter with hundreds of other displaced families in a gymnasium. As the scene cuts to the next morning, we open on the Park family home, where the family’s matriarch, Yeon-kyo, marvels at how nice the sunshine is for her spoiled son’s birthday party. While not intentionally malicious toward the lower class, the Parks embody the utter obliviousness that is characteristic of privileged upper-class society. 

“No place is immune from this environmental devastation,” O’Dwyer commented on the rainstorm. “However, as Director Bong suggests, the wealthy have many more resources and choices when confronted by it.” 

For Oberlin’s Asian students and faculty, Parasite’s widespread viewership and critical acclaim is a personal victory. Visiting Instructor of History Jiyul Kim, who is Korean-American, recalled how he was “amused and appreciative” of non-Korean viewers who were so willing to watch a movie that was “so quintessentially Korean” in its imagery, themes, and script. 

“My first impression after the movie was to ask myself how someone not familiar with South Korean society and culture could really understand the nuances of the images and language [in the film],” Kim wrote in an email to the Review. “But my 13-year-old son’s reaction made me realize how wrong I was. This young man, who [is] only half-Korean by blood and all-American teenager in culture, emphatically said, ‘That was the best movie I have ever seen.’” 

Kim further explained various details that were distinctive of South Korean culture in the film.

“For example, [the film alludes to] the politics of private tutoring, which has been made illegal because it gave the rich unfair advantage in the hyper-competitive South Korean education system.” 

The way Parasite explores universal themes with a distinctly South Korean presentation is what makes it truly groundbreaking. From winning the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival to sweeping the four major categories at the Oscars — becoming the first foreign film to win Best Picture — Parasite, along with Roma in 2018, could be reflective of a changing American entertainment landscape opening its doors to non-Western cinema.

“Clearly I agree with the vast majority of non-Korean viewers that Parasite’s universal appeal has to do with its socioeconomic subject and message, which comes across regardless of any opaque cultural filters,” Kim wrote. “And it’s also because that universal message was presented through an entertaining and memorable story, an intoxicating cocktail of drama, comedy, and horror that lingers long after.”

Parasite’s masterful storytelling and its numerous awards legitimize foreign films as not only worth watching, but capable of winning awards alongside Hollywood blockbusters, and whose non-white, non-English-speaking casts proudly grace the stage.

College second-year and Chinese-American student Michelle Tyson attested to the value of international representation and the use of films to focus on marginalized groups such as the Kim family. 

“I’m so proud of a film that features really amazing South Korean actors and a story that so blatantly deals with class,” Tyson wrote in an email to the Review. “The public reception to films like Moonlight and Roma, which, like Parasite, made me so grateful to see marginalized identities and class so clearly portrayed on the big screen.”

College second-year Rachel Fang, while having a slightly different perspective as a Chinese international student, discussed that after growing up watching numerous high-quality, Asian-made movies, she hopes that Parasite introduces white American audiences to everything that global cinema has to offer.

“As an international student seeing lots and lots of Asian movies … Parasite is just one of the good movies that I’ve seen,” Fang said. “I hope more people can get the chance to watch more good Asian movies because there are a lot of Asian movies that are as good as Parasite that [have] not [been] nominated [at] the Oscars.”

While Parasite is only one film, and may not guarantee greater diversity in future awards shows, it has still disrupted what has long been a stagnant lineup.

“Will [Parasite] have staying power?” Kim pondered. “The true impact won’t be known for decades. Still, at the very least, I think Parasite’s win has opened many people’s eyes to Korean cinema, which has become very vibrant and relevant, so I hope it will lead to wider viewership and appreciation for Korean films.”