In a 2020-esque moment, the Academy awarded “Parasite,” a South-Korean film peering into the interconnectedness of the haves and have-nots, four Oscars. The sheer prestige of this film’s new accolades perhaps suggests that this is a triumph for media diversity. By labeling a foreign language film as “Best Picture,” we have collectively completed the work of transcending borders.
This would be the rosiest version of events. “Parasite’s” landslide win does demonstrate increasingly open attitudes to foreign cultures, but indicates a failure on Hollywood and American audiences’ part to act on them earlier. Subtitled foreign films have been present in American box offices since the early 20th century and yet, it took us until last Sunday to accept one of them — and not even with entirely open arms.
The film’s success has resumed the debate around subtitled films and their watchability without due reason. But, globalization has already done most of the heavy lifting for us. It has facilitated foreign languages and translators’ implementation into various contexts — boardrooms, classrooms, et cetera. Why, then, are we questioning their rather limited presence in theaters and living rooms?
Audiences often turn their noses up at subtitled films, claiming that the lowbrow, direct translations are a bastardization of what the director and screenwriters were originally trying to convey. The reality is that linguistic and translating capabilities have come incredibly far. Viewers, as a result, can understand subtitles as delicate adaptations of the original script to local sensibilities in a way that maintains the painstakingly created nuances.
Perhaps they need to be reminded that, in 2020, we are no longer living in the age of direct translations. These same viewers who criticize subtitles’ lack of precision are often the same cinephiles who insist on watching a broad range of films. Yet, without the incredibly well-done subtitles in “Parasite,” they would not be able to apprehend the complexity director Bong Joon Ho imbued into the script that attributed to the film’s overall ingenuity.
Furthermore, audiences cannot pretend that actors’ efforts and production teams’ hours of filming fail to capture the facial expressions and voice fluctuations that communicate universally understood emotions.
Some argue that subtitles introduce another cognitive strain, especially when the plot is complex and demands one’s full attention to understand. However, the brain processes in effect when watching a film without subtitles are already highly-involved. Granted that subtitles consist of dialogue and not thorny sociological theory, the additional “strain” from digesting information from subtitles is negligible.
The use of scientific rhetoric to undermine these types of films seems like an attempt to mask the sharp distinction between what is taking place cognitively and culturally. The media’s treatment of “Parasite” as an exception to all foreign films reflects our refusal to recognize how narrow-minded Hollywood has become.
Reminding ourselves of how people approach music shines a harsh but necessary light on the establishment and how we’ve become complicit in it. When we listen to music, we aren’t hyper-focused on the language the lyrics are in and the artist’s country of origin isn’t of great importance. How else could K-pop become a global phenomenon?
That being said, the same sort of acceptance ought to apply to films, an even more important cultural medium. The bottom line is that this film did not actually transcend language. It did not crack the code of the American psyche and plenty of other foreign films are absolutely just as character-driven — and yet the Academy failed to recognize them.
Bong’s work undoubtedly deserved “Best Picture,” but did it need to be awarded “Best International Feature Film?” The fact that “Parasite” swept up a whopping four awards strongly signals that foreign films can win high awards and find success in the lucrative American box offices.
Yet, clumping the two accolades together is essentially a weak nod to these non-American filmmakers. The Academy and audiences alike would never treat foreign language documentaries with this sort of carelessness. But, non-documentary genres communicate just as important and often universal messages. This habit of passively watching until we’re called out for our blindspots cannot continue.
Bong’s joke equating subtitles to a one-inch barrier may have been a lighthearted jab, but it reveals how deeply embedded xenophobia is in the collective American consciousness. Now that we have awarded a foreign filmmaker and streaming services have done the work for us, we have no more excuses left to avoid foreign films.
So if you haven’t seen “Parasite” yet, go. But that shouldn’t be your only attempt.