Watching the cast of “Parasite” cluster center-stage at the 92nd Academy Awards, I saw faces like mine crowd the screen and shared with them a collective sense of achievement. Through the language of my grandmother, I traced the lineage of suffering from the first Korean immigrants to America, to the economic struggle of my grandparents, to the linguistic barrier my mother faced when she arrived to America as a child, to my own internal anguish as a Korean American — all culminating in the great exhilaration of this moment of celebration. A moment which seems to directly counter the residual notions of Orientalism and racism towards East Asians that remain in America but, in retrospect, exists in an isolated, carefully groomed setting of perfection and global harmony, a moment which appears to celebrate Korean culture but in actuality reinforces the global influence and dominance of Western culture.
As a Korean-American, I’m ecstatic about the movie’s Oscar sweep. Throughout high school, I struggled to embrace the “Asian” half of my identity, harboring a negative perception of my own race primarily because of the absence of American celebrities who shared my physical features, whom I could vicariously live through or strive to become. Asians have historically suffered from an extreme lack of presence and representation in the American film industry, only making appearances on the big screen when mediated through caricaturization and Orientalism (i.e. yellowface). Male Asian characters were emasculated and portrayed as unattractive, while Asian women were exoticized as Oriental ornaments. As the first film performed in a foreign-language to win Best Picture, the Oscars that “Parasite” won marks an important moment in the movement towards a more diverse Hollywood. I also feel much better knowing that Asian-identifying children in America now have the opportunity to see themselves positively represented on television.
However, a closer examination of the politics of “Parasite” and its Oscar success reveals the extremity of Western culture’s global influence and Hollywood’s domination of the film industry, and it inadvertently sets a standard for foreign countries that desire inclusion in the glamour and prestige of the Academy Awards. When Bong Joon-ho accepted the Oscar for Writing (Original Screenplay), he stated, “Writing a script is always such a lonely process; we never write to represent our countries.” His words express the transnational nature of his film’s success and emphasize that from the beginning, “Parasite” existed to appeal to a global, and thus Westernized, audience. As evident in his other films — such as his 2017 film “Okja,” which critiques industrial meat production — Bong Joon-ho writes narratives which form broader critiques that extend beyond the confines of the Korean peninsula.
In “Parasite”, the Korean language, characters, and setting serve as a transmutable vehicle to convey Bong Joon-ho’s critique on Western-imposed capitalism. The Park family, representing the wealthy upper class, bears no clear distinction from affluent Western families. The architecture of their modern house departs from the design aesthetic of traditional Korean architecture, instead embodying the sterile, quasi-Japanese inspired minimalist aesthetic of the modern palace, with exposed wooden floors, brutalist concrete walls, floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and sculptural interior decor. Language itself becomes ornamental as well; while the Park family primarily communicates in Korean, they sprinkle in random English phrases while speaking to members of the Kim family as if asserting their affluence at the linguistic level. In the film, the English language serves as an aesthetic symbol of privilege and wealth, as it distinguishes the poverty-stricken and thus uneducated Kim family (who cannot speak English proficiently) from the Park family and Kim Ki-woo’s well-to-do friend Min-hyuk, who leaves Korea to study abroad in America.
The Park family’s adoption of Western aesthetics indicates that in order to assert their successful adoption of modernity, foreign cultures must assimilate to Western culture, and particularly American culture; the West acts as the golden standard for modernity. If the movie had been filmed from the perspective of an American family stating snippets of an Asian foreign language, the “ornamentalizing” of language may have been interpreted as a tasteless manifestation of Orientalism in contemporary film. However, because the appropriation of language is initiated from an East Asian family, the ornamental use of language symbolizes a Korean family’s aspiration to achieve the modernity of America.
The Park family also asserts its affluence through the importation of foreign American goods — namely, the young son Da-song’s imported Native American bow and arrows. Hardly an insensitive or thoughtless choice, I believe that Bong Joon-ho purposefully included the minor detail of the Native American bow and arrows to further his critique of American/Western cultural imposition on foreign countries through the form of capitalism. This point becomes crystalized near the end of the film, when Mr. Park implores Mr. Kim to join him in wearing American Indian headdresses. The performance of Redface again asserts the Park family’s affluence and aspiration to modernity through their imitation of American colonial tendencies. By initiating the performance, Mr. Park effectively “teaches” Mr. Kim American colonialism and imperialism, spreading the Western culture from Korea’s upper class to Korea’s lower class and uniting the country in its modern project. The exchange demonstrates Bong Joon-ho’s genius in subliminally critiquing American imperialism, both from capitalist and cultural perspectives.
Through the example of the Park family, “Parasite” links modernization, Westernization, and material wealth, presenting a global narrative that is effectively a Western-themed film. As Bong Joon-ho suggested in his speech, “Parasite” does not strive to culturally represent Korea in full, and in fact says very little about Korean history and cultural customs. Instead, “Parasite” presents a universal critique of social inequality and capitalism. The story feels familiar and relatable to Americans due to the cultural leveling induced by capitalism, despite the fact that the characters speak a foreign tongue. I would even suggest that “Parasite” could be filmed in any first-world country with its native language and still maintain the integrity of the message because the story isn’t exclusively Korean.
It’s also significant to note that the film was produced and directed by Koreans and told through the Korean language, rather than in Chinese, Japanese, or perhaps a non-East Asian language. Considering the popularity of K-pop, it seems that of the East Asian countries Korea has been the most successful in penetrating Western pop culture and media. In other words, Korea has found a way to emulate the universality of Western pop culture by means of cultural adaptation. Some critics of K-pop say that the music genre only imitates Western pop music, that the K-pop industry operates in the manner of a factory, systematically producing pop stars who sing songs which follows the same formulaic structure of Western pop. Similarly, in favoring global issues rather than focusing on Korean-specific cultural tensions, “Parasite” seems to imitate Western film. However, rather than copying a “Western” formula, I would argue that creators of Korean media identify the essence which makes Western pop music and film universally appealing and adopt the model for the Korean language to produce content with the potential to attract transnational attention. Due to the cultural dominance of the West, “universal appeal” often translates to “Westernization.”
Perhaps this partially explains why “Parasite” could win Best Picture and why a more culturally-specific film like “Roma” could not. The movie’s accolades reveal that Hollywood is ready to grant foreign countries access to the exclusivity of the Academy, but only if the film neutralizes the host country’s own cultural particularities. Since “Parasite” is the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture, I don’t know if this claim will translate to future Academy Award wins. However, I think it’s important to consider the factors that perfectly positioned “Parasite” to win Best Picture at the Oscars. I watched “Parasite” only after witnessing the film collect its accolades at the Academy Awards. During the award ceremony, I felt the historical significance of the moment. But after watching the film, my conception of the movie’s historical achievement shifted as I became aware of Bong Joon-ho’s intentional surrender to Western culture in his effort to create a global story.