Parasite: how Oscar triumph has exposed South Korea’s social divide

Bong Joon-ho’s film highlights how South Koreans struggle as the gap between rich and poor widens

Few would begrudge South Koreans their moment of joy after Parasite’s historic success at the Oscars. Not only was Bong Joon-ho’s film the first non-English language production in the Academy Awards’ 92-year history to win best picture – one of four Oscars on the night for the director and his crew – it was long-overdue recognition by the global movie industry of the brilliance of South Korean cinema.

But the celebrations, led by the country’s president, Moon Jae-in, concealed an uncomfortable truth about Bong’s masterpiece. Centring on the tension between the Kims, a basement-dwelling family of “dirt spoons” in Seoul, and the Parks, a family at the opposite end of the social spectrum, Parasite’s plot is predicated on the widening gap between the haves and the have nots in Asia’s fourth-biggest economy.

Moon, a liberal who came to power in 2017 promising to create jobs, redistribute wealth and weaken the power of the chaebol – the family-run firms that drove postwar development – praised Parasite as a “uniquely Korean story”.

The film exposes the paradox at the heart of a country better known around the world for its technological prowess and pop music.

While scenes from the Parks’ spacious designer home and the Kims’ slum basement flat were shot on purpose-built sets, it draws its realism from those set in deprived neighbourhoods a world away from the exclusive Gangnam neighbourhood in the city’s south.

They include Ahyeon-dong near central Seoul – a district of crumbling brick buildings where rents for half-basement flats have doubled in the past decade – and narrow streets perched on a hillside dotted with steep concrete staircases, all in sight of gleaming high-rise apartments for the rich. By contrast, the scenes around the Parks’ sprawling home were filmed in Seongbuk-dong, where the streets are immaculately clean and homeowners go about their lives behind high walls and spiked security fences.

While living standards in South Korea are on a par with those in the UK, young people in particular are worried about an increasingly uncertain economic future in which surviving the cut-throat education system no longer guarantees them a well-paid job for life. And they have little to look forward to in retirement, with figures showing that a large proportion of older South Koreans are living in poverty.

In a survey conducted last year by the government-affiliated Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, more than 85% of South Koreans said they felt the income gap had become “very big”, and that financial security was the preserve of wealthy families.

Bong’s stinging – and at times hilarious – commentary on the friction generated by poverty’s proximity to wealth could bring financial benefits to some of Ahyeon-dong’s residents, however, via guided tours planned by the city government.

One of the tours takes in five locations around Seoul that have resonated with Parasite audiences, including the Pig Rice supermarket where Ki-woo, the Kims’ 20-something son, drinks soju spirit with a friend, a concrete stairway in a nearby alleyway that leads to the Kim family’s semi-basement flat, the Jahamun road tunnel, and the Sky Pizza parlour that employs the family to fold boxes for a pittance.

Last week, stray dogs and cats roamed the streets, while young women took selfies, and photographers and TV crews filmed the shop.

“My husband and I thought it was such an honour for our shop to appear in Parasite,” its 72-year-old owner, Kim Kyung-soon, says. “Then we saw the news about the Oscars. The film kept winning and winning. We stayed up celebrating all night, along with everyone else in South Korea.”

But not everyone is happy, with one resident concerned that interest in its dilapidated architecture would put a halt to rumoured redevelopment plans. “If the Parasite tours take off, there will be pressure to preserve these buildings and that will mean the end of the redevelopment plan,” he says. “That would be a disaster. We’ve been waiting for it for years. The ceiling in my place is leaking water and we are biding our time until the day we can move out. We don’t want our neighbourhood to stay like this because of a movie.”

But Um Hang-gi, the owner of Sky Pizza, where sales have soared since the Oscars, is savouring the attention. “Just think of all the upstarts in our society who get rich quick through deceit and scheming,” says Um, who has placed a poster in the window lauding her business’s minor role in Bong’s success. “They don’t care who gets hurt.”

Despite having seen the film three times, Lee Seung-jin, a 28-year-old designer who lives nearby, says he is offended by the idea of “poverty tourism”. “Parasite is a parody about the gap between the rich and the poor, so for city officials to come up with the idea for these tours is ridiculous. Shouldn’t they be working to narrow the wealth gap instead of parading poor people around for tourists to gawp at?”


Justin McCurry and Nemo Kim

The GuardianTramp

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