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Korean cinema's global reach highlighted by Parasite's Oscar win | Film


The Oscar success of Parasite, which became the first foreign-language film to win best picture, might have taken UK-based Korean artists and film buffs by surprise as much as anyone, but some had already been banking on a wider boon.

Before the awards ceremony, London-based playwright and screenwriter Kyo Choi tweeted reference points that have come to be associated with Korea. She wrote: “Hope #Parasite wins an #Oscar. Then when I talk to strangers, it won’t just be re Kim Jong Un, BTS & good gut bacteria in kimchi.”

The morning after Parasite’s win, however, she and others were eager to emphasise the rich diversity of Korean film-making. The industry has been clocking up global successes for some time by chronicling issues including modern-day class divides, which resonate with audiences in Britain and elsewhere.

Kyo is a former journalist whose second play, The Apology, focuses on Japan’s wartime sexual slavery of Korean women, and will open at London’s Arcola theatre this autumn. She said: “There is the cultural kudos that the film brings, and I see that as someone trying to write for screen, but of course it also makes me terrifically proud as well.”

Koreans and British-Koreans, including members of the 10,000-strong community in the south-west London suburb of New Malden, were also among those toasting Parasite’s success.

They included Jung Sun Den Hollander, a South Korean-born actor who grew up in the Netherlands and is best known to British viewers as assassin The Ghost in the second series of the BBC’s Killing Eve. She viewed Parasite as reflecting South Korea’s growing global cultural reach but also stressed the unique stature of Bong Joon-ho, who added to the glory surrounding the film when he become the second director of a foreign-language film to win the best director Oscar.

She said: “It’s a Korean film and he’s a Korean film-maker, but in many ways he is his own genre. I saw Parasite in Cannes earlier on and it was clear that this was a brilliant film. At that stage I thought it would be the cinematography that would win.

“Even though it has subtitles for a UK audience, the way the story is often told without words is something that translates so easily. It’s also just a really ballsy film because of its political take on society there at the moment. There’s a social awareness that can be appreciated beyond Korea.”





A scene from The Handmaiden, which garnered acclaim in 2016.



A scene from The Handmaiden, which garnered acclaim in 2016. Photograph: Allstar/Amazon Studios

Among the team behind the London Korean film festival, which will open in October, the news from Los Angeles is likely to focus minds on plans to organise a UK-wide retrospective tour of works by Bong.

Hyun Jin Cho, film curator at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, which is supported by the South Korean embassy, said: “As you can imagine, there is a big demand for his work, but we had been planning to [put on this festival] before now. It’s a big moment and we would love to also use it to let people know more about his earlier works.”

Initiatives like the film festival might be at one end of the scale of the new South Korean “soft power” – the other encompassing K-pop bands such as BTS, television dramas popular in east Asia and football exports – but it’s clear there is a demand in Britain for its high-concept films.

Screenings planned for this month, including an event this weekend exploring 1980s Korean film collectives, had already sold out before Parasite’s breakthrough.

Hyun said: “The scale is different but there is definitely a growing appetite, even in films at the more experimental end of things. We find that our audiences are very informed and they predate what has been happening this week.”

Wider momentum had been building up in recent years around films such as 2016’s The Handmaiden and 2003’s neo-noir action thriller Oldboy, Hyun added.

While the London Korean film festival finds room to showcase arthouse offerings, more mainstream and commercially orientated Korean films have been featured in the London East Asia film festival. Under the theme of “crisis, chaos and survival”, it opened last year with Exit, an action comedy from Korean director Lee Sang-geun. It also included a spotlight on North Korean film, which may have to wait a little longer before its Oscars moment.



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