By Rihab Attioui, Postcolonial Studies MA
“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”, said South Korean director Bong Joon Ho as part of his Golden Globes acceptance speech where his film Parasite won Best Foreign Language Film. To briefly synopsise, for those of you who live under the proverbial rock and have yet to even hear of Parasite, the film explores the cavernous wealth disparity of South Korea by following the lives of two families on extreme ends of the socio-economic spectrum. The poor Kim family gradually infiltrates the rich Park family by constructing a web of manipulation and benefit-extraction that is nothing short of parasitic. Not unlike the parasitic nature of Hollywood’s co-option of calls for diversity and decolonisation.
“It is no secret that Hollywood privileges English speaking, American made films, but with the stratospheric ascension of Parasite, there has been much debate about whether or not this eurocentrism has begun to be seriously challenged.”
I begin by echoing his newly immortalised (and virally memed) words because I believe they very much encapsulate both the potential and the problem with mainstream Western media. In today’s increasingly globalised cultural space – that ‘welcomes’ international productions for the superficiality of diversity, but in fact, continues to stop them from making any structural impact to the hegemonic status of Western cultural production. It is no secret that Hollywood privileges English speaking, American made films, but with the stratospheric ascension of Parasite, there has been much debate about whether or not this eurocentrism has begun to be seriously challenged. It is undeniable that the South Korean film has made monumental achievements, the likes of which no ‘foreign’ production has received before, achievements such as the Palm D’or at Cannes and various ‘bests’ at the Academy Awards, including the biggest win of the night: Best Picture.
However, when discussing the possibility of a non-English film instigating a new phase in the Western cinematic landscape whereby ‘foreign’ productions receive acclaim and general treatment similar to their Western-produced counterparts, there is more than just a single ‘foreign’ film winning a bunch of awards to consider. The mechanisms of the cultural hegemony that America so lucratively enjoys, operate in such a way that they systemically obstruct non-Western and non-English speaking productions. While the treatment of Parasite is not exactly reminiscent of the mocking and trivial reception that fads like Gangnam Style received – and I say ‘fad’ because that is precisely what it was for the Western audience – the fact that it was treated more ostensibly meaningfully does not necessarily translate to a sudden decolonisation of the Western cultural space. There is just too much deconstruction and dismantling of America’s culturally predominant status to be done before that can be the case. Consider the fact that Parasite had garnered Best Picture buzz quite early on in its post-release period, but among The Academy, at no point was the cast thought to potentially win for their performances, there was no discussion about its cinematographers or its costume designers. Despite its undeniable success, Parasite fell prey to the same structures of othering that Western cultural hegemony subjects all ‘foreign’ productions to: the pattern of packaging ‘foreign culture’ as one-dimensional entities that are not afforded the same complexity as their Western counterparts.To be fair, if anyone can complete the monolithic task of dismantling American dominance in the popular and public cultural sphere, it probably is Bong Joon Ho. Until then it is important to privilege non-Western cultural productions and the stories they tell while continuing to be suspect of superficial, Liberal calls for cultural ‘diversity’ – because it will never be systemic, and it will never be enough.