Asking Why ‘Parasite’ was Filmed in Korean
Anglo America still thinks it’s the centre of the universe but is Hollywood giving way to a more diverse global cultural output?
It’s been fascinating to watch the celebration of the Oscars unfold this year. Nominations aside — many of which are fantastic — the media coverage of the event has provided us with funny posts and fresh memes aplenty.
In case you missed it, the above tweet was posted in reference to some of the bizarre questions from reporters when interviewing Bong Joon-ho, the acclaimed Korean director whose movie Parasite took the award for Best Picture, along with three other prizes (Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay).
“As a filmmaker, what made you decide to have the film in Korean when you had other films in English?”
This is what the ABC correspondent asked.
It turns out only two of the 14 films Bong Joon-ho has written are in English.
But the key word here is Korean.
Bong Joon-ho is a Korean director. His movie is set in Korea. The cast is entirely made up of Korean actors who play Korean characters. And the film is a critique on Korean social class.
Isn’t it strange then that a reporter would ask why the film is in Korean and not in English?
Strange to say the least. Many would say the question was borderline out-of-order. Because behind a question like this lies the expectation that all media and film should be in English.
Or that English is the default. Not only in America but even in Korea.
Questions like this may be met with unflinching eyes by many in the Oscars’ home turf. But in contrast to the non-reactions elicited from many amongst Anglo American and English-speaking audiences, international netizens, who are accustomed to navigating through different languages at the click of a mouse, have responded with a mixture of mild irritation and wheezing hilarity.
While questions like these were being asked, it is no coincidence that Bong Joon-ho’s film made history as the first ‘foreign language’ screenplay to win top prize at the Hollywood awards ceremony.
Or that the world’s largest and most relevant film festival is held in the USA at all for that matter.
‘Parasite’ and the Destruction of America
At around about the same time, Twitter was also having other Oscar-related moments of backlash.
This time in response to a tweet put out by an American TV host who seemed to take issue not only with the fact that the main award had gone to a Korean film but also that Bong Joon-ho had given his acceptance speech in Korean. The tweet ends with a dramatic
“These people are the destruction of America”
followed by a disclaimer that “these people” are not Koreans but, in fact, Hollywood.
So maybe Hollywood is contributing to the destruction of America! …Or at least what feels like the destruction of America to some.
Let’s rephrase that.
Maybe Hollywood awarding Parasite its main prize is a symptom of the USA losing some of its cultural relevance.
After all, the history of Hollywood is that of the post-WWII drive to spread American cultural dominance through the use of film as a medium to convey certain economic, social and political ideas.
And so it visibly confuses some people to see that Hollywood now seems to be upholding foreign cultural products, which are not only from abroad, but are also in a language that “isn’t ours”.
So what does the 2020 Academy Awards win of Parasite say about Hollywood, the state of affairs in international cinema and America’s worldwide cultural hegemony?
Are we witnessing a global cultural shift?
The truth is that the United States still enjoys cultural dominance over most mass media on the planet.
Despite the predictions that North American hegemony would be replaced by some other country’s all-encompassing cultural, political and economic output on the world stage, the USA is still number one dominating force — at least in terms of international cultural dissemination and consumption.
The questions and objections thrown at Bong Joon-ho are a clear symptom of this. They show that an event like this is not the norm.
But the overwhelming success of Parasite on the centre stage of American Film and its irruption in the midst of a Hollywood safe space could also be a sign of change taking place.
So are we witnessing a global cultural shift? Is America’s cultural dominance being contested?
Hollywood is still popular…
International audiences now represent 60% of the view share of American-produced movies. Compare this to 40% a few decades ago. At a first glance, it would seem then that people around the world are consuming American culture more than ever.
But in fact, this is just an indication that Americans are watching fewer movies. And in America moviegoers aren’t used to subtitles or dubbing. That’s why here, cinema means Hollywood and Hollywood means cinema.
Even so, it’s not like American cinema is unpopular. Look at the box office performance in almost any country in the world and you’ll see that Hollywood blockbusters always come out top. When put together they always come out as the highest grossing movies across the board.
…but so are other national film industries
Outside of the USA, national cinema is becoming more and more popular. This means that Chinese movies are seeing an increase in their share of views in China, Russian movies are seeing an increase in popularity in Russia, and the same goes for Japan and for Korea too.
And what about Indian films? Bollywood has grown massively in popularity, not just within India but across the globe. Especially in China, where the 2017 release ‘Secret Superstar’ reaped almost $120 million in China alone. And where ‘Dangal’ (2016) made a whopping box office revenue of $200 million. Both of these films were more popular abroad than in their home country.
In Europe, North America and Latin America we’ve seen a rise of Asian cultural influence, particularly from Japan and Korea. K-pop outfit BTS is currently the biggest boyband in the world — topping charts in over 65 countries including the USA and the UK. And it’s probably because of the internet.
They have garnered a monumental following across the globe and have catered to their international Japanese fans with the release of two Japanese-language studio albums.
Other symptoms of change are the broad international appeal of Japan’s Studio Ghibli films and their recent arrival to online streaming services. Or the emergence of Spanish-language music (mostly reggaeton) since the “Despacito Effect” took off in 2017: take Ozuna, J. Balvin or Rosalía.
Although at movie theatres nothing gets anywhere near as popular as the likes of Avengers: Endgame (2019).
Perhaps American culture still dominates. But maybe small gaps are beginning to open for more diverse cultural options to seep through into the global mainstream.
Or maybe it’s a little early to clearly see in what direction we’re going with this.
Whatever the case, two things are for sure:
ONE is that the English-speaking world desperately needs to shift its focus and understand that there is more to the world than America.
And TWO is that Parasite is a great film.