Korea, Republic Of
It was a show-stealing speech at the Oscars, but dimmed lights meant it almost didn’t happen.
- Samsung founder’s granddaughter backed Oscar’s Best Picture Parasite
- Her company was caught in an embezzlement scandal as government blacklisted artists
- Miky Lee’s dream was to champion Korean cinema across the world
When Parasite, the darkly comic South Korean social commentary on class, made history by becoming the first foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, executive producer Miky Lee made one of the night’s most endearing speeches.
The South Korean movie mogul almost wasn’t afforded the chance to speak, until the crowd (led by Tom Hanks) rallied to have the lights brought back up.
Ms Lee was warm in her praise for Parasite director, Bong Joon-ho, who also won the gong for Best Director.
Twitter Oscars @TheAcademy: #Oscars Moment: @ParasiteMovie wins for Best Picture.
“Thank you for being you,” she said. “I like everything about him. His smile, his crazy hair, the way he talks, the way he walks, and especially the way he directs.
“What I really like about him is his sense of humour, and the fact is he can be really making fun of himself and he never takes himself seriously.”
But she also thanked exacting South Korean moviegoers.
“I really, really, really want to thank our Korean film audience, our moviegoers, who have been really supporting our movies and never hesitated to give us straightforward opinions,” she said, to laughter.
“That made us really never be able to be complacent and keep pushing the directors, the creators, keep pushing the envelope. Without you, our Korean film audience, we are not here.”
It was a watershed moment for South Korean film, and Ms Lee was the picture of benevolent godmother.
She has been labelled the country’s most powerful female film producer — but who exactly is she?
Also known by her Korean name, Lee Mi-kyung, Miky Lee is an heiress turned media mogul.
She is the granddaughter of Lee Byung-chul, the founder of Samsung — now South Korea’s largest and most profitable company.
The irony wasn’t lost on Adam Lashinsky, who noted in an article for Fortune:
“The film’s top financial backer is a member of the most prominent family in South Korea … the epitome of the social elite that Parasite demonises.”
She is the vice chair of production company CJ Entertainment (which started as a sugar and flour manufacturing division of Samsung), and has in the past backed films like Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden.
Jinsoo An, a specialist in Korean cinema at the University of Berkeley’s East Asian studies department, told Fortune that Ms Lee is “the most influential and powerful female film producer in South Korea”.
“Miky Lee has taken a risk in investing in dicey and innovative films for the past decade or so,” he said.
Controversy over arts ‘blacklist’
Ms Lee’s family and company went through a tumultuous time from 2013, after the election of former president Park Geun-hye, who was later impeached and removed from office in 2017.
Ms Park had vowed to crack down on “chaebol” — South Korean monopolies and conglomerates.
Amid the crackdown, CJ Group chairman and Ms Lee’s brother, Lee Jay-hyun, whom she thanked in her Oscars acceptance speech, was arrested in July 2013.
Prosecutors charged him with embezzling 165 billion won ($208 million) and tax evasion, and he was initially sentenced to four years in jail, but that was later revised down to two and a half years.
At the same time, Ms Lee, citing health reasons, distanced herself from the company and mostly stayed in the US, but was actively promoting the company and Korean cinema in 2014.
It would later emerge, according to the Hollywood Reporter and Yonhap news agency, that Ms Park’s presidential advisor had pressured Ms Lee to step down from CJ Entertainment in 2013.
Authorities cited an “SNL Korea” satirical parody of Ms Park broadcast on CJ networks, as one of the reasons the company was in her crosshairs.
In 2017, former Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun was arrested for suspected involvement in an “arts blacklist” which targeted thousands of creatives who were critical of Ms Park.
The list included almost 10,000 artists and was designed to cut them off from government subsidies.
The blacklist was said to include award-winning author Han Kang, as well as Parasite director Bong Joon-ho.
Ms Lee oversees a $US4.1 billion ($6.1 billion) entertainment empire.
But her dream, according to Wired in 2013, was “to see people around the world enjoying Korean culture”.
Ms Lee was born in Tennessee in the United States and moved to Seoul with her family at the age of three.
She studied humanities and languages in Korea, Taiwan and Japan, before graduating from Harvard.
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At Harvard, she found Korean language classes were poorly attended and Korean culture was not widely-understood, so her “lifetime obsession to promote Korean culture started then,” she told the Washington Post in 2014.
The paper reported that a hereditary neurological disorder that affected her nerves left her with a limp, but Buddhist mediation had helped her to come to terms with the illness.
In 1995, she spearheaded a deal to invest $300 million to help launch DreamWorks.
The Hollywood Reporter describes her passion for promoting Korean film as taking on an “almost evangelical intensity”.
“I used to carry DVDs and go to Warners, Universal, Fox, anybody I had a chance with, and pitch Korean film, Korean film, Korean film,” she is quoted as saying.
According to academic Elie Ofek, CJ Entertainment was buoyed by the success of exports like K-Pop and Korean dramas across Asia, and hoped to bring Korean culture to the West.
But a key question was whether Americans “would ever really embrace Hallyu, the Korean Wave, beyond one-off success stories like PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’.”
For Parasite, its success seems to lie in its universal appeal.
“I thought it was just a Korean story,” Ms Lee said, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal.
“But at Cannes I finally realised it explores the themes, issues and thoughts that people all around the world are thinking about.”