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South Koreans Celebrate 'Parasite' Oscar Win


Some other news now - South Korea is celebrating an artistic triumph. At Sunday's Academy Awards, the film "Parasite" became the first non-English-language film to win best picture. The movie is none too flattering about South Korean capitalism and inequality, but the award is very flattering to Korean cinema. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At a cinema in a university district here, movie fans are celebrating "Parasite's" Oscars by watching the movie. Twenty-eight-year-old Ha Hyuk-jin says he's hoping to catch nuances he may have missed the first time round.

HA HYUK-JIN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "'Parasite' is a very Korean film," he says. "It shows we can make it by doing our own thing, without imitating others." Many Koreans are delighted that Americans are waking up to the power of Korean cinema, the fifth-largest in the world by box office sales.

KIM MEE-HYUN: (Through interpreter) South Koreans watch an average of 4.2 movies a year at cinemas, more than the average American, French or Japanese.

KUHN: That's Kim Mee-hyun, a film professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. Until the mid-1980s, she points out, South Korean military regimes enforced strict censorship, and such biting satire as "Parasite" would never have made it to the screen.

KIM: (Through interpreter) It was the abolition of censorship and the process of social democratization that allowed such films to be created freely.

KUHN: "Parasite's" focus on class has special resonance here. Independent film critic Hwang Jin-mi argues that as economic growth and social mobility in Korea have slowed in recent years, Koreans have begun to feel that class divisions are so rigid and insurmountable, they're like a caste system.

HWANG JIN-MI: (Through interpreter) There's a line in the movie which says, he doesn't cross the line, but his smell does. That kind of statement shows hate for a person's very existence, not for anything they've done or said.

KUHN: The word for parasite in Korean is gisaeng chung, a kind of insect, suggesting that the poor are not even human. Professor Kim Mee-hyun says director Bong Joon-ho admitted that only Korean audiences would totally get that kind of nuance, and he was not intentionally targeting a global audience with this film.

KIM: (Through interpreter) Bong quoted Martin Scorsese and said, the most personal is the most creative. Bong expressed in his own way the aspects of South Korean society which he knows best.

KUHN: And in doing so, she says, he was able to strike universal themes, as well as gold at the box office and the Oscars.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) La-la, la-la-la... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.