‘Parasite’: are attitudes towards international film changing?

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With a release marking the hundredth year of Korean cinema, Parasite has torn through the awards season with an intense momentum worthy of such a dark and absorbing thriller. Bong Joon-Ho’s exploration of economic inequality was not only the first South Korean film to win a Golden Globe, but also the first to be nominated for three awards. Similarly, no
South Korean film has ever been nominated in the foreign-language category of the Oscars, and only Parasite and last year’s Burning have ever made it to the December shortlist.

Parasite has six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, and all are a culmination of a long list of triumphs for Bong Joon Ho and, more broadly, international movies as a whole. The film is a testament to how far South Korean cinema has become since its inception and, regardless of whether it wins an Oscar or not, its half a dozen nominations indicate that the Academy is increasingly looking abroad for the year’s best films.

[Parasite‘s] half a dozen nominations indicate that the Academy is increasingly looking abroad for the year’s best films

However, Parasite is far from the only good movie that Korea, or any foreign country, has released to date. Our awards seasons, particularly the Oscars, have always been shy when it comes to international cinema, with many excellent movies being relegated to the Best Foreign Language film category. Many international movies that are universally adored by critics were never even nominated for an Oscar at all, such as Park Chan Wook’s The Handmaiden, or In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar Wai. Both were expertly written, acted and had a glowing reception, however both were shunned by the Oscars.

So what makes Parasite different? For many, the outbreak of foreign cinema into Hollywood and mainstream audiences is a long time coming. We are definitely witnessing a positive shift in the right direction, however we still have a long way to go regarding how we consume and appreciate foreign cinema. It was only last year that Mexican film Roma and its successes at the Oscars prompted a damning bid by film giant Steven Spielberg to ban movies released on streaming services for nomination. Whilst it could be said that Spielberg’s protests were due to concerns surrounding Netflix as opposed to the Spanish script, no such fuss occurred with The Irishman’s numerous nominations this year.

We are definitely witnessing a positive shift in the right direction, however we still have a long way to go

Additionally, Hollywood’s own discomfort with recognising a more diverse range of actors and directors is still a pressing issue, so it might be a bit of a stretch to expect the Academy to wholeheartedly accept various films that are so deeply rooted in non-American culture. These preferences for ‘home grown’ American or British movies is reflective of our own historical preference for western movies. On a surface level, it makes a lot of sense. The UK especially seems to be allergic to foreign language education, so it isn’t a surprise that its population is similarly averse to foreign language films. In the words of Boon Jong Ho himself, we are often restricting ourselves with the ‘one-inch barrier’ that is the existence of subtitles.

It clearly isn’t the content of such films that give us pause; there is a long trail of filmmakers preferring to simply reshoot these international films within an American or British setting, with the only difference being that they are usually worse. Park Chan Wook’s classic Oldboy was remade in 2013 to box office and critical failure, and, less recently, Hollywood’s 1984 remake of Godzilla also fell flat. Our film industries’ preference for shoddy remakes instead of honouring the original films reflects a distinctly British (and American) discomfort with media that is not based in a setting that is familiar to us. Parasite’s resounding success is doubtlessly a gateway for us to begin to access other excellent foreign movies, not just from Korea but also China, South America and Europe.

Parasite‘s resounding success is doubtlessly a gateway for us to begin to access other excellent foreign movies

But there’s no need to be too optimistic. Despite its sweeping wins so far, in comparison to favourites 1917 and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Parasite is still seen as a dark horse in the upcoming Oscars. However, it’s undoubtedly paving the way for a hopefully wider range of international films to achieve the recognition they deserve next year, something that is very exciting to see.

Image: Adli Wahid via Unsplash

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