Why Criticism: The One-Inch Tall Barrier of Foreign Cinema

Parasite Movie - Film Essay

“Why Criticism” is a film criticism-themed Vague Visages column featuring various contributors.

After earning numerous prizes during the latest awards season, Parasite scored big at the 2020 Oscars. In an incredible plot-twist, Bong Joon Ho’s ingenious social experiment of exploring class inequality subverted the rules of a self-referential industry and pierced through the glass ceiling, winning four Oscars (Best Picture, Best International Feature Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay). It was only last year that Alfonso Cuarόn’s Roma came close to a similar result, but then lost the most coveted statuette to the white-saviour narrative propelled by Green Book. The chances that anything could change in 2020 were dim, yet beacons of hope kept flaming amongst critics and movie-lovers alike. 

At this stage, it’s worth asking: why is Parasite’s victory so radical? It’s basically a matter of language, visibility and representation. In 2015, #OscarsSoWhite raised important questions, but the Academy has since been quite lethargic in addressing the many issues the movement brought to wider attention. Yes, one of the problems is female directors being snubbed in many categories, most notably for Best Director. In addition, POC performers are rarely recognised for their outstanding performances, and nominated only when playing racially-acceptable roles like slaves or nannies (as Beatrice Loayza notes in her insightful essay for The Guardian). Ultimately, things can hardly change as long as the voting members of the Academy are mostly white and male. Regardless of such a daunting scenario, Parasite managed to emerge victorious with a breath of fresh air and a much-needed wave of positivity.

Parasite Movie - Film Essay

What about language, though? Needless to say, Parasite is intrinsically a South Korean film. It sports an all-Korean cast, it’s set in South Korea, it shines a light on exploitative dynamics pertinent to that country’s society and, naturally, everyone speaks Korean. This means one thing: unless you speak the language, you have to watch the film subtitled. Apparently, this is where the whole discourse revolving around Parasite and its streak of winnings escalated. How come a film not immediately accessible to the wider public could be awarded the most prestigious Oscar of all? How come I have to watch a film and not be immediately able to follow the story while scrolling my Twitter feed? To some native English speakers, this might come as a surprise, but you can, in fact, watch a film in a language different from your own. All you need to do is concentrate, read the subtitles and be enriched by a story reflecting a diverse culture altogether.

Being born in a non-English speaking country, subtitles never bothered me much. Soon, I realised I was in the minority. Italy has a long, somewhat prestigious history of excellent dubbers who lent their voices to all the foreign films that ended up being distributed in the country. Whether you head to a cinema or watch a film on your telly, there’s no escaping the same pool of actors. So, Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha has the same voice of Natalie Portman in Black Swan, and both of them sound exactly like the title character in Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. A bit weird, yes, and confusing. In the mesmerising world of Italian dubbing, I always stood with the snobs, as we were regarded by the majority. While viewing loads of anime and East Asian films, I never understood the need for dubbing. I wanted to hear how the characters I loved sounded. I wanted to be immersed in a different atmosphere, a different culture. When I started to learn English, I used subtitles as a handy tool to get used to the language: first, they were in Italian, then I stepped up and went full-English. In any case, I didn’t mind not understanding the original language, I just wanted to get the full spectrum of authenticity. 

Parasite Movie - Film Essay

Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” said Bong Joon Ho when receiving the Golden Globe for Parasite, and no other words could resonate with me more. To the lilliputian minds of those who are firmly against anything foreign because they are too scared to be open to diversity, these words together with Parasite’s triumph at the Oscars will be fuel for their asinine battles. At the other end of the barricade, though, here we stand. Tucked in our so-called privileged positions, we need to not only hold tight but also need to learn when to engage and when to let things go. For many people who are outraged by the Joker or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood defeat, there will be others for whom the gates of foreign cinema are now partly, or perhaps completely, open. Let them discover the wonders of Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Spanish, Thai or French cinema. They now have the whole world to explore.

Ren Scateni (@whateverren) is a freelance film journalist based in Edinburgh. She has written for MUBI, Little White Lies, Girls on Tops and other outlets.