Asia Life | Society | East Asia

Parasite: Moving Beyond ‘Foreign’

Parasite is praised as a “foreign” film; but does it have to be?

Layne Vandenberg
Parasite: Moving Beyond ‘Foreign’

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, left, poses for the media with cast members after a press conference for his new movie “Parasite” which won the Cannes Film Festival’s top award, the Palme d’Or, in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, May 28, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

Following the vast export of music, TV, and popular culture from South Korea, Korean film has become increasingly popular abroad. But while BTS and K-pop music is no longer thought to be “foreign,” Korean films are still discussed abroad within the context of their foreignness. Even after winning the Palme d’Or, the most coveted prize at the Cannes Film Festival, upon its premiere, Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 hit Parasite still finds its praise limited by its identity as “foreign.” 

Parasite presents the modern contradiction of representing one’s roots without being exclusively identified with that label. Parasite is undoubtedly a “Korean” film in the sense that it was produced by an almost exclusively Korean cast and crew and was filmed in South Korea. The film’s primary language is Korean, and Bong and the film’s actors conduct interviews in Korean with translators. Following Cannes, Parasite was originally released in South Korea and Brazil in late May 2019. The basic plot follows the relationship between two Korean families, the wealthy Parks and the poverty-stricken Kims. Bong created Parasite with the desire to “reflect the daily life of Korea and the reality of Korean society.” The film includes a host of references familiar to home audiences, ranging from Taiwanese cake shops going out of business and a well-known tune sung by one character to memorize identity details. Some of the original Korean dialogue is translated into its Western equivalent in the subtitles (including changing Seoul National University to the University of Oxford, and the texting application KakaoTalk to WhatsApp).

On a larger scale, some details may still remain inaccessible to Western audiences. Parasite’s plot is catalyzed by the gifting of a scholar’s rock, a token in East Asian society of specific cultural significance. The housekeeper’s rendition of North Korean news broadcasts serves as a humanizing, comedic moment for the character that might be lost on unfamiliar audiences. The Parks’ disdain for those who ride the subway reinforces their upper class position in Korean society considering that nearly 7 million passengers use the Seoul public transportation network per day, out of Seoul’s total population of 9.7 million. The Korean title for Parasite, Gisaengchung (기생충), can be broken down to mean “parasitic” (gisaeng, 기생) and “insect” (chung, 충). This carries through to the first names of the Kim family: each name begins with “Ki-”, which is frequently pronounced “Gi-”, and the wife’s name is “Chung-sook.” Although the film leaves who the true parasites are up for interpretation, the characters’ names no doubt bring a comment by one of the characters, Kim Ki-woo, to the foreground: “It’s so metaphorical.”  

Parasite as Beyond “Foreign”

While some aspects of the film may not translate well beyond Korean viewers, the genius in Parasite lies in its ability to convey the same message to international audiences without relying on cultural references to make it relevant and understandable. Even Parasite’s comedic moments, arguably the most difficult to translate across cultures, are smoothly adapted from Korean into other languages. Bong describes a scene where son Kim Ki-woo (played by Woo-sik Choi) is directing the acting of his father Kim Ki-taek (played by Kang-ho Song). Only Korean audiences would understand the secondary layer of humor present in this scene — Kang-ho Song is a senior actor to Woo-sik Choi in real life — but the dialogue is still humorous to Western audiences. 

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Although Korean is the primary language in Parasite, the Park family frequently uses English and Western cultural references to establish themselves as privy to modern society’s lingua franca. The Parks and the Kims first cross paths as their daughter searches for an English language tutor for college entry examinations. The Parks’ son is a member of the Cub Scouts and obsessed with Native Americans. The Parks frequently incorporate English vocabulary into their conversations to reflect their upper class education. The Parks’ attempts to weave international culture into their family and home further distances themselves from the realities of South Korea.

The setting itself is limited and avoids any distinct associations with Korea that would not be readily understood by an international audience. The film was primarily shot in a studio in Goyang, South Korea, where the Parks’ intricate home was developed and shot in a feat of production design. The alleyway and the semi-basement “house” where the Kims reside comprised the limited location shooting in Seoul. The audience only infers the film is set in Korea thanks to visible indications, including Korean signs on storefronts and the repeat presence of Korean soju and beer brands. These techniques are not unique as East Asian films increasingly separate their plots from their locations to be more relevant in the global film industry. Similar to Wi Ding Ho’s Cities of Last Things, where Taiwan is the film’s setting only in name, Parasite could take place anywhere. 

Foreignness of East Asian films

As a renowned and distinctly “foreign” film, Parasite has company in memorable East Asian counterparts. Fellow Korean films The Handmaiden and Train to Busan boast impressive awards records and popular followings, but Parasite appears to be emerging in a league of its own. The most apt comparison lies with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which won awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score at the 73rd Academy Awards after being nominated for six other Oscars, including Best Picture. Alfonso Cuarón tied this record of number of nominations with Roma in 2018. Parasite may be a contender to surpass this record.

Unlike Parasite, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is very much rooted in its setting in China. The film was shot in mainland China, featuring prominent and distinctly Chinese landscapes such as the Gobi Desert, Mount Cangyan, and the iconic bamboo forest. The costume and set design are meticulously created to tailor to the plot’s setting in 18th century Qing China. The film’s unforgettable depiction of martial arts, or kung fu, is also strongly associated with Chinese culture. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon also begins with the gifting of a sword, another moment demonstrating the importance of tokens in East Asian society.

Where Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon may have played into stereotypes around East Asian culture and thus fulfilled expectations of what a “foreign” film looks like, Parasite’s blatant disregard for Western exoticism may signal a new mentality in Asian filmmaking. Critics’ praise for Parasite thus reinforces that films shot and produced abroad do not have to embody “foreignness” to be successful internationally. 

Western audiences, however, cannot seem to look beyond Parasite as “foreign.” Perhaps we are drawn to Parasite to satiate a hunger for unfamiliar stories of inequality, or we are more struck by tales of wealth disparity in contexts than those found in our own backyards. But discussing Parasite solely as a commentary on South Korea thus dilutes and ignores the more universal messages probed by the film around imprisonment and desensitization in society at large. Praising a film as a distinctly “foreign” film thus separates it from ourselves, in turn diminishing its true value and reach. Yes, Parasite is a Korean-made film, but we shouldn’t be surprised it has surpassed the expectations of the Western film industry and infected us along the way.