Why Parasite’s Director Wasn’t Worried About How Korean Culture Would Translate To Other Audiences


Whatever happens on Oscar Sunday, Bong Joon Ho's Parasite is already a remarkable piece of cinematic history, as it has become one of the most recognized and rewarded foreign language films of all-time. It's rare for any movie not in English to be nominated for Best Picture, but beyond simply being nominated, there are many that think the movie has a real chance at winning the award, something no foreign language film has ever done.

It's a pretty massive accomplishment for a movie entirely in Korean and very much about the social structures one finds in South Korea. However, Bong Joon Ho recently told Deadline that he never had any worry that his film would not connect with those outside his home country. The themes were universal, but beyond that, the director realized that even some of the tiny details of the film crossed cultural and language boundaries. According to the director...

There have been many films and TV shows about rich and poor. I don’t think that, just because a story has a universal theme, it’s instantly accessible to everyone around the world. But if you think about the mundane humor of this film, I think that a lot of people just immediately grasped it. Things like the Jessica jingle; the melody Kim Ki-jung [Park So Dam] uses to memorize something. I remember at Cannes, a lot of people from different countries told me they all have melodies like that, that they used at school to memorize things about history or math. These were things that people were very easily able to understand through context.

In the end, while some of the specifics of the Kim family's situation might be unique to South Korea, Parasite is ultimately a movie about class conflict. And that means that there are going to be a lot of details that people from all over the world understand, regardless of culture, because these broader themes exist anywhere you have such conflicts.

In the case of the one scene you're probably familiar with even if you haven't seen the movie, the "Jessica jingle" in which Park So Dam uses an auditory trick in order to help her character remember her cover story, that's not a concept exclusive to South Korea, as Bong Joon Ho learned that many other places can use similar tricks.

Certainly, there may have been some elements of Parasite that those not familiar with South Korea wouldn't necessarily understand. The semi-basement apartment and the underground shelter that play pivotal roles in the story would be very familiar to South Korean audiences but might seem unusual when viewed elsewhere. However, in the end, the things that an audience tends latch onto in order to relate to characters are the little things, as Bong Joon Ho continues,

Even in the opening scenes, you have these kids searching for Wi-Fi and they can’t guess the password. These are very mundane, very small Korean details, but I think that it’s accessible, because if you live in a metropolitan area, everyone’s life takes on the same form. I think there aren’t that many differences in terms of how people lead their lives.

Clearly, Bong Joon Ho is right that, in the end, the way people lead their lives tends to be the same. Parasite's global success is evidence of that. Whether or not that global understanding will be enough for the movie to have a successful night at the Academy Awards this Sunday, is a question we'll have to wait to answer.

Dirk Libbey
Content Producer/Theme Park Beat

CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.