Parasite is Playing At NPH – Here’s Why That Matters
The sweep pulled off by Parasite at the 92nd Academy Awards – where it won Best Picture, in addition to Best Director for Bong Joon-ho, Best Original Screenplay for Bong and Han Jin-won, and Best International Feature Film – felt like a shot across the bow of the film industry’s status quo, one heard around the world. As the first film not in the English language to win Best Picture, and the first South Korean film nominated in any category, Parasite’s victory had the unmistakable, triumphant air of a watershed moment, a challenge to audiences and awards bodies everywhere to take chances, explore the unexpected, and hop over “the one-inch barrier of subtitles” (to use Bong’s own words). In fact, its reverberations have even been felt here in St Andrews; just under two weeks after the film’s Oscar triumph, Parasite started playing at the New Picture House Cinema. It’s the first foreign language film I’m aware of playing at the cinema in my time here, and I’d wager the first South Korean film (first Asian film?) ever to screen there. Of course, in certain ways, this isn’t unexpected at all. It would be downright odd for any cinema not to be playing the incumbent Best Picture winner, and Parasite is, at its heart, a mainstream film, or at least would have been one once upon a time. Bong is a master genre craftsman, adept at imbuing somewhat familiar premises with new and vital ideas and images, and his work is best enjoyed with an audience to react to each devilish tonal shift and ingenious manipulation of space (the mass gasps and stunned silences that great that bit with the staircase are worth the price of admission by themselves). Nonetheless, there is something quite surreal about walking down North Street and seeing Parasite’s poster (the now iconic image of figures standing on the manicured lawn of a slick modern house, their eyes obscured by black bars) nestled between advertisements for IP-driven, major studio blockbusters like Sonic The Hedgehog and Birds Of Prey. It’s hard not to see such an image as, to use the favoured praise of the film’s teenaged grifter Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), “so metaphorical”; metaphorical for, in this case, the hope for a truly international, cosmopolitan future for cinema.
It’s no secret why films like Parasite don’t usually play at cinemas like the New Picture House – ones which tend to specialise in mainstream fair. Over time, for reasons both commercial and cultural, a certain idea of what kinds of films English-speaking mass audiences are interested in has become accepted as conventional wisdom; an idea which does not include films not in the English language. As result of the acceptance of this idea, audiences are rarely if ever given a chance to sample films from outside their native tongue, which is taken as proof of disinterest – and so the cycle goes on perpetuating itself. There’s a reason that an interest in foreign films has become comedic shorthand for suggesting a character is an insufferable bore, and that having an ‘everyman’ character suffer or snore through one is among the most hackneyed ‘relatable’ bits in the book. In an age where big-budget franchise films dominate the box office to an unprecedented degree and our curated social media feeds give us all the incentive we need to stay in a bubble of that which we already know we like, this incuriosity about, if not outright hostility toward, the (literally or figuratively) foreign is as much of a problem as its ever been. That’s why, minute as it might seem, seeing Parasite play at the New Picture House matters; it feels like a rebuke to the limiting orthodoxy about what kind of films deserve to take up space on our screens. It shows that, in spite of all claims to the contrary, audiences will turn up for a foreign-language film if only given the opportunity. It shows that it is worth our tastemakers promoting and awarding such films – for it was ultimately the championing of critics (particularly Polygon’s Karen Han) that set in motion Parasite’s becoming an inescapable phenomenon. Pardon the melodrama, but for a film student who at times is dispirited by the increasing narrowness of what gets to be considered a viable mainstream release, seeing a South Korean blackly comic psychological thriller play at my local cinema is genuinely heartening. It feels like a little, miniscule glimpse of a better future for film culture (or, rather, of the place we should have been all along), a tiny but significant symptom of real change in our collective perceptions of what films matter and who will see them. If South Korean cinema can make it to a little town on the coast of East Fife, then who knows how much further our horizons could broaden?