Parasitizing Parasite – What Singapore Can Learn From Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar Win12 min readReading Time: 9 minutes
Ever since premiering at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has been busy making history. It became the first South Korean film to win the Palme d’Or and the first to win with a unanimous vote since Blue Is The Warmest Colour in 2013. Parasite went on to win at the Golden Globe awards, BAFTA Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards before capping its victory lap at the Academy Awards. The film is now the first non-English language film in Oscar history to win Best Picture and the first to claim four awards at the awards.
Beyond the accolades, Parasite was simply an incredible film. While its style, aesthetics and Cannes premiere do scream arthouse, Bong’s flawlessly witty script and biting exploration of South Korea’s class divide made it an instant classic amongst mainstream audiences.
Asia and Asians were quick to join in on celebrating Parasite’s success. However, the film did not spring up from nowhere – it is the product of a robust industry built by supportive governmental policies.
Singapore films can definitely shine on the international stage too – the recent success of Anthony Chen, Boo Junfeng and Yeo Siew Hua can attest to that. We have the talent, skills and equipment necessary to duplicate or even exceed the success of Parasite. So what is holding us back?
In an attempt to look for an answer, I will be doing a brief comparison between the South Korean film industry and our own to find out how – in my humble opinion – we can work towards having our own Parasite.
Our Own Parasite?
While I do believe that Singapore can definitely have its own sharp commentary on income inequality and class divide based solely on the storytelling talents of our filmmakers, for the sake of this article, our own Parasite will come to mean a film that reaches its success – both mainstream wise and on the film festival circuit. Bong’s phenomenal wins proved that shattering the glass ceiling set on Asian cinema isn’t as impossible as we thought even as recently as a year ago. Filmmakers from all around the region will push harder than ever before, making now the perfect opportunity for steel to sharpen steel.
The Inescapable Differences Between South Korea And Singapore
While we can look to learn from South Korea’s film policies, there are still a number of insurmountable differences between the two countries, namely with the demographics and South Korea’s chaebols, or family-controlled conglomerates.
South Korea is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world while Singapore is home to a vast diversity of races and cultures – both of these compositions have their own distinct advantages when it comes to film. On paper, the intermingling between cultures makes it possible for Singapore to divulge uniquely vibrant stories. On the other hand, South Korea’s ethnic homogeneity makes it easier for their films to achieve domestic success with their audience rallied around the same language, same cultural history and similar tastes.
Before Parasite, Bong Joon-ho was already a household name making two of the highest-grossing films in South Korea’s history with The Host and Snowpiercer. Bong built a local base before striking out into the international field. A similar story would be hard to emulate in Singapore with our tiny population and cultural diversity; the latter of which could be possible to overcome but difficult to say the least, where currently all of our best performing domestic films are made by the Chinese for the majority Chinese.
Another key difference between the two nations is with how chaebols play a huge part in the South Korean economy. Since the country’s rapid industrialisation in the 1960s, these corporations, such as Samsung and Hyundai, became massive, all-encompassing entities thanks in part to lax government policies.
Wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few in South Korea, and it just so happens that one of them was passionate about the entertainment industry. The cultural behemoth that South Korea is today wasn’t built overnight, and a large part of how it became so has to be attributed to Miky Lee, vice chair of Korean conglomerate CJ Group and one of the heirs to the Samsung fortune. Together with her company, she oversees almost all of Korea’s big name productions and has been responsible for creating the infrastructure of the industry.
All this could not be possible with a government that did not believe in the industry. While Singapore also has large family-controlled conglomerates that dominate the economy, the key difference between the two countries comes with how much the respective governments valued the soft power of culture and having an entertainment industry.
The Film Industry in Singapore and South Korea
Contemporary Singapore cinema can trace its roots to Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man released in 1995 – the first full-length feature film made by an independent Singapore filmmaker released to critical acclaim. Soon afterwards, Eric, together with producer James Toh and artist Lucillia Teoh, wrote the White Paper that led to the formation of the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) under the National Arts Council in 1998.
The SFC supports the industry by providing funding for productions, nurturing local talents through training and promoting public awareness and appreciation of film as an art form. Based on information from the official IMDA web page, the SFC has supported more than 800 short films, scripts, feature films and film-related events since 1998. Notable productions include Chee Kong Cheah’s Chicken Rice War and Khoo Koh’s One Leg Kicking.
The SFC merged with the Singapore Broadcasting Authority and the Films and Publications Department of the then Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts to form the Media Development Authority in 2003. Today, it provides five main grants – the Short Film Grant, the Overseas Participation Grant, New Talent Feature Grant, Production Assistance, and the Southeast Asia Co-Production Grant.
