Measuring the success of “Parasite” from Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho is a task that will continue for ages. Made for a relatively low Budget of 11 million dollars, it is the latest success story of the foreign language film like Enter The Dragon, Pan’s Labyrinth, Amelie, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Life is Beautiful.
It also finds veritable company with America indie films like Napoleon Dynamite Moonlight, Get out and so on for finding commercial and critical success despite the obvious art film sensibilities. Already hitting 167 million dollars at the global box office before going on to win big at the Oscars, it is easy to declare Parasite as one of the most successful subtitled film in ages.
For Nollywood, navigating a Post “Parasite” discussion depends on which ideological aisle of the industry you’re looking at. On one side, the success of this film is simply a product of effective financial investment. It is common knowledge that the Korean film industry has been massively funded over the years, from the government supported Korean Film Council and also individuals like Miky Lee, the film’s co-producer, who wields considerable influence in Korean cinema as the vice chair of the South Korean conglomerate CJ Group. South Korea is also a nation of movie-goers and its film industry is the fifth biggest in the world in terms of box office sales. Add that to the efforts of the distribution company Neon and maybe Parasite isn’t exactly the low budget indie darling the media has reported it to be.
On the other side, there is the sentiment that Parasite’s big win at the global markets and the Oscars offer an indictment of the Nollywood’s inability to improve and compete at an international level. Lesser budgets being no excuses for the lack of imagination and quality of storytelling.
It is great to run diagnostics on a project like Parasite, but there is a lot wrong with simplistic comparisons with better established film traditions. While impressive, Parasite‘s unique box-office success doesn’t change the fact that it is difficult for most foreign-language films to make a similar mark worldwide. Making great, compelling films is only the beginning of this process and not the entire process. Filmmakers interested in taking global markets must be able to articulate their filmmaking philosophies at that level.
Yet, the success of Parasite(and other foreign films) offers a solid blueprint for foreign film industries and their studios on how to develop projects that can make a mark globally, while maximizing earnings. This is why the simplistic “big budget” gaze cast on filmmaking success is moot and lazy, as it does not appreciate the craft of the filmmaker and critical acclaim in this process.
The Function of Critical Acclaim
Parasite didn’t jump out of thin air to find success, it wasn’t exactly a triumph of its budget simply, neither was it a miracle.
Bong Joon-Ho didn’t always have the attention of big studios or access to funding; he studied Sociology at Yonsei University but was determined to become a filmmaker and co founded a film club, where an obsession with Hollywood films was born. Struggling in the beginning like most filmmakers, Bong shot wedding films and financed his first film “Barking Dogs Never Bite” (2000) which was a critical and commercial failure.
His second film however, was successful , a crime drama called “Memories of Murder, budgeted at 2million dollars, which is conservative even for Asian film budgets. Memories of Murder received successful screenings locally and at several international film festivals, including Cannes Film Festival, Hawaii International Film Festival, London International Film Festival, Tokyo International Film Festival and San Sebastian International Film Festival, where Bong Joon-ho won the Best Director Award. This successful international festival run earned the film favourable critical attention. (Now with a critics consensus of 90% on Rotten Tomatoes). Director Quentin Tarantino named it, along with Bong’s third film “The Host,” one of his Top 20 favorite movies since 1992. It was also chosen as the best Korean film of the century.
Like every film he’s made since then, Parasite had a year long successful festival run from festivals like Cannes,Rotterdam, Munich, Palm Springs, San Sebastian, TIFF and numerous awards. With this kind of attention, it is easy to understand why Bong’s films after this point continued attracting interest, funding and eventually partnership with international distributors like Netflix and Neon who only came on after Parasite won the Palme’Dor.
I only discovered Bong after learning of his Netfix hit “Okja” and watching “Snowpiercer” His entry into global reckoning was slow and gradual, not the sudden rise of a well funded director.
To effectively navigate the post Parasite discussion, it cannot effectively be about budgets; Nollywood will not be able to routinely raise the budgets of the average Korean film. It also cannot be about the lack of infrastructure; that will take some time to build. What Nollywood can do immediately is to learn how to put together critically acclaimed films; a feat that can be easily achieved with the same resources available to the industry.
Nollywood, renowned for hardcore resourcefulness must shift gears and apply the same ethos in story development and a building an international cinema presence. Nollywood has developed technically over the years and is better positioned to take the next step but will only be possible when Nollywood is able to consistently export films that resonate not only with local audiences, but international audiences. A few African films already offer a peek into how critical acclaim and international partnerships work in Africa (Atlantics, Timbuktu, The Burial of Kodjo, Felicite, 76, Rafiki, Tsotsi, Moolade, Viva Riva).
But with most Nollywood films struggling to resonate beyond local audiences, basic storytelling problems and generally an industrial disinterest in film festivals/critical attention, It is unclear if Nollywood wants to have a serious conversation about a post Parasite era.