Will 'Parasite' Ever Be Seen In China?

Courtesy of Neon
'Parasite'

Bong Joon Ho’s history-making Oscar winner has been a box office phenomenon around the globe — and would likely do strong business in the Middle Kingdom — but thanks to long-simmering geopolitical tensions with South Korea, the second-largest film market in the world may be off-limits.

There is virtually no barrier that Bong Joon Ho’s critically adored, commercially unstoppable Parasite hasn’t broken.

Among the movie’s many feats and superlatives: It was South Korea’s first film to win the Cannes Palme d’Or; it scored Korea’s first Oscar nomination in the best international feature film category — and then won it; and most improbably of all, it made history at the 92nd Academy Awards by becoming the first ever non-English film to win best picture honors.

Parasite has also been a colossal commercial success, having earned $201.1 million worldwide and counting. Made for just $11 million, it is South Korea’s biggest global blockbuster ever.

There is one feat, however, that Bong’s film has not managed to achieve: cracking the China market, the world’s second-biggest box office territory.

Under normal circumstances, Oscars glory typically guarantees some Chinese treasure. Over the past several years, the top winners at the Academy Awards have gone on to generate strong revenue in the Middle Kingdom — even if their stories fall far afield from the usual blockbuster fare that audiences there prefer.

In 2019, for example, Universal and Amblin Entertainment’s Green Book (distributed in China by Alibaba), a film about the culturally remote issue of race relations in the American South, set a box office record for a best picture winner in China, earning $70 million. Other award winners like La La Land (2017) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018) similarly overperformed for films of their categories, earning $36 million and $10.3 million, respectively (musicals, in particular, had never fared so well in China).

Compared to those prior successes, Bong’s movie is thought to be much more within China’s own cultural wheelhouse. Many Beijing insiders believe Parasite could do even better. Several local distributors and exhibitors surveyed by The Hollywood Reporter say audience curiosity about Asia’s first best picture winner is high, while the film’s themes, black humor and stirring social message all have the makings of a viral hit. "I absolutely believe Parasite would be a huge success in China if we have a chance to show it," says Jimmy Wu, CEO of Lumière Pavilions, a nationwide upscale Chinese cinema chain.

Earlier this year, while giving a master class at the Lumière Festival in France, Bong theorized about Parasite’s globe-spanning appeal: "The film talks about two opposing families — about the rich versus the poor — and that is a universal theme, because we all live in the same country now: that of capitalism."

The issues of income inequality and barriers to upward mobility are arguably nowhere more resonant than in China, where hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty over the past three decades, but where inequality has similarly soared. In a paper published last spring, celebrated French economist Thomas Piketty estimated that the share of income going to China’s wealthiest 1 percent has risen from 6 percent in 1978 to about 14 percent in 2015 — surpassing the rates in such countries as France (10 percent) and fast approaching the U.S. (20 percent).

Parasite’s China market potential was recognized by some of the first buyers who saw it at Cannes. Several well-connected sources in Beijing tell THR that the film sold to a Chinese distributor during Cannes’ Marche du Film in May. But South Korean studio giant CJ Entertainment remains mum on its China ambitions for the blockbuster. When asked about distribution plans there, a CJ representative would only say, "Nothing is decided yet." (CJ also declined to say which Chinese company currently holds the local release rights.)

With China’s 70,000 cinemas still shut down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, dozens of high-profile films previously set for release — both local tentpoles and Hollywood imports — are awaiting rescheduling. Thanks to the backlog, Parasite would likely have to wait months to score a release date even in the best of circumstances. Insiders believe the pic’s problems in China extend far beyond the current health crisis, however.

Thanks to a long-simmering geopolitical dispute between Beijing and Seoul, no Korean film has played in Chinese cinemas since Showbox Entertainment’s action blockbuster Assassination opened there in September 2015.

Throughout the 2010s, Korean entertainment — from K-pop to moviemaking — was rapidly ascendant among the Chinese public, with Korean drama and reality TV formats, in particular, commanding some of the highest licensing fees of any content category among local TV networks and streaming platforms.

But in July 2016, China’s media regulators instituted an abrupt ban on all Korean content entering the country. Although never officially acknowledged, the block was understood to be retaliation for Seoul’s decision to install a U.S.-made missile defense system, known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), on the Korean peninsula. Seoul argued that the missile system was only intended as deterrence against North Korea, but Beijing contented that the installation of an American missile system on its geographic doorstep was a severe impingement on its sovereignty.

Last summer, it looked like Parasite was set to secure the first new exception to China’s ban on Korean film screenings. China’s influential FIRST Film Festival, held in the Qinghai province, scheduled Parasite as its closing screening — and anticipation of the event was feverish. Days before the festival was set to begin, however, Parasite was abruptly pulled from the lineup, with organizers citing unspecified "technical reasons" — the common euphemism for censorship problems.

Some speculated that Parasite’s violent ending could be to blame, while others have argued that the film’s critique of income inequality could be unwelcome to the ruling Communist Party during a time of slowing economic growth and growing social grievance. But the most well-connected insiders tell THR that the pic’s Korean provenance is more likely to blame.

"As of now, we don’t see that there have been drastic changes in the policy direction by the Chinese government," says an official at the Korean Film Commission in Seoul.

Amid such ongoing challenges, Chinese film lovers are most likely to see Parasite online — perhaps even via legal means, if CJ is especially lucky.

In 2017, Barry Jenkins’ gay coming-of-age drama Moonlight, riding its best picture Oscar win, scored a surprise special screening slot during the government-backed Beijing International Film Festival — considered a coup given Chinese regulators’ often repressive handling of storytelling featuring gay characters. But lo and behold, several weeks before the festival began, Moonlight was discreetly yanked from the lineup (organizers told THR that government figures indeed objected to the film’s “gay content”).

Yet Moonlight still managed to stream in China, thanks to a deal with online video giant iQiyi. Several Korean titles also have scored discreet streaming deals in recent years, including Lee Chang-dong’s 2019 critical favorite Burning and the 2018 monster film Monstrum, which were both sold to Chinese video platforms by Seoul-based sales outfit Finecut.

"It will be difficult to go back to the pre- THAAD period and export purely Korean films” to Chinese cinemas, says Goo Jongsang, a professor of media communications at South Korea’s Dongseo University. "Korean companies should now look for other means of cooperation."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 22 daily issue at the Berlin International Film Festival.