'Parasite' to 'Past Lives': Korea's Hitmakers Strike Oscar, Again
How CJ ENM became Hollywood's daring awards darling
When it comes to getting Oscar’s attention right now, one South Korean entertainment giant is playing the game as well as anyone.
In 2020, CJ ENM, one of the leading media companies in Korea, made history when Bong Joon-ho’s Palm d’Or-winning class-conflict drama Parasite won the best picture Oscar — it also walked off with statuettes for best director, original screenplay and international feature — becoming the first non-English language film to win the Academy’s top award. Parasite went on to gross an impressive $53.4 million in the U.S. and $263 million worldwide.
Three years later, CJ ENM was back in the awards ring again, this time with Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave, a moody thriller about a detective’s obsession with a mysterious widow, which picked up best director honors at Cannes on its way to earning a spot on the Academy’s international feature short-list — although, ultimately, it fell short of making the final five nominees.
Now this year, CJ ENM is back in the game with a foothold as a nominee in the best picture race thanks to Celine Song’s Past Lives (produced with A24, Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler’s Killer Films and David Hinojosa’s production label 2AM). With its universally positive reviews, the movie was named best picture by the National Society of Film Critics and it also has earned a second Oscar nom for Song’s original screenplay. A delicate, cross-cultural tale that speaks in both Korean and English, the film traces the changing relationship between two childhood friends, a boy and girl who grow up together in Seoul but then go their separate ways when the young girl’s family emigrates to Canada. Years later, they reconnect and contemplate the roads not taken when Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo) visits New York City and finds Nora (Greta Lee) married to an American husband (John Magaro).
The Rise of Korean Entertainment
By bridging cultures, Past Lives could almost be seen as a pretty tidy metaphor for CJE ENM’s long-standing efforts to become an international entertainment powerhouse. Its parent company, CJ Group, began its life in the 1950s, producing flour and exporting sugar. Eventually, it would expand into processed foods and pharmaceuticals and, finally, into media, embracing everything from music to multiplexes. “CJ has been working for many years on getting into the U.S. business,” Khan Kwon, CJ ENM’s head of U.S. film development and production, tells me, who details the company’s strategy, particularly in partnerships, including why it picked A24 for Past Lives.