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Parasite's Historic Oscars Win and What It Means for Asian Cinema

With a beguiling mix of style and substance, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s class thriller Parasite cuts through societal divides and sends a vital message to “world cinema.”

In Parasite, which made history by being the first non-English-language movie ever to win Best Picture at the Oscars, one particularly poignant scene captures the deep divide between South Korea’s rich, who can afford to enjoy life, and its nation’s poor, who barely survive.

In their beautiful home, wealthy businessman Park Dong-ik and his wife cuddle together on the couch, gossip about their driver’s lower-class body odor, and then have sex. Hiding under a nearby table, driver Kim Ki-taek and his two children hold their breath to remain silent, yet overhear everything. This shrewd metaphor of a rich man getting high beside a poor family in hiding foreshadows the heavy price all are to pay for such casual class judgment.

Prior to this moment, each member of Ki-taek’s family, all living in a squat “semi-basement” in Seoul, had slowly acquired a job in the Park family home. His son, Ki-woo, first gained work as a tutor for Dong-ik’s daughter, Da-hye, before convincing her mother to employ his sister, Ki-jung, as an art therapy teacher. Then, through various acts of deception, the two children gain employment for their father as a driver, before together tricking the Parks into firing their long-serving housekeeper and replacing her with Chung-sook, the mother of the family, Thus, the Parks employ the entire Kim household, yet have no idea of they are all related.

When the rich family goes away camping one night, Kim Ki-taek’s family hold a celebratory party of their own inside the house. Unfortunately for them, former housekeeper Moon-gwang shows up and complicates the situation by revealing that she’s been hiding her desperate husband in the house’s basement for years. Amid the ensuing hysteria, the Parks unexpectedly return home early from their camping trip, throwing Kim Ki-taek’s family into disarray.

A screenshot from Parasite, showing the entire Kim family living in their "semi-basement" home. Image via Indiewire

Parasite’s insurmountable divide between the haves, who live on higher ground, and the have-nots, who possess skills but can’t compete in a dog-eat-dog world, culminates in a shocking yet satisfying climax, which helped the film earn honors such as the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and, recently, four Academy Awards.

Dexterously balancing humor, surprise and suspense with insightful social criticism, Parasite serves as a shining knife that both reflects and cuts through societal rifts and breaks down the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” between world cinema and American audiences which Bong Joon-ho referred to in his Golden Globe acceptance speech in January. Yet while doing so, the film also reveals crucial differences between popular and artistic appeal.

Persuasive relevance in an unequal world

By honoring Joon-ho’s thriller, the American Academy Awards itself has been widely lauded for rewarding a foreign-language film for the first time in its 92-year history, and has arguably bolstered its own reputation as much as drawing attention to Parasite and South Korean cinema in general.

In recent years, since the Me Too movement unearthed countless cases of sexual harassment and the exploitation of women working in the film industry, Hollywood has faced repeated criticism about its treatment of women and other groups, including Asian Americans, both on and off-screen.

Under a skeptical female gaze, many so-called male geniuses and their cinematic masterpieces (Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Alfred Hitchcock, etc.) have been re-examined and re-interpreted, their inherently misogynistic worldviews questioned.

Two familiar masculine tropes of American or American-influenced cinema are sex and aggression. At this year’s Oscars, violence reared its familiar face in two particularly popular works: Parasite and Joker, the latter of which became the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, raking in over US$1 billion worldwide.

A poster for Joker. Image via Forbes

Comparing the two movies, the respective difference in terms of justified or gratuitous violence suggests Hollywood might be wise to continue overcoming language barriers and open up to the world’s “amazing films,” as Joon-ho noted in his Baftas speech. In “foreign” hands, typical material receives a vital face-lift.

In Todd Phillips’s Joker, the anger of white American man Arthur Fleck is too confusing and stylized to be relevant. As its set in Gotham, a fictitious city made famous by the Batman movies, its intended social critique is somewhat diminished.

Fleck is a gentle, professional clown who takes care of his sick mother and dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. He has a mental disorder that causes him to laugh in situations in which people hurt him. At first, Fleck’s pain and anger seem socially motivated: he lives in a turbulent society where rich and powerful men rule and ordinary folk treat each other with a cautious remoteness.

