Koreans Do It Better: The Academy honors South Korean cinema in Western clothes, by Elena Furlanetto


After watching
Parasite, my mother texted: “If it had been and American movie, it would have been much more violent.”1 My thoughts went back to Oldboy, Park Chan-wook’s unmatched 2003 cult, where Choi Min-sik pulls someone’s teeth out with a crowbar, and I thought that was highly suspicious – just as suspicious as my mother thinking that in a film there is margin for more violence. Spike Lee’s 2013 adaptation of Oldboy was a sanitized version of the original, where the plot’s foundations – torture and incest – and other peculiarities that made up this psychopathic masterpiece seemed to have been entrusted to a team of pilgrim fathers. How could a South Korean film lack the physical and psychological violence that seems to be a marker of this national cinema? Watching the movie provided the answers I needed. Parasite is South Korean cinema in its Sunday best, hair slicked back, hands folded in its lap. My thoughts went nostalgically back to Choi Min-sik and the aforementioned crowbar.

Over the last two decades South Korean cinema has lived through an unparalleled renaissance. It injected world cinema with a constant flow of movies destined to leave their mark on history (see the work of Kim Ki-duk and Bong Joon-ho), become instant cults (Park Chan-wook’s revenge trilogy and Train to Busan, 2016), or give lessons in beauty and style (The Handmaiden, 2016, Burning 2018). On top of the numerous awards South Korean films collected in the recent years – from the Bears to the Palms and the Baftas – Parasite will be remembered for having won not only best international feature, but also best picture, which, until now, had been reserved to American productions (just like directing and original screenplay, also won by Parasite). Winning both is a contradiction in terms. Parasite’s victory does not go to the film alone, but to an entire national cinema and the stellar heights it reached.

It is a watershed moment in the history of world cinema,2 one that proves, as Italian author Roberto Saviano puts it, “that a cultural product may not speak English and still conquer the planet’s imagination,” somehow implying that the planet’s imagination and the Academy Award jury’s are the same. But let us cut the triumphalist rhetoric for a moment. This much deserved acknowledgment comes with at least a ten-years’ delay. It was beyond doubt that South Korea had conquered the planet’s imagination, what was missing was beatification. And who aspires to beatification needs to be on their best behavior. No incest. No taboos. Moderate and only vaguely eccentric violence. No one swallows live octopus. Lots of plot and few silences. In his fun Guardian article, “Why Hollywood doesn’t get South Korean cinema,” Steve Rose lists a series of reasons why the US struggles to digest some otherwise magnificent movies. He lists inventive murder weapons, deranged storylines, genre-bending, varied menus, and epic ambitions. All of the above, Rose writes, is missing in American adaptations of Korean originals. Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake is irrefutable evidence that “Koreans do it better.” Parasite, too, will become an HBO miniseries, and I am already betting on what will be censored: nothing.

Parasite maintains some important markers of South Korean cinema. Above all, the unapologetic indifference to Western genres.3 The comedic beginning follows the Kims as they gradually slip into the life and residence of the Parks, the much richer family of an international Starchitect. We watch with guilty pleasure as Ki-woo, the Kims’ older son (Choi Woo-shik), replaces Park’s daughter’s private English tutor, his sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) cheats her way into an art teacher job for the Parks’ talented son, and then has Park’s driver fired and her father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) hired in his place. The film is a comedy until it is not. The subtle violence grows in intensity. The audience’s smiles fade. And one night the ex-maid (Lee Jeong-eun, wonderful also in her supporting role in the TV series Mr Sunshine), who served the Parks for decades before being dethroned by Mrs Kim (Jang Hye-jin), comes back to the house with a terrible secret. And nothing will be the same anymore. As the camera follows the protagonists stumbling down a tunnel to an underground bunker, comedy gives birth to a thriller with magnificent horror moments. Genre-bending aside, there is too much West in Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s filmography, including Memories of Murder (2003), Mother (2009), and Snowpiercer (2013),4 shows that a mixture of conformism and rebellion against the Hollywood canon is at the core of his imaginary. Yet, Parasite engages the US in a way that does not strike as particularly critical – at times not even ambivalent.

The Parks’ strongly Westernized lifestyle is a splendid object of envy rather than disapproval. Mrs Park’s English interjections, the son’s obsession with Native Americans, and the family’s willingness to import real arrows from the US for him to play with are critiques of the Americanized South Korean elites rather than the US per se. The pathetic masquerade Park forces Ki-taek to get involved in, dressing him up as an Indian, speaks to the humiliation and squalor Ki-taek has to put up with while working for this obliviously rich man – whom he will tolerate only for a few more minutes. The cultural appropriation of Native American artifacts and practices for entertainment sets the stage for a lethal critique of US mindless racism, but Parasite looks away and nods to America. And America contentedly nods back.

Speaking of cultural authenticity in a globalized world is useless at best, damaging at worst; so is trying to separate Hollywood influence from local matter in any national cinema. Yet, for twenty years South Korean movies have filled the voids of Western storytelling, meeting a need (mine, at least) for less linear narrations, more interactions between poetry and violence, and the trespassing of borders. Such movies as Oldboy and the rest of Park Chan-wook’s revenge trilogy, The Host (2006), Mother (2009), Iron3 (2004), and Burning (2018) have gifted us with welcome alternatives to Hollywood’s narrative platitudes: instead of the familiar itinerary through beginnings, developments, climaxes, randomly exploding vehicles, and dénouements, Korean storytelling is the silence before the revelation.

Notes

1.   I am grateful to my mother, but also to Marco Simion and Phillip Grider for the insights that inspired this reflection.

2.  Bicker, Laura. “Parasite: What the Oscar win means for Korean cinema.” BBC News, 11 Febbraio 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51449513

3.  Steve Rose. “Why Hollywood doesn’t get South Korean cinema.” The Guardian, 29 Novembre 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/nov/29/old-boy-remake-south-korea-cinema

4.  Clinton Stamatovich, “A Brief History of Korean Cinema, Part Three: Hollywood Influence”. Hapskorea.com, 9 dicembre, 2014. https://www.hapskorea.com/brief-history-korean-cinema-part-three-hollywood-influence/

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Elena Furlanetto lives and works in Essen, Germany, where she teaches American literature and culture at the University of Duisburg-Essen. She is the author of Towards Turkish American Literature, Narratives of Multiculturalism in Post-Imperial Turkey (2017) and of several articles on American and Postcolonial literatures. She also co-edited a collection of essays titled A Poetics of Neurosis (2018). An Americanist by training but a postcolonialist at heart, Elena loves books and films that narrate the US through the lens of a different culture. Movies give her lots of joy – especially horrors. Her poetry in Italian and English appeared in Italian and international publications. She collaborates with Finnegans as a translator and film critic since 2011. 

 

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