While these grants have contributed to the growth of Singapore’s film industry, it would still be difficult to match the grants and producing opportunities in South Korea in part due to the support of the chaebols. Furthermore, budget alone should not be the be-all-end-all of a film’s quality. Parasite had a modest budget of $11 million (USD), while the award-winning Ilo Ilo had a budget of $700,000 (SGD). There seems to be more than can be done than grants and training.
Perhaps, one point of improvement can come in the relaxation of regulations in Singapore. The MDA – now known as the IMDA – and the Singapore government by extension is rather infamous for its censorship policies, with Royston Tan’s 15 and Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love being prime examples.
On the other hand, South Korea embraced its democracy.
South Korea had an earlier start in the film industry than Singapore. While its industry experienced a brief golden age in the 1950s, the government’s tightened grip on the film industry in the 1960s and 1970s meant ostensive censorship policies. What prevailed in this era were films that were supportive of the military dictatorship and “hostess film” or films with overt sexual content that were popular with the masses.
South Korea saw its transition to democracy in 1987. Prior to that, the Motion Picture Law of 1984 allowed independent filmmakers to produce films, while 1988 saw the government lifting all restrictions of foreign films. To protect its nascent industry, the government enforced a screen quota requiring movie theatres to set aside days per year to show domestic films. Paralleling this is South Korea’s rise as an economic powerhouse, becoming one of the four Asian Tigers together with Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, leading the way for chaebols to grow into massive entities.
Early on in its democracy, the South Korean government, together with Miky Lee of CJ Entertainment, spearheaded the growth of its entertainment industry through supportive policies. The support runs deep – even in the fallout of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, then president Kim Dae-Jung still decided to invest in local talent in the hopes of making Korea entertainment a business powerhouse.
Its embrace of democracy has led to South Korean cinema to be defined for its challenging themes – themes that may be deemed provocative by a less democratic government but themes that are yearned by both domestic and international audiences. Park Chan-wook’s hyper-violent and controversial Oldboy springs to mind as one of the country’s first breakout stars. Today, films such as Kim Do-young’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 and – of course – Boon Joon-ho’s Parasite taps into the anxiety of modern South Koreans while remaining relevant to the international crowd; both were produced by large conglomerates that could grow due to government policies.
In turn, the renaissance of Korean cinema – and eventually Parasite’s success – could be widely attributed to three main factors: collaborative efforts between conglomerates and the government, the government’s faith in the industry, and an industry not held back by state-led censorship.
What Can Be Changed?
South Korea’s success story in the film world, however, is not without its skeletons in the closet. Chaebols dominating the South Korean economy meant that the line between politics and corporations is constantly blurred. These corporations are also often accused or convicted of corruption and fraud, while wealth being concentrated in the hands of the few has contributed to the country’s vast income inequality; an issue that Parasite – itself financed by these large corporations – looks to tackle. These are issues that Singapore definitely could have less of; emulating a free deregulated market similar to South Korea might not be the best idea.
However, I do believe that a key learning point from the South Koreans is in its freedom of expression. Of course, this is easier said than done given the night-and-day differences in demographics between the two countries, where there is always that fear that a film, a book or even a song might threaten the delicate balance between the different cultures or incite political upheaval.
Yet, this is exactly the leap of faith that I feel the government should look towards. This is not to say that local films today are not subversive or critical of government policies or societal attitudes – Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined and even Anthony Chen’s Wet Season both tackle such themes. However, an ease in censorship means more opportunities for more ambitious projects with room for more filmmakers to emerge and wave the Singapore flag. Issues that are relevant to Singaporeans – income inequality, gender equality, rights of foreign workers – are global in their scope. What our filmmakers can offer is a glimpse into these issues through a uniquely Singaporean lens – much like how the South Koreans have done it.
To appeal to the pragmatism of Singapore, it could also be argued that having a strong arts and culture sector – including films – would further bolster Singapore’s tourism industry. The other Asian Tigers have become cultural powerhouses of their own, thanks in part to their film industry making a mark on the international stage. There are now even plans to turn the filming locations of Parasite into tourism spots with guided tours in the works – the possibilities in the synergy are endless.
Parasite shattered the glass ceiling – walking through the glass will be rough but sometimes the only way forward is the toughest.
In the end, do we really want to be known to the world as the country of Crazy Rich Asians, or do we want to be known as the home of talented filmmakers and ambitious films that are yearning to offer the world an uniquely Singaporean viewpoint?
– Sinema’s Compilation of Call For Entries to Grants, Workshops and Film Festival Entries for Filmmakers
– Filmmaking Grants for Southeast Asian Filmmakers
– In Retrospect: Parasite’s Bong Joon-Ho’s Greatest Features Over The Years
– Review: PARASITE 기생충 is a Magnum Opus of an Emotional Gut Punch That Defies Categorisation
(Banner image credit: CJ Entertainment)