“Parasite” sweeps the Oscars: how did South Korean popular culture gain international momentum?

By Yilin Wang

February 16, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The 2020 Academy Awards has brought the South Korean movie “Parasite” into the spotlight, with the film winning four Oscars including the Best Picture Award. The triumph of “Parasite” marked the first time a non-English language movie has won this award, an achievement that invites excitement and reflection on Korea’s flourishing popular culture in recent decades. 

A satirically comedic thriller, “Parasite” tells a story of class struggle, poverty, and inequality in South Korea. “[It] addresses a very specific Korean phenomenon and there are details specific to Korea such as the living arrangement [of the protagonists], but that resonates with everyone around the world. The theme is a universal one portrayed in a Korean way,” said Professor James Person of the Korea Studies program at SAIS. 

South Koreans’ ability to indigenize common themes and western cultural elements has been an essential factor in realizing worldwide success in popular culture. Beginning in the 1990s, the sweeping popularity of South Korean popular culture – K-pop, K-drama, etc. – has gradually grown into a global phenomenon, a movement known as Hallyu, or the Korean Wave. This movement not only consolidated South Korea’s soft power influence around the world but has also led to significant profitability in the country’s entertainment sector. In 2019, the 7-member South Korean boy band BTS generated $4.7 billion of GDP for the country.

“[Hallyu] didn’t start as a deliberate movement,” said Professor Person. “K-pop really grew up organically, starting with the indigenization of western pop music. This might be hypothesizing, but the Korean language lends itself well to hip-pop naturally and I think that explains its popularity. I’ve spoken to lots of people about this, non-Korean speakers included, and they just said that the Korean language sounds cool – it just works with hip-hop. The government actually came in late after the popularity of Korean soft power had already grown and become recognized.” 

While Hallyu emerged as an organic process, large production corporations were a key driver of its phenomenal success. Apart from providing financial support to studios and artists, while granting   complete freedom in production, corporations also supported training of young, ambitious boys and girls into professional entertainers from middle school, sometimes elementary school onwards. “South Korea has a mature and complete entertainment industry chain. The internationally well-known artists are usually very well-groomed, with exceptional skills in singing, dancing, composing, and so on. Even the fans of these bands are extremely organized; they form a peculiar culture of their own and everyone is obsessed,” said Laura Ma, an M.A. student currently studying in the Korean language program. 

Is the South Korean model easily replicated? Could governments borrow from South Korea’s experience in this soft power expansion? Answers to these questions may be more complex than they appear. Professor Person noted that government intervention in popular culture promotion could be “ham-handed” at times, adding that for Korean movies, “sometimes they struggle to compete with Hollywood films, but other times they would outperform them even without government stepping in. For a long time, they had a quota that limited the number of western/Hollywood films they could show in Korea. A percentage of films being shown at any time had to be Korean. But Korean films always domestically did well enough that the quota system was at times unnecessary.”