After this weekend, critically acclaimed Parasite is officially director Bong Joon-ho’s highest-grossing film, raking in more than $100 million from the global box office. The dark comedy is taking the United States by storm — although it only opened in three theaters for its first weekend stateside, it sold out nearly every screening and broke the record for the international film with the highest ever per-screen revenue. Now open in the U.S. for four weeks, Parasite continues to rack up impressive per-screen numbers.
This interest comes in part from exceptionally good word of mouth. Parasite is one of the rare movies to get top-notch ratings from both critics and audiences — 99 percent and 93 percent respectively on Rotten Tomatoes.
In some ways, the worldwide interest in Parasite may be surprising given its focus on telling a very Korean story. The movie focuses on two families, one desperate to escape their financial woes and one living comfortably in their own closed-off world. Through their interactions, the movie explores themes that have been percolating in Korean society and politics recently — from the pressures of education and the necessity of having the right diploma to get you in the door, to sky-high housing prices, to the financial dangers of investing all your savings in a small business.
But while these issues are particularly important in South Korea right now, they are also obviously at their core common experiences that many people all over the world can tap into as they watch the movie. The film’s messages about inequality, the fight to be treated with respect, and much more are universal themes that can, and clearly have been, resonating with Korean as well as non-Korean audiences.
In a video interview with the YouTube channel Birth.Movies.Death, Bong explained this dichotomy. “I tried to express a sentiment specific to the Korean culture, and I thought that it was full of Koreanness if seen from an outsider’s perspective,” he said. “But upon screening the film after completion, all the responses from different audiences were pretty much the same, which made me realize that the topic was universal. Essentially, we all live in the same country called Capitalism.”
These universal themes, coupled with a captivating plot and a top-notch cast, have swept the cinema world. It has racked up nominations and awards from film festivals around the world, and took the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival — the first film from a South Korean director to win the festival’s top honor.
Bong, for one, doesn’t seem to be too phased by these accolades. In a hilarious video that went viral in South Korea, during the film’s extended, eight-minute long standing ovation at Cannes, Bong leaned over to the film’s costars and audibly said “I’m hungry,” clearly ready to keep the event rolling.
As far as the Oscars are concerned, he has no illusions about the award’s limitations. In a recent interview with Vulture, Bong pointed out that despite its claim to worldwide legitimacy, the Oscars are still very much a local American award show aimed at an American audience. The latest controversy with the Academy Awards’ decision not to consider a Nigerian film for its International Film category — simply because it is largely in English — illustrates this point. The Oscars are not necessarily made to be accommodating for international filmmakers, and Bong seems to be perfectly fine with that.
Nevertheless, an Oscar nomination could bring even more publicity than the film is already receiving, and could bring increased visibility for Korean cinema in a Western market that has so far failed to appreciate it. South Korea has yet to even have a film even nominated for the International Film award, much less win it (although the fact that The Handmaiden was not put up as South Korea’s Oscar pick in 2017 remains a travesty). The increased exposure that Parasite’s international success has brought could increase curiosity not just about Bong’s previous films, but also the wide range of work that Korean filmmakers have to offer.
Jenna Gibson is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Chicago and a Korea blogger for The Diplomat. You can find her on Twitter at @jennargibson.