February 16, 2020

BETTEZ | ‘Parasite’ and the One-Inch Barrier

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Upon his acceptance of the foreign-language film award at the Golden Globes, Bong Joon-Ho — the writer-director-producer of Parasite — said through his translator Sharon Choi: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” This victory was quickly followed by the film’s stunning sweep at the Oscars, as it garnered recognition for it’s screenplay and directing before winning both the Best Foreign Language category and the coveted Best Picture category. Parasite had made history as the first foreign-language film to make such an achievement in the American film world. For a brief, shining moment, such a victory felt like the beginning of a new era of global appreciation in American cinema.

However, such a stunning success is shadowed by its context. The past several weeks have seen the rise of anti-Asian sentiment due to the resurgence of the novel coronavirus. On my plane ride from JFK to Syracuse two weeks ago, a single sneeze on my part caused the middle-aged, white woman sitting next to me to immediately fish a face mask out of her bag and secure it over her face — a relatively minor slight I found a bit amusing. But around the world, it has been far less of a laughing matter, as worldwide businesses have been rejecting Chinese customers, Uber drivers rejecting passengers of Asian descent and a Chinese man even died three weeks ago from a heart attack after bystanders refused to give CPR due to coronavirus fears. One perspective towards Parasite’s unprecedented success could be that it was a fluke, a knee jerk reaction to the viral #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that has been circulating the internet since its creation in 2015, a continued attempt at dispelling the popular dialogue of the Oscars’ lack of racial diversity. Despite the nominations of Roma and Black Panther last year and a doubling in the percentage of people of color within the Academy to a still-meager 16 percent in 2019, the Oscars has been known for its repeated snubbing of films featuring people of color and their respective actors, such as The Farewell and Us this year.

At a place like Cornell, this current rise in prejudice feels distant. For a student body that is approximately 20 to 25 percent Asian or of Asian descent, it’s easy to forget that the country in which we reside in is only about six percent Asian American. Here in Ithaca, the showing of Parasite at Cinemapolis was packed so tight that my group of friends was forced to split up in the first row. And The Cornell Cinema does a good job of periodically showing a large variety of Asian cinema, such as Studio Ghibli films or Chinese Portrait

Cornell is hardly a microcosm of American society as a whole, and particularly its views towards foreign film. Parasite is only one of few foreign-language films to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. 20 years ago saw the startling success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Despite the fact that both are Asian and excelled at the Oscars, these films  have little else in common. One is set in 18th century Qing Dynasty China, the other takes place in contemporary South Korea. While a success in its own right, the enduring power of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon faded into a passing fad for exoticized, Asian martial arts films to find moderate success in its wake. On the underbelly of the joy over Parasite’s success comes a concern for the same fate — for it to only lead to an echo of box office copycats designed to turn a profit. After all, Parasite could take place in just about any industrialized area, with any ethnicity of actors, while communicating the same  central themes of classism and the inherent flaws of capitalism. Part of Parasite’s ability to break out so dramatically into the mainstream of Western culture is the  universality of its message and the common human experience it portrays. It is a film which transcends language and cultural boundaries.

On the other hand, it seems to signify a rise of fascination with Asian media, and its slow yet steady emergence into the American mainstream. The reality singing show The Masked Singer, in which elaborately costumed celebrities compete in anonymity, is a continuation of the South Korean franchise King of the Masked Singer. And the South Korean boyband BTS has been steadily rising in prominence in the West,  especially considering their performance during New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in Times Square. Most know at least of The Hunger Games and its worldwide prominence, but lesser known is the original Japanese film Battle Royale that I honestly thought was a far superior film.

Regardless, the only thing we can do, as viewers, is to support. Give Old Boy by the same director as Parasite, Bong Joon-Ho, a try. You can’t go wrong with the other nominees of this year, like Honeyland or Pain and Glory. To ensure the enduring power and success of diverse films in the American consciousness, the best endorsement we can provide are our eyes and ears.

Michaela Bettez is a junior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at mbettez@cornell.edu. Bet on It runs every other Monday this semester.