‘Parasite’ Backers Gain $100 Million on Film Tackling Inequality

“Parasite” executive producer Miky Lee became an unlikely star of the 2020 Oscars when she accepted the award for best picture, praising director Bong Joon Ho and her brother Lee Jay-hyun.

“I’d like to thank my brother,” she said, for supporting and “building our dreams, even when it looked impossible.”

Her brother has plenty to thank her for, too.

In a twist befitting the dark comedy’s skewering of wealth inequality in South Korea, Lee’s family has become about $100 million richer following their big night, when “Parasite” collected four Academy Awards.

While Lee herself directly holds about 0.1% of CJ ENM, the entertainment and merchandising subsidiary of CJ Group, her brother’s stakes in that and other entities, as well as those held by his two children, are worth $1.1 billion, up 10% since the Feb. 9 award ceremony, according to data compiled by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Some of the shares are pledged as collateral.

A spokesperson for CJ Group declined to comment on the calculation.

The Lees, among South Korea’s richest families, are one of Bong’s staunchest backers, even as films like “Parasite” and the English-language production “Snowpiercer,” rail against inequality.

“There are some comical elements in ‘Parasite,’ and at the same time there are some bitter parts that explicitly reveal the wealth gap in society,” Bong said at a news conference this week in Seoul. “I tried to make the film as frank as possible to portray the age we live in.”

Entrenching Privilege

South Korea’s powerful, family-run chaebol — including CJ Group — have long been blamed for exacerbating inequity and entrenching privilege. Lee Jay-hyun was pardoned in 2016 after being sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for embezzlement and tax evasion. Together with his two children, he owns 46% of the group’s holding company, CJ Corp.,which reported 30 trillion won ($25 billion) in revenue in 2018, filings show. He emerged as the largest shareholder in 1998, thanks in part to stock inherited from his mother.

CJ Group, which started as a sugar and flour refiner, invested $300 million in DreamWorks SKG in 1995, winning the right to distribute the studio’s movies in Asia outside of Japan. Since then, CJ ENM has grown into South Korea’s largest entertainment conglomerate, investing more than 7.5 trillion won in movies, television and music. The Lee family also built the nation’s first multiplex in 1998.

While CJ has endeavored to promote Korean culture to outsiders, it often has come under fire at home for crowding out small independent cinemas. The number of screens operated by its multiplex chain stood at 1,221 last year, about 40% of the country’s total, according to the Korean Film Council.

Its market dominance may not impress South Korea’s most famous director.

“I’ve been in the Korean film industry for about 20 years and have seen astonishing developments,” Bong said at the Seoul news conference. “But at the same time, it has become more and more difficult for young directors to try peculiar and adventurous things.”

— With assistance by Sohee Kim

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