‘The 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles’: Bong Joon Ho rightly calls out Hollywood myopia

"Parasite" actors Lee Jeong Eun and Song Kang Ho flank director Bong Joon Ho at the Golden Globe Awards.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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Since the best film nominated at the Golden Globes this year was a Korean film, it was only fitting that some of the event’s most resonant words were spoken in Korean.

“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” said “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho as he claimed the prize for foreign-language film. In one perfectly barbed sentence (translated into English by his interpreter, filmmaker Sharon Choi), Bong called out the American moviegoing public’s perceived aversion to subtitles. That aversion can clearly be surmounted, if “Parasite’s” word-of-mouth success and astonishing $23-million-plus gross in the U.S. alone is any indication.

But Bong also seemed to be rebuking the cultural myopia of Hollywood itself, which reserves special prizes each year for movies shot in countries outside the U.S. and in languages other than English. The bestowing of these awards — whether by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., an organization of Southern California-based journalists that presents the Globes, or by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which will hand out the Oscars next month — is often a condescending gesture disguised as an inclusive one. These awards function more or less as consolation prizes, effectively keeping certain pictures in their place — on the margins — and preventing them from competing in any meaningful sense for bigger accolades.


Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Parasite’ wins best foreign-language film at 2020 Golden Globes.

Jan. 5, 2020

Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful that awards for non-English-language cinema exist; without them, some outstanding movies would go completely unrecognized. I’m a member of two critics organizations, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the National Society of Film Critics, which regularly hand out foreign-language-film prizes themselves. But I’m also proud to say that, this year, both those critics groups, along with many others, gave their best picture prizes to “Parasite.”

This is not an atypical or groundbreaking gesture. Both LAFCA and the NSFC have long recognized that some of the best movies each year hail from outside the U.S. and should be celebrated rather than penalized for it. (The NSFC has an especially strong track record in this regard; its past best picture winners include “Blow-Up,” “Persona,” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” “Ran,” “Yi Yi,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Waltz With Bashir” and “Goodbye to Language.”)

Will the industry finally wake up to that realization this year? Much has been written about how “Parasite,” a critics’ darling and massive crossover hit, could finally shatter the mold by becoming the first non-English-language movie to win the Academy Award for best picture. It would be a worthy outcome indeed, though I’m not holding my breath, given that many were predicting the same milestone last year for Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma.” Listening to Bong’s gracious, humorous, subtly barbed speech at the Globes, I was reminded of Cuarón’s similarly droll words when he collected his foreign-language-film Oscar last year: “I grew up watching foreign-language films and learning so much from them — films like ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘Jaws,’ ‘Rashomon,’ ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Breathless,’ ” he added with the friendliest of winks.

Bong effectively echoed that democratic sentiment Sunday night when he concluded his speech by saying, in English: “I think we use just one language — the cinema.” And he has learned to speak that language more fluently than most filmmakers of any nationality. Bong’s mastery of genre filmmaking has long earned him comparisons to Hitchcock and Spielberg, even as his authorial stamp is becoming increasingly difficult to mistake for anyone else’s. One of the most satisfying ironies about the success of “Parasite” is that, after making two mostly English-language pictures with starry casts (“Snowpiercer” and “Okja”), this South Korean filmmaker reached his widest, warmest audience embrace with a film set in his home country, a domestic thriller deeply rooted in specifically Korean class and cultural tensions that speaks just as powerfully to the world at large.
It would be nice if someone relayed Bong’s “one language — the cinema” sentiments to the motion picture academy, which has nominated only 11 non-English-language films for best picture in its 91-year history and has never given even one of them the top prize. Many of those omissions look especially short-sighted in retrospect: Imagine how much more respectable the Oscars might be if “Grand Illusion” or “Cries and Whispers” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “Amour” had been rightfully named the best pictures of their respective years.

But the academy, which has made concerted efforts to diversify its membership ranks in recent years, still looks like a model of progress next to the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. Although it received director and screenplay Globe nominations, “Parasite,” like all non-English-language films, was deemed ineligible for the two best motion picture categories. Those Globes went instead to Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” (motion picture, musical or comedy) and Sam Mendes’ dazzling stunt of a World War I thriller, “1917” (motion picture, drama).

‘1917’ and ‘Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood’ were the big winners at the 2020 Golden Globes, further shaking up an already unpredictable awards season

Jan. 5, 2020

And with no acting nominations for a superb ensemble that includes Song Kang Ho, Park So Dam, Cho Yeo Jeong and Lee Jeong Eun, “Parasite” was basically kissed off with an easy foreign-language-film win over Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” (Spain), Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables” (France), Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (France) and Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” (U.S.). Yes, you read that last one correctly. Because the HFPA’s rules differ drastically from the academy’s, American productions are allowed to compete for the foreign-language-film Globe — a rule that has benefited past nominees like Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” and Mel Gibson’s Mexico-set “Apocalypto.”


But the category makes an especially perplexing fit for “The Farewell,” an outstanding American independent drama that takes place mostly in China, features a mix of English and Mandarin dialogue, and stars Awkwafina (the Globe winner for actress in a musical or comedy) as a Chinese-born New Yorker. “Foreign” is an odd designation for a movie about the challenge and irreducible complexity of American immigrant identity. I would go further and suggest, as I think Bong and Cuarón would too, that “foreign” is an odd word to throw at any movie — something the academy, to its credit, recently recognized, though its newly rechristened “international feature” category is far from a perfect solution. (The HFPA, for its part, has the word “foreign” in its own name and may be less likely to change its own category’s name anytime soon.)

One more word about the National Society, which announced its awards on Saturday, a day before the Globes. Although it would be difficult to find two groups with more disparate voting bodies than the NSFC and the HFPA, the two actually found a fair amount to agree on this year. Both groups recognized Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”) for supporting actor and Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”) for supporting actress. Curiously, neither group wound up giving a prize to “The Irishman,” despite clear admiration for Martin Scorsese’s heavily touted movie on both sides.

Where the two groups really parted company was in their regard for “Little Women.” Greta Gerwig’s luminous film notably failed to receive Globe nominations for picture or director, briefly fueling widespread anxiety that it would be overlooked by industry voters and audiences alike (particularly male voters and male audiences). That the movie has since become one of the box office hits of the season should hopefully reveal those fears as premature. The NSFC, for its part, handed Gerwig its prize for best director and cited Dern’s performance in “Little Women” along with her work in “Marriage Story.” “Little Women” also earned runner-up placements for supporting actress (Florence Pugh) and for picture, screenplay and cinematography, where it consistently finished just a few votes or so behind “Parasite.”

To discuss “Little Women,” Greta Gerwig returns to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, Walden Pond and other key locations and inspirations.

Dec. 24, 2019

My NSFC colleague Ty Burr, critic for the Boston Globe, noted that “Little Women” and “Parasite” seemed to be doing a sort of dance all afternoon, which is a lovely image as well as an apt one. These two movies could scarcely be more different in style, tone or effect, even if they are both thrillingly energized domestic dramas about the resilience of families in impoverished circumstances. The language of cinema forges its own connections, as great filmmakers know and as the awards-season circuit has yet to learn.