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"Parasite", Subtitles & The Definition of an American

Before watching the film, I was skeptical that Parasite would live up to the hype. The last movie I saw by Bong Joon-ho was Snowpiercer and apart from Tilda Swinton’s performance, I didn’t really like it. I saw Mother several years before that and absolutely loved it, so I was one for two going into the film.

Parasite is a good film made by a great director. The themes were important and identifiable. The Kim family is poor and they are struggling to survive. The Park family is rich and able to bask in the spoils of capitalism. They’re so rich, so oblivious to the plight of the underclasses that they don’t notice that their poor housekeeper has been hiding her husband in a bunker under their house for years.

The system does not make space for two sets of parasites; that is to say the Kim family and the housekeeper’s family are parasites if you are siding with the rich, unaffected Park family. Another reading would argue that the Park family are parasites preying on the masses to support their peaceful, hedonistic existence. Meanwhile, in the lowest strata of society, the Kims and the housekeeper are forced to battle it out for the scraps dropping from the Parks’ table. In the ensuing melee, tragedy occurs.

Bong Joon-ho tells the story of the Kims with skill and humor. The humor is dark and organic; there are no gags contrived for the audience and played for laughs, but instead strange little flourishes that reveal details about the characters, creating a fuller picture. The best of these flourishes is Jessica’s mnemonic device for remembering the details of her fictional biography.

All that being said, Parasite didn’t seem to me to be quite as good as people made it out to be. Solid but not spectacular. It was certainly good enough to win an Academy Award. I liked The Irishman more, but I’m not upset about it. Any suggestion that Parasite was undeserving is asinine unless it is a statement of preference. Any assertion that Parasite shouldn’t have won because it is a foreign film is equally obtuse. The language of the film and its country of origin did not bother me.

I was bothered, however, by Bong Joon-ho’s comments on subtitles. Unfortunately, many other people were also bothered by them and their reactions, almost all of them, are ridiculous (here for example; also here). I’m going to attempt to be a little less ridiculous. I hope. So let me declare once and for all that I am very pro-subtitle. I live in China, my wife is Chinese, and we do a lot of subtitling. TV and movies here are subtitled even when the actor or presenter or news anchor is speaking Mandarin. I’m surrounded by subtitles. I adore them. I’ve used Aegisub to subtitle videos and short films that I’ve made here. To quote Mitch Hedberg, “I’m for it.”

As much as I am for subtitling, I am equally against dubbing (except in the case of Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). We watch a lot of Hong Kong films here and they are often dubbed into Mandarin. Thankfully I have a copy of In the Mood for Love that is subtitled.

So I’m for subtitles. What I object to is Bong Joon-ho’s categorization of Americans. I realize that I am wading into the dangerous waters of “not all ________”, but that is precisely the body of water into which I would like to dive headfirst. Because when I say not all Americans, I’m referring to the Americans who often don’t get called American. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, but it’s a big deal to me. The more we use the word “American” to mean one type of person, the more we reinforce the idea that there is only one type of American, or that there is a way of being that is more American than any other way. It’s not difficult to see where that line of thinking gets us. Obviously, that is not all on Bong Joon-ho, not by a longshot.

15% of Americans are immigrants and 20% of Americans are bilingual. More than one in five Americans speak a language other than English at home. Presumably a good number of these people watch films with subtitles; maybe they watch American movies with subtitles or they watch movies in their second language with subtitles or maybe they watch foreign movies that are native to them. These people are all American. I point it out because sometimes they are not thought of that way. I don’t think that was Bong Joon-ho’s intention, but that’s part of what those words convey.

There are also the Americans who voted for Parasite to win the Academy Award. And there are the Americans who watch foreign or subtitled films (going to use those terms interchangeably) who don’t speak any other language. And there are children of immigrants who are happy to see a more diverse field of award winners and films in the American cinema. All of these Americans exist.

I assume that Bong Joon-ho is not referring to those Americans. Perhaps he’s referring to what is often called the “Real America.” Dusty plains, trailer parks, beer drinkers, MAGA supporters, the poorly educated, people who can’t point out the capital of foreign countries, the ones in man-on-the-street interviews who say Margaret Thatcher is the current Prime Minister of Germany, people in flyover states, people visiting Hollywood Blvd., conservatives and alt-right weirdos who think America belongs to people who speak English and only English, people who had a collective conniption fit when they saw a South Korean man holding an Academy Award, the list goes on.

Some of those people deserve ridicule (particularly those who live in flyover states) but others not so much. And this is where we get into “not all Americans” territory. It’s not just that “not all Americans” don’t watch foreign films, it’s also that “not all Americans” need to watch foreign films. At least not as a priority.

I’ve been to South Korea once. I had a nice time, but I can’t speak to the culture. I assume they watch some foreign films there. I’ve lived in China for almost a decade. They do indeed watch a lot of English films here, mostly blockbusters. Younger people also watch tons of South Korean television and a good amount of Japanese horror films. Generally speaking, people are not watching quality cinema here and they are mostly watching things in their own language. I posit that both things are true in most countries. Most people see a couple of good films a year, if that, and spend the rest of their entertainment hours looking to be simply and blissfully entertained. If they watch a quality film it will probably be in their mother tongue. If they watch a foreign film it might very well be a shitty Hollywood blockbuster. In France, one of the most celebrated film countries in the world, Parasite was the 27th highest-grossing film of 2019 which is sixty slots ahead of where it ranked in the United States; but, and it’s a big but, there are more than a dozen English films ahead of it and almost all of them are shitty Hollywood blockbusters (Tarantino’s latest excluded). In South Korea Parasite is the fifth highest-grossing film behind three Hollywood blockbusters and the domestic film Extreme Job.

The point being that watching foreign films does not mean that you are watching good films. It seems like the issue isn’t really a matter of subtitles, but a matter of quality. The issue is less of what Bong Joon-ho has to say about subtitles and more of what Martin Scorsese has to say about cinema vs. movies.

It would be great if more people around the world watched things that weren’t Hollywood blockbusters and if Hollywood did a better job of promoting those films. Americans, some of them at least, could watch more foreign films but even more importantly, they could watch the bevy of domestic independent or studio films made by auteurs and domestic independent or studio films made by Black people, immigrants, women and people of color. It would be great if more Americans watched foreign films with subtitles. It would be great if more Chinese people watched the films of Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye. It would be great if more people around the world watched quality films in any language including their own.

I think it’s awesome that Bong Joon-ho won several Academy Awards. I think xenophobes who didn’t like him speaking Korean at the Academy Awards are wrong. I think it would be nice if more people watched quality films in their own language or any other. I try not to romanticize foreign anything; doing that leads us dangerously close to appreciating the “alien” nature of the work we are watching or reading instead of the actual quality. We owe it to these films and filmmakers to view their work with the nuance with which it was made. We can only hope that the filmmakers will extend that same courtesy back to their audiences.