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'Bong effect' to artists

Director Bong Joon-ho accepts the award for Best International Feature Film for 'Parasite' during the 92nd Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., Feb. 9. The film won four Oscars. AFP-Yonhap
Director Bong Joon-ho accepts the award for Best International Feature Film for 'Parasite' during the 92nd Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., Feb. 9. The film won four Oscars. AFP-Yonhap

By Kim Rahn

Director Bong Joon-ho is now enjoying the time of life (although I hope he will have even better times ahead), achieving both artistic and commercial success, fame and respect. The winner of four Oscars has left his indelible mark on Korean cinema history.

But it has not always been like this for Bong; he was just a rookie director with several short films under his belt until his 2003 film "Memories of Murder" became a hit. He was lucky to have a chance to make his first feature film "Barking Dogs Never Bite" in 2000 at the age of 31, younger than the age at which most other directors make their debut here, but the film only drew some 100,000 viewers, and was regarded as a box office disaster.

Having a wife and a child, it must have been difficult for Bong to hang onto his dream while having no regular, decent income until 2003. Recently he recalled that once his friend from college days brought his family rice ― "having no rice," the staple for Koreans, means even having a regular meal was tough.

Bong's story is not special or unique: Many other artists or workers in the culture industry ― whether it's film, music, painting, theatre, dance, animation, cartoons or literature ― go through financial hardship unless they are from a well-off family or have another source of income; at least until they achieve commercial success.

The situation is not limited to Korea. Throughout history, now famed artists were not recognized during their lifetime, consequently suffering financial pressures, except for a lucky few. It is well known that J. K. Rowling only managed to maintain herself via government unemployment benefits before achieving a megahit with her "Harry Potter" series.

But sadly, to many artists, success never comes at all.

In January 2011 in Korea, Choi Go-eun, a 32-year-old scenario writer, was found dead at her rented house in Seoul, presumably due to disease coupled with starvation from financial hardship. Before dying, she left a note to her neighbor, which read: "I'm sorry but can I get some more rice or kimchi? … I think I can get paid in mid- or late-February, and I promise I'll pay the electricity bill."

Choi's death showed the reality that young artists could wither away before showing their talent to the world, or give up their dream to find other job options.

Imagine that Bong, under financial pressure, gave up being a director and opted for another job. There would have been no Academy honors for a Korean film, but more importantly, there would have been no "Memories of Murder," "The Host," "Mother," "Snowpiercer," "Okja" and "Parasite," as well as the many other positive aftereffects his movies have brought, such as a growing number of chances for Korean directors and actors to work with international production companies.

In this regard, it is a welcome move that the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) is seeking to introduce an unemployment insurance program for artists who are between paid projects.

The program will be a Korean version of France's "Intermittent," a special unemployment benefit for actors, performers, musicians, technicians and other workers in the culture industry with intermittent employment, to help them maintain a basic standard of living.

The plan had been a 2017 presidential election pledge presented by then DPK candidate, now President Moon Jae-in. It has not gained priority among hundreds of promises and not been actively pushed until recently when Bong's Oscar wins highlighted the need to foster the culture and arts industry.

It's late, but better late than never. I hope the relevant law will be established as soon as possible, so the new program can help many would-be Bong Joon-hos.


Director Bong Joon-ho accepts the award for Best International Feature Film for 'Parasite' during the 92nd Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., Feb. 9. The film won four Oscars. AFP-Yonhap
Director Bong Joon-ho accepts the award for Best International Feature Film for 'Parasite' during the 92nd Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., Feb. 9. The film won four Oscars. AFP-Yonhap

By Kim Rahn

Director Bong Joon-ho is now enjoying the time of life (although I hope he will have even better times ahead), achieving both artistic and commercial success, fame and respect. The winner of four Oscars has left his indelible mark on Korean cinema history.

But it has not always been like this for Bong; he was just a rookie director with several short films under his belt until his 2003 film "Memories of Murder" became a hit. He was lucky to have a chance to make his first feature film "Barking Dogs Never Bite" in 2000 at the age of 31, younger than the age at which most other directors make their debut here, but the film only drew some 100,000 viewers, and was regarded as a box office disaster.

Having a wife and a child, it must have been difficult for Bong to hang onto his dream while having no regular, decent income until 2003. Recently he recalled that once his friend from college days brought his family rice ― "having no rice," the staple for Koreans, means even having a regular meal was tough.

Bong's story is not special or unique: Many other artists or workers in the culture industry ― whether it's film, music, painting, theatre, dance, animation, cartoons or literature ― go through financial hardship unless they are from a well-off family or have another source of income; at least until they achieve commercial success.

The situation is not limited to Korea. Throughout history, now famed artists were not recognized during their lifetime, consequently suffering financial pressures, except for a lucky few. It is well known that J. K. Rowling only managed to maintain herself via government unemployment benefits before achieving a megahit with her "Harry Potter" series.

But sadly, to many artists, success never comes at all.

In January 2011 in Korea, Choi Go-eun, a 32-year-old scenario writer, was found dead at her rented house in Seoul, presumably due to disease coupled with starvation from financial hardship. Before dying, she left a note to her neighbor, which read: "I'm sorry but can I get some more rice or kimchi? … I think I can get paid in mid- or late-February, and I promise I'll pay the electricity bill."

Choi's death showed the reality that young artists could wither away before showing their talent to the world, or give up their dream to find other job options.

Imagine that Bong, under financial pressure, gave up being a director and opted for another job. There would have been no Academy honors for a Korean film, but more importantly, there would have been no "Memories of Murder," "The Host," "Mother," "Snowpiercer," "Okja" and "Parasite," as well as the many other positive aftereffects his movies have brought, such as a growing number of chances for Korean directors and actors to work with international production companies.

In this regard, it is a welcome move that the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) is seeking to introduce an unemployment insurance program for artists who are between paid projects.

The program will be a Korean version of France's "Intermittent," a special unemployment benefit for actors, performers, musicians, technicians and other workers in the culture industry with intermittent employment, to help them maintain a basic standard of living.

The plan had been a 2017 presidential election pledge presented by then DPK candidate, now President Moon Jae-in. It has not gained priority among hundreds of promises and not been actively pushed until recently when Bong's Oscar wins highlighted the need to foster the culture and arts industry.

It's late, but better late than never. I hope the relevant law will be established as soon as possible, so the new program can help many would-be Bong Joon-hos.


Kim Rahn rahnita@koreatimes.co.kr

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