The woman behind Oscar-winning Parasite: All you need to know about Miky Lee, South Korean entertainment's biggest mogul

FP Staff

Feb 10, 2020 14:24:14 IST

Making it the first non-English-language film to do so, Bong Joon Ho's Parasite has made history by winning four Oscars on Sunday, the Awards being for Best Picture, Best Director, Best international feature film, and Best original screenplay.

Behind Parasite, and Korea's, rise to the front of the cinematic conversation is Miky Lee, whose $4.1 billion entertainment empire serves as the foundation for much of the cultural output of the country. From television dramas to K-pop concerts and movies dominating the box office, Lee is at the source of it all. She built the country's first movie multiplex, has invested in DreamWorks, and launched several filmmakers like Bong Joon Ho.

 The woman behind Oscar-winning Parasite: All you need to know about Miky Lee, South Korean entertainments biggest mogul

As vice chair of the Korean conglomerate CJ Group, the 61-year-old oversees its entertainment and media business. From production, financing, and licensing to distribution and exhibition, CJ has strong links across the film, television and music industries. She's also responsible for creating an infrastructure for the Korean entertainment industry as a whole, providing a foundation for homegrown artists to flourish. It's also possible to draw a direct line between CJ's investment in the local film scene and the rise of filmmakers like Bong. Without her support, Parasite may not eve have existed.

Bong also attests to how she's a true cinephile and has a genuine passion for film which she has brought to the world of business. CJ has financed and distributed the four of the director's films: Memories of MurderMotherSnowpiercer and now Parasite.

Early on, Lee's passion was evident in her manner of promoting Korean filmmaking.

"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. No one thought Korean films were good enough to do anything with," Lee says of the years before a crucial turning point in 2004 when Park Chan-wook's Oldboy took the Grand Prix at Cannes. After that, she didn't need a justification anymore.

So when Parasite hit 15 years later, the pipeline laid down by Lee meant that the international film world was no stranger to Korean talent.

CJ was founded in 1953 by Lee's grandfather Lee Byung-chul as an expansion of his trading company Samsung, as the sugar and flour manufacturing division. Over the next four decades, CJ grew its food and beverage business and expanded into biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, but had nothing to do with media and communication.

Lee, meanwhile, was gravitating toward the humanities, studying language and linguistics, and becoming fluent in Korean, English, Mandarin and Japanese. She then attended Harvard for her master's in Asian studies where she discovered her interest in introducing Korean culture to her Korean American students, who had adapted to Western ways.

In 1987, Lee's grandfather died and his Samsung business was divided among heirs, with the CJ Group going to her brother Lee Jay-hyun which, following her graduation from Harvard, Miky also joined. In 1994, when working in its new business division, she received a call from a lawyer with an investment proposition. Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg were building a studio. Was Samsung interested?

She brought the DreamWorks proposal to her uncle, following recent activity from other Asian electronics giants in Hollywood, including Sony buying Columbia Pictures and Matsushita divesting from MCA/Universal. But Samsung preferred to focus on hardware, and a deal was never cemented.

In 1995 however, DreamWorks reapproached her directly and she put together a deal which she took to her brother, who agreed. CJ decided to invest $300 million to launch DreamWorks and take a 10.80 percent stake and distribution rights to its films in Asia (excluding Japan). Katzenberg attests to the first investor Paul Allen and Miky Lee being the two people without whom there would be no DreamWorks.

With the DreamWorks deal, CJ suddenly found itself an entertainment player.

Lee, divorced and without any children, lives in Orange County, in an environment she finds entirely different from the one she grew up in in the 1960s. She compares this to Korea's flailing postwar infrastructure, which meant that basic household appliances were scarce and often had to be imported. In America however, there's content, and for her, it's a different world.

Among Lee's favourites are the films Mad Max, Love Story, and Death Wish; the work of European actors like Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve and Alain Delon; Michael Cimino's Year of the DragonBlue VelvetRaising Arizona; and John Waters' Pink Flamingos.

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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2020 09:02:45 IST