How Oscar-winner 'Parasite' reveals gold spoon and dirt spoon class divide in South Korea

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So-dam Park (left) and Woo-sik Choi in a scene from "Parasite." - Neon/Neon/TNS

The invisible, indelible boundary drawn by smell depicts the severe inequality in South Korea through two families in the Oscar-winning film “Parasite.” But the movie dives more into the country’s social problems, running deep and wide.

The South Korean film won big Sunday at the 92nd Academy Awards, including becoming the first non-English language film to win best picture. Bong Joon-ho, who won best director and best original screenplay, became the first Korean filmmaker to win those prizes. Fans were jubilant on Twitter and Instagram.

“Parasite” stunned the audience with an adrenaline-inducing plot that weaves between two families at a house of jaw-dropping aesthetics. One family owns the house, the other works in it. The film highlights the reality of the class divide on housing, job and education in South Korea — “notorious problems that the South Korean government and society could not resolve for many years,” said June Hee Kwon, assistant professor at Sacramento State University’s Asian Studies program.

Kwon explained the concepts of “gold spoon” and “dirt spoon” — Korean expressions and metaphors of a class divide that is very hard to change due to unequal opportunities — which Bong conveyed through his film.

“As one of the lines in ‘Parasite’ says, you cannot change your smell unless you change your house,” Kwon said.

In the words of University of California, Davis, professor Kyu Hyun Kim, those born into poor families “could not rise up the ladder of social mobility, no matter how hard they try.” Many younger people felt boxed in by expectations and the inability to attain them, he said.

Kim saw an indirect parallel between the discontent felt by the younger generation in South Korea and the United States, despite the different political landscapes. Younger Americans concerned with college debts are leaning toward Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential election, as they don’t view their future with any degree of confidence.

The social pressure fostered within a competitive society gave rise to the surge in numbers of “goose families,” which became a new norm in Korean society, Kwon said. The term refers to the father of a family to remain in South Korea to make money, while the mother and the kids move to English-speaking countries for better education.

Kwon called it “strategic planning” for families who could afford to mobilize limited resources in search of better future. Those able to graduate from good universities could get good jobs in South Korea or overseas and secure better lives.

“People sacrifice the present for the future,” she said.

But the message of the film does not end there. In fact, there is a coexistence and codependency between the classes, Kwon said.

“Even in a highly neo-liberal and capitalistic society, it is inevitable for people to live together and share the space despite the class divide and difference,” Kwon said.

Like the characters in the film, the rich need to hire workers such as nannies or housekeepers to maintain their livelihoods, Kwon said. She cited the examples of Chinese nationals of Korean ethnicity, a part of the Korean diaspora living in China for the last century especially during the colonial era, when the country was under Japanese rule.

Now, many Korean Chinese have gone to Korea as migrant workers and served as caretakers in Korean households for a decade or two, as a cheap source of labor, Kwon said, which is in demand in other parts of the consumer markets, such as convenience stores and restaurants.

Many Koreans, even South Korean president Moon Jae-in, are “super proud” of Bong and other award recipients, said Kwon, citing social media and Korean newspapers as of Monday morning.

While Bong called the Oscars “very local” to the U.S. in an interview with Vulture last year, the Korean mass media said this year’s event “set new standards” and has “rewritten the history of the Academy Awards and South Korea,” Kwon said.

Whereas the film is an undeniable masterpiece of cinematic art and storytelling, the role of South Korean film production and distribution company and investor CJ Entertainment is vital in using its capital to market the film, especially in American theaters for the last five months, Kwon noted, citing how they were able to run screenings in North American theaters since September. But Bong’s great works were what made him capable of taking part in competitive global film markets, she added.


©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)