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Oscar-nominated Parasite is a global hit. South Koreans know it’s a local story.

“There is kind of this fatalism that is going on,” an expert told Vox.

A scene from the South Korean film Parasite in which the characters sit on the floor of their crowded apartment and assemble pizza boxes.
Scene from the South Korean film Parasite.
Neon

The South Korean film Parasite has become such an international success that it may win the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday. The appeal is easy to understand: It’s beautifully shot and well-acted, with a captivating story that doubles as a biting critique of inequality.

But the film is also a brilliant window into modern-day Korea. A country of over 50 million people stuffed into an area slightly bigger than Indiana, it’s full of cramped cities with people competing for space. The more space you want, the richer you have to be. And it used to be that a person could work their way to a life of comfort, but that social contract is currently broken.

Parasite accurately reflects this reality, letting the viewer peek into the Kim family’s crowded semi-basement apartment while the Park family enjoys their flourishing designer home. This kind of story isn’t unique to Korea — Parasite’s global message is surely why the film has found an international audience — but it is telling a story that Koreans are experiencing in real life.

So I called Kyung Hyun Kim, a professor of visual and East Asian studies at the University of California Irvine, to get a better sense of what Parasite tells us about South Korea today. Put simply, the picture is very bleak.

“The biggest thing in Korea is the ‘golden spoon versus dirt spoon’ phenomenon,” he told me. “Basically, if you’re not born with a golden spoon, if you’re actually not born with money, then you’ll never have money. There is kind of this fatalism that is going on.”

Kim added that Parasite joins a growing list of successful Korean films about inequality and declining standards of living for workers, who until only a few decades ago enjoyed successful careers.

“Thirty or 40 years ago, Koreans were able to retain their jobs even if they were not the most brilliant minds in the company,” Kim said. “The company was able to absorb that labor force, but no more. It just doesn’t happen anymore.”

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

Alex Ward

Tell me about the economy in South Korea, as that serves at the backdrop to Parasite.

Kyung Hyun Kim

Over the last three or four decades, it’s been an astutely neoliberal economy. It’s not like it was the generation before when people were expected to have a lifetime kind of employment. Once you got employed at, say, a bank, a company, or the government, you could expect to have a job for the rest of your life.

The way things are, that’s no longer the case, just as that’s the case in many other countries today. You move from one job to another without that kind of job security. That has turned into a shrinking of the middle class, which is also evident in the story of Parasite’s Kim family.

They weren’t always poor — they were clearly at one point part of the middle class. But they’ve been squeezed out and they now live as an urban poor family in a basement apartment.

Morning sunlight illuminates residential properties north of the Han River backdropped by mountains and skyscrapers in the Gangnam business district on September 6, 2011 in Seoul, South Korea.
Dan Istitene/Getty Images
Luo In-soon, a 72-year-old woman, poses inside her home in Guryong slum on October 30, 2012, in Seoul, South Korea. Located near South Korea’s wealthiest Gangnam district, Guryong slum was established in 1988.
Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

Alex Ward

That choice was interesting to me. Obviously a small basement apparent is a good way to show an audience that the Kims aren’t a wealthy family, but the apartment was also very cramped. I get that feeling when I’m in Seoul — it’s a big city, but space still seems so limited as rooms are small and so many apartments, restaurants, and stores are stacked up high or even underground.

Kyung Hyun Kim

Yeah, the director Bong Joon-ho is very good at depicting small claustrophobic spaces. South Korea is overpopulated — its buildings are saturated with very small spaces to maneuver. He’s been very good at creating drama out of these kinds of confined spaces. It’s very particular to the Korean experience.

The other Korean experiences are these intricacies of the family relationship. They’re clearly Confucian ideals, like how to treat each other in the traditional ways.

That’s important to keep in mind when considering the relationship between the father, Mr. Kim, and the rich man character, Nathan Park. Mr. Kim is clearly the oldest not just in his family but in both families. Mr. Kim ends up getting no respect from Mr. Park, who’s obviously the guy who is employing him. It’s not explained very explicitly in the film, but it’s one of the reasons why Mr. Kim gets so upset, and that leads him to murder Mr. Park at the end.

So if you’re Korean, you probably picked up on the experience of small spaces and the Confucian ideals in familiar settings.

Alex Ward

What I hear you saying is that Parasite is about the breakdown in Korean social contracts. The lack of respect for elders is a break, and a dissipating middle class is another break. I can see why that would strike a chord with a Korean audience, and of course a global one.

Kyung Hyun Kim

The film really atomizes people and creates disharmony and disunity among and between generations, and obviously between family members and so forth. Those are the kinds of things that I think it picks up.

Alex Ward

Is Parasite sort of groundbreaking in that it touches on these themes, or is this a common theme in Korean cinema right now?

