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The BTS of Parasite: How it May Change Working Conditions of the South Korean Film Industry

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


February 9th, 2020 was a historic night for many Koreans as the South Korean film ‘Parasite’ won Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards along with three other Oscars. As the first ever non-English film to win Best Picture – the most prestigious award of all the Oscars – Parasite comically proved that the story of socioeconomic inequality was a matter that resonated with all of us around the world, regardless of what language it was told in. Korean culture, most notably through k-pop, k-dramas and food has constantly been an emerging field of global interest and now it seems that Korean movies will also be added to the list.

However behind the scenes of flashy BTS concerts and romantic Korean dramas are the many on-site workers that are often day labourers without written contracts. They have no legal protection and are considered lucky if they are paid the minimum wage.[1]It’s sad but painfully true that domestically, Parasite was particularly acclaimed for its humane working conditions, with every single worker regardless of position having signed a Standard Working Contract[2]– a “luxury” many film makers do not provide.[3]


This toxic tradition in Korea’s music and film industry traces back to how the recruitment process for film-making is carried out.

As vividly shown through the movie Parasite, the Korean culture industry is still a very closely knitted community that operates on the basis of ‘who knows who’ rather than ‘who’s actually good’.

It is because of this traditional system that many contracts, especially for lower-ranking positions, are done verbally and informally, leaving day workers with no safety net and the warning that taking any sort of legal action against employers would be considered ‘snitching’. This, combined with the very toxic Korean working culture throughout society and ridiculously long hours often being considered proof of diligence, commitment, and a necessary sacrifice if you’re striving to be the best, mean that the film industry’s infamous working conditions have even led to several suicides and deaths from overworking.[4]


But Parasite’s massive success seems to be signalling change, as Bong Joon-Ho’s respect for fellow workers is now becoming a shared sentiment within society and the film industry itself. Parasite proved that a masterpiece can still be made on a 52-hour work week, instead of 100. The value of both foreign and domestic funding for Korean films overall thanks to Parasite’s triumph is also expected to have a trickle-down effect, as most of the harsh working conditions are heavily due to the lack of funding which is no doubt a common issue in non-English film industries.


Furthermore, a set of legal reforms making government funding available only to producers who agree to abide by the Standard Working Contract will undoubtedly also be a main driving force towards change. With independent film makers often being the ones most in need of government funding, these reforms are expected to improve working conditions for those especially in need due to the inability to attract private funding, resulting in particularly grave working conditions. The Korean Film Council, together with the Ministry of Employment with changed societal attitudes are devising ways to make the film industry a safer place for everyone. So while there is still a lot to be done, as quoted in Parasite: ‘we seem to have a plan’.


Sarah Jaewon Hwang

Section Editor

Asia


SOURCES


[1]Lee Ji Young, ‘Parasite and the Standard Working Contract’ (Joong Ang Daily, 29 May 2019) <https://news.joins.com/article/23482413> accessed 27 Feb 2020

[2]A form of employment contract suggested by the ministry of employment and labour that outlines basic responsibilities between employers and employees such as wage, working periods, insurances, and etc.

[3]‘The reality of how Parasite’s Standard Working Contract attracts attention’ (The Hankyoreh, 27 May 2019) <http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/opinion/editorial/895545.html> accessed 27 Feb 2020

[4]‘17hours of filming, 3hours of sleep and then back to work … still nothing has changed’ (Seoul News, 23 Jan 2019) <https://www.seoul.co.kr/news/newsView.php?id=20190124012012> accessed 27 Feb 2020

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