Yet this social angst is dubiously woven into a personal narrative in which a woman, Fleck’s mother, plays a devilish role. Women, black people and privileged father figures all infuriate Fleck, who should feel happy but does not, even after dishing out violent justice to whoever mistreats him. Like a hero in a clown’s makeup, Fleck dances to music while committing brutal acts as if he enjoys them. Thus, Joker smacks of indulgent, existential masculinity.

Translated into contemporary Korean society, the angry male protagonist appears more relatable. Ki-taek’s anger is simple and socially relevant – he has a family to take care of, but life is too competitive and rich people lord over everything.

After a superbly entertaining first half, Parasite races through a thrilling middle section before reaching its ultimate, shocking catharsis. A lingering sad note at its denouement evokes the struggles of reality that people can identify with.

How Parasite measures up to 2018 Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters

Joon-ho’s offering blends artistic flair with moral depth, displaying even more of the latter than a similarly-themed film by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, the critically and commercially successful Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or in 2018.

A poster for Shoplifters. Image via Guild Hall

Charged with undercurrents of sex and violence, Shoplifters is a slow-paced and unassuming film, yet without such glaring class commentary. The movie questions naturalized blood relations rather than class divides by depicting a group of poor strangers who are able to take care of each other, despite their shabby living conditions, in ways that conventional families can’t.

The Japanese society depicted in Shoplifters functions well, with police and the state stepping in to help abandoned children as well as they can, though the true caregivers turn out to be a loving couple whose behavior always stretches the law to the limit.

Yet Shoplifters is microscopic, dealing with only one case. The Korean Kims, on the other hand, are just one among many families. There is a powerful sequence in Parasite, wherein every house in the neighborhood gets flooded and the Kims have to take shelter in a crowded gymnasium with other families, that reveals the bigger picture.

Thus, between Shoplifters and Parasite lies another difference between smaller-scale art-house films typically rewarded at European international film festivals and slicker, relatable movies often associated with the Oscars.

South Korea’s cinematic journey and what it means for Vietnam

According to Nguyen Huu Tuan, a Vietnamese filmmaker who attended a six-month production course at Busan Asian Film School and studied under Darcy Paquet, a leading expert on contemporary South Korean cinema who translated Parasite’s English subtitles, the film’s crowning achievement is no accident, but rather the result of years of effort from the entire Korean film industry, which includes the state, associations, businesses and individuals.

“Korean people have prepared for this success for a very long time, though perhaps they didn’t expect it to come so soon,” Tuan said, before adding that the Korean film industry has struggled to find the right “identity” for Korean movies on the international market. From collaborating with other Asian countries such as China, Japan and Hong Kong to make A Battle of Wits, imitating the west by adapting a French graphic novel or employing Hollywood stars in Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, their efforts have been wide-ranging and somewhat hit-or-miss.

Only in Parasite, a modest project created purely for Korean audiences, were they finally able to nail it, Tuan says. The success of Parasite, he adds, suggests Vietnamese filmmakers should produce high-quality, entertaining movies that capture the true Vietnamese spirit: “Vietnamese cinema needs a distinctive, unique physique, not a copycat of Hollywood.”

In his vision for Vietnamese cinema, Tuan touches upon an important issue: how can one produce good movies focusing on local culture that reap international success? Parasite shows there’s a fine line to toe here: doing justice to important cultural topics instead of exploiting them and catering to perceived foreign tastes.

A screenshot from The Third Wife. Image via IMDB

For Vietnamese viewers, award-winning Vietnamese-language movies ranging from Tran Anh Hung’s earlier films to more recent productions such as Nguyen Phuong Anh’s The Third Wife could justifiably be criticized for pushing Orientalist tropes: exotic Asian culture portrayed for western eyes in order to target foreign viewers and film festivals.

For instance, in The Third Wife, Nguyen Phuong Anh handles child marriage superficially and with plenty of female sexual objectification. It’s obviously set in a different period but, unlike in Parasite, no female character in The Third Wife ever speaks out in any way against the obvious patriarchal system that oppresses her.

Taken at face value, Parasite’s success teaches everybody interested in cinema that nothing should be taken for granted. For American audiences, it’s high time they started watching movies with English subtitles in the same way viewers worldwide have been consuming Hollywood’s creations with subtitles in their native languages for decades.

For Asian filmmakers, more movies of the same caliber as Parasite would directly lead to greater numbers of viewers either within or outside their countries of production in an age that offers significant alternatives, and while fewer people than ever before even bother to watch the Oscars awards ceremony. For directors, Vietnamese included, it’s all about doing justice to the material they cultivate from their own country.

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