Kyung Hyun Kim

There’s been a plethora of films I would say that did that really well, and before Parasite. Veteran, which came out in 2015, was one of those films. It’s about a second-generation or third-generation corporate leader who is constantly on cocaine and tries to bribe people out of his way. It’s about the evils of capitalism at a very surface level, and how he’s pitted against a good, honest cop who wants to bust him.

There’s another film that did very well called Extreme Job, about a fried chicken restaurant. That was a huge, huge hit last year, and it touched upon the polarization of the classes. The fried chicken restaurant has a particular social meaning in Korean society, because when people were laid off from their steady jobs to make room for younger people, many middle-aged men in particular took retirement funds to get into the chicken business.

That’s partly why if you go to Korea, you’ll find so many chicken restaurants. And it all tastes so good because there’s so much competition, and the competition is fierce.

South Korean fried chicken restaurant Chicken HOF & SOJU in Tsim Sha Tsui on May 19, 2014.
K. Y. Cheng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Alex Ward

Oh yeah, it’s one of my favorite things to eat when I’m in Korea.

Kyung Hyun Kim

Yeah, it’s basically the blood, sweat, and tears of the people who were let go in middle age. They’re forced to actually make their living this way because they’re not yet at retirement age.

Alex Ward

Did Parasite resonate more with a Korean audience, or has it found more success internationally?

Kyung Hyun Kim

Oh, it did well at home. A lot of people went and watched it, even as it competed with movies like Avengers: Endgame. It was huge.

Alex Ward

I’m assuming the film mirrors current discussions about Korean politics?

Kyung Hyun Kim

Absolutely. The biggest thing in Korea is the “golden spoon versus dirt spoon” phenomenon. Basically, if you’re not born with a golden spoon, if you’re actually not born with money, then you’ll never have money. There is kind of this fatalism that is going on. You see this skepticism especially among the Korean youth. The government is trying to put pressure on Korean companies to be more active and helpful in hiring.

But Korea faces the same kind of problems the rest of the world faces, right? It has become a country that is reliant, not on manufacturing jobs, but on intellectual property jobs — so companies don’t need as many people. Samsung is not likely to expand their manufacturing roster at this point in Korea when already they’ve got cheaper labor in Vietnam and in China doing all the work.

It’s a vicious cycle. There’s not enough jobs for the youth and they’re disgruntled. Meanwhile, the rich get top jobs working for Samsung, and they’re just going to get richer and richer.

Alex Ward

I’ve definitely started to notice this deep-rooted skepticism among my friends in Korea, too.

Kyung Hyun Kim

Same. This is anecdotal, but over a couple of years I’ve started to notice even more resentment and anger about this kind of situation. It really does seem like Korea is at a crossroads, and it’s exacerbated by the fact that a lot of these jobs are being exported. It’s starting to eat up a lot of the Korean economy.

Thirty or 40 years ago, Koreans were able to retain their jobs even if they were not the most brilliant minds in the company. The company was able to absorb that labor force, but no more. It just doesn’t happen anymore.

My best friend who’s in his 40s and who used to work for Naver, which is the equivalent of a Korean Google, was just let go. He’s now looking for a new career.

In this photo illustration, the Naver internet company logo is seen displayed on a smartphone.
Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Alex Ward

Is he thinking about a fried chicken place?

Kyung Hyun Kim

Well, those are the kind of options he has now, which is pretty stark. And unlike in the US, even good jobs don’t pay very well in South Korea. Samsung, for example, demands long hours and pays the equivalent of maybe $50,000 or $60,000. It’s minuscule compared to major companies Samsung competes against, like Apple.

People have told me that the equivalent jobs at Apple would pay three or four times more, easy. So Samsung is extracting labor out of poor engineers, and they have to be really good just to become an engineer at Samsung. And then, at about age 45, they are let go. It’s a hard life.

Alex Ward

If so many movies are hitting on this theme in Korean cinema, is the feeling in Korea that the situation is only getting worse?

Kyung Hyun Kim

Of course. I think a lot of people are not very hopeful that things are going to get better. It’s very difficult at this point to expand the middle class. For example, the real estate prices in wealthy areas are going up and up. In the poorer areas, real estate prices are dropping like crazy. The polarization of classes is growing faster, not slower.

Alex Ward

So it seems like we should expect more Korean movies like Parasite in the future.

Kyung Hyun Kim

Definitely.

Luo in-soon, 72, uses two walking sticks to get down a narrow alley to her home in Guryong slum on October 30, 2012, in Seoul, South Korea.
Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

Read the Vox staff’s thoughts on all nine of the 2020 Best Picture nominees:

1917 | Ford v Ferrari | The Irishman | Jojo Rabbit | Joker | Little Women | Marriage Story | Once Upon a Time in Hollywood | Parasite