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News > Culture

'Parasite' Reflects Deepening Social Divide in South Korea

  • People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on South Korean director Bong Joon-ho who won four Oscars with his film

    People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on South Korean director Bong Joon-ho who won four Oscars with his film "Parasite", in Seoul, South Korea, February 10, 2020. | Photo: Reuters

Published 10 February 2020

The film is a tale of two South Korean families - the wealthy Parks and the poor Kims - mirroring the deepening inequality in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

The dark comedy “Parasite” made history as the first non-English language movie to win the Oscar for best picture on Sunday, prompting South Korean social media to erupt in celebration.

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The film’s message resonated with many South Koreans who identify themselves as “dirt spoons,” those born to low-income families who have all but given up on owning a decent house or climbing the social ladder, as opposed to “gold spoons,” who are from better-off families.

The debate over inequality has exploded onto South Korea's political scene in recent years amid runaway home prices, translating into a drop in support for President Moon Jae-in, despite being elected on a program of raising taxes the wealthy in the country.

Moon, in his congratulatory message, said, “Parasite” had “moved the hearts of people around the world with a most uniquely Korean story.”

But the film’s message is a sharp critique of South Korea’s modern society, and director Bong Joon-ho turned to many familiar scenes around Seoul to highlight the divide between the city’s haves and have-nots.

Across South Korea, the divide is visible as some of the old neighborhoods of crumbling brick slums contrast with the gleaming high-life of Seoul’s more expensive spots.

The film uses many of those visual cues to illustrate the competition going on in society, and the sometimes “parasitic” relationships between the rich and poor.

"I never claimed to be offering an elaborated metaphor," said Joon-ho in an interview with Spain's El Mundo. "It is clear that the poor family parasites the rich one. They live hidden in their house and take advantage of them. But, obviously, the idea is to get to the opposite idea. The rich family is really the one who is using their privilege to parasite the whole system, built-in their advantage."

The director also took shots at capitalism, pointing it as the cause of inequality in South Korea and beyond. 

"Without difference there is no capitalism," he said in the same interview. The more extreme the capitalism, the more extreme the difference is."

South Korea’s economic inequality is higher than many members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), on par with Britain and Latvia, and has worsened in recent years.

Still, its Gini coefficient, a commonly used measure of how evenly income is distributed across the population, is better than places such as the United States, according to the OECD.

But after years of economic growth that powered the country’s recovery from the 1950-53 Korean War, South Korean’s economic future is more uncertain, causing growing concerns for many.

A 2019 survey by the government-affiliated Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs found more than 85 percent of South Korean respondents felt there were “very big” income gaps in society and people needed to be from a wealthy family to be successful.

Young people have become especially pessimistic amid a highly competitive education system and the job market.

That has sent support for Moon plummeting to as low as 45 percent in early February, as his younger supporters express dissatisfaction with their economic prospects. While Moon is constitutionally barred from running again, a critical parliamentary election is due to be held in April, posing a test for his ruling party.

In “Parasite,” one character fakes a diploma for her brother to get a job as a tutor for a wealthy family.

The scene reminded some South Koreans of an ongoing scandal that led to the resignation of Justice Minister Cho Kuk.

Cho resigned in December and is being prosecuted for falsifying documents regarding family investments and efforts to gain university admissions for his children. He has denied wrongdoing.

The scandal struck a chord in South Korea where young people, who compete furiously through school and university, are increasingly finding themselves scrambling for a dwindling number of positions in a slack job market, in a system they see as plagued by systemic unfairness and biased in favor of the elite.

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