Bong Joon Ho’s Acceptance Speech Reflects Korean Society

In the 2020 Academy Awards, “Parasite” earned South Korea its first Oscars in history, a total of four, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best International Feature Film and Best Writing (Original Screenplay). As the first non-English language film in Oscar history to win the award for best picture, “Parasite” is literally history-making and meaningful to the film industry. It would take several nights for a proud Korean like me to list the reasons why this award-winning film is historic, so I won’t do that. Instead, let me talk about Bong Joon Ho’s acceptance speech, because it was also unconventional and memorable as it reflects a change in Korean society.

You probably noticed that I said at the beginning that the film brought the awards to South Korea.

Did it make you feel uncomfortable, because it somehow implies that he should share the honor with the country? If you were him, would you attribute your success to your nation first? Most people in the traditional Korean society would say, “yes.”

South Korea, like other Asian countries, represents a collectivistic culture. Koreans who are exceptional in their areas and become recognized around the world are expected to mention and honor their mother nation when they win an honorable title. As a Korean, you have to do what’s best for the society, and you owe it to the nation if you go places. However, this perspective is changing. More and more people think collectivism in South Korea is outdated.

“Writing a script is always such a lonely process … We never write to represent our countries. But it is the very first Oscar to South Korea, thank you,” Bong said after he won the award for his screenplay. Even though he mentioned South Korea in his speech, he made it clear that he does not entirely adhere to all traditional Korean customs. The film is his masterpiece, not South Korea’s. It is his individual achievement. Namely, “Congratulations, Mr. Bong!” should come first, not “Congratulations, South Korea!”

Of course, I am proud of him, and as a Korean student who studies in the States, I appreciate that he introduced South Korea to many Americans. However, I also know I didn’t contribute anything to his work, and the film industry in South Korea doesn’t assure the best environment for filmmakers. Therefore, Bong Joon Ho himself deserves all the praise.

I remember Son Heung-min, the captain of the Korean national soccer team, became teary-eyed after his team lost the game with Mexico at the World Cup 2018. The reporter asked him if he had any last words for the nation, and he said, “I am so sorry for disappointing the public, but please understand that our players do their best on the field.” Collectivists get upset if their society’s members fail to make a good grade, while they tend to give themselves credit if the members fulfill the task well. This social structure made him apologize, even though he had nothing to apologize for.

As we South Koreans get excited and celebrate this unprecedented prominence of Korean film, I also hope that we can look back on how we have judged people and their effort, acting as if patriotism is an obligation. Now people expect to be recognized as an individual contrary to the society where they are expected to represent the whole country. We all are individuals before we become a part of the society.