In winning an Oscar, the makers of the South Korean film Parasite have drawn attention to some serious social problems facing their country.
Parasite’s story focuses on inequality between rich and poor families. It shows the dreadful living conditions which are endured by some people in Seoul.
This dark tale is reminiscent of Japanese films which I have seen, which also used family stories to examine social issues. Sometimes, after watching one of those movies, I have left the cinema feeling uneasy but I was pleased to gain a fresh perspective on Japan.
For example, Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (above) took an unflinching look at child poverty and social exclusion. Like Parasite, it’s a deeply moving film and it had a fantastic cast – especially the child actors.
Critics have developed a taste for intense dramas from Asia and Shoplifters won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
I expect more movies of this type will be commissioned both in South Korea and Japan. However in China, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to raise funding for films which expose the dark side of life.
South Koreans often complain about inequality.
It’s therefore fitting that a film from that country exposes the gap between privileged people and those on the margins of society.
For example, the Chairman of Samsung Group, Lee Kun-hee, is due to receive 470 billion won – US $400 million – in share dividends for last year.
That’s despite the fact that Samsung’s profits were down sharply because of a slump in computer chip sales.
Sometimes, politicians in South Korea attempt to challenge the vested interests of chaebol conglomerates, such as Samsung. But it’s not easy to change a system which is so ingrained into the economy.
Inevitably, there are stereotypes in the press about South Korea, just as there about Japan.
The journalist David Fickling recently set out to challenge some of them.
In a piece for Bloomberg Opinion, he analysed numbers from the World Bank and concluded that “South Korea is east Asia’s most egalitarian society.”
Those who have seen Parasite will be surprised by that claim. But Fickling argues his case well, based on extensive research.
Aside from inequality, South Korea, Japan and China share other challenges.
They all have ageing populations. Their cities are straining because of urbanisation. And they have had disasters linked to extreme weather and climate change.
They also, unfortunately, now all face a common threat from the coronavirus.
Films such as Parasite and Shoplifters have been rightly lauded for the skill of their casts and directors. They deserve attention and prizes.
For international viewers, they bring to the screen the struggles of life on the margins in East Asia. We are fortunate these stories are being told.