PARASITE is a roller-coaster ride with twist after twist and it won our hearts not just by being entertaining, but also for doing the impossible — this South Korean satire on class disparity and helplessness won the best film and director awards at the Oscars.
In a world where American culture, whatever that may be, and its exports dominate, the South Koreans are taking it to their shores and winning.
It must be the biggest thing coming out of the South Korean arts scene since Psy and his Gangnam Style. It looks like the South Korean onslaught is full on, especially with K-Pop acts gaining more mainstream acceptance in the West. One can safely predict that Parasite will push the Korean Wave across the line.
The Korean Wave or Hallyu, which incidentally is a Chinese term, is basically the export of South Korean pop culture involving music, TV shows and movies. These days they include video games and programs, too.
The South Korean “culture economy” arising from Hallyu is not something to be sniffed at. Hallyu’s direct and indirect impact on the economy, particularly exports, amounted to US$9.48 billion in 2018.
South Korean tourism has been a major beneficiary, too, with visitors wanting to relive the K-drama, K-movie as well as the K-pop music videos.
More important, South Korea’s cultural exports have contributed to the success of its other products and brands. Mobile telephones, cars, trains and construction and engineering companies are getting a better reputation because of Hallyu.
Boy band BTS, for instance, accounted for US$4.65 billion of South Korea’s gross domestic product, and is as valuable as multinationals such as Samsung and Hyundai to the economy, with an impact on exports, including fashion, cosmetics, food and cars, as well as tourism.
Last year, for its US tour, it sold out 300,000 tickets within minutes, at an average price of US$452 each. Its two sell-out shows at Wembley Stadium were said to have generated US$84 million in economic impact for London.
However, these successes are less of a coincidence. South Korea decided to make culture an economic activity, as well as a tool to rebrand itself after the 1998 financial crisis.
It created a special department for K-Pop in its cultural ministry and poured money into it. It was not just to produce talent, but also world-beaters.
It developed and implemented a creative economy strategy that saw the convergence of science and technology, industry, culture, and entrepreneurship.
Over time, K-Pop has become a major export earner with a return of US$5 on every US$1 spent — not only from music, but the cultural phenomenon role in selling phones, TVs and dishwashers.
Seriously, what lesson can we glean from Parasite, and perhaps even Hallyu?
I am sure following the success of Parasite, and Hallyu, governments across the world — including ours? — must now be looking at how to promote the creative fields to be contributors to the economy. Soon, presumably, there will be official beelines for Seoul and Jeju Island.
However, the South Korean pop culture success stories do not come easy, or quick.
It took a lot of investments, and perhaps many mistakes were made along the way.
It took decades that required resilience, determination and consistency.
In Malaysia, do we have the world-beaters, the Bong Joon Hos that could trump Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino?
I am sure we have. At a Kuala Lumpur suburb there is a coffee place operated and frequented by movie people and I have bumped into some of them who have won international awards.
How do we harness this talent so that we can have our champions in years to come? Can we get beyond our tendency to be bogged down by bureaucratic malaise and hurdles when it comes to the arts?
We must stop our propensity for the usual navel gazing on why we cannot produce world-beaters, which before long will degenerate into blaming politics, race and religion.
If there is one lesson from Parasite, it is that success takes time and we should never take our eyes off the prize.
The writer, a former NSTP group managing editor, is now a social media observer