Parasite’s Oscar Win Exposed a Prejudice Towards Foreign Languages

Max Phillips

As he is learning to speak German, one of my friends came across a show called Dark. It’s on Netflix, has an IMDb rating of 8.8 after 267,000 reviews, and is one of the best shows I have seen in a long while. Why, then, had I never heard of it? I haven't seen an ounce of marketing or a single review. Without my friend’s recommendation, I never would have come across it.

It brings me back to the furor surrounding Parasite’s Best Picture win at the 2019 Oscars. Scrolling through the reactions after the ceremony, I found some puzzling comments. While many people praised the film and director Bong Joon-Hoo, many questioned his achievements. The most prolific was from US president Donald Trump. Speaking shortly after, he said:

“How bad were the Academy Awards this year? Did you see it? And the winner is… a movie from South Korea! What the hell was that all about?
We got enough problems with South Korea with trade. On top of it, they give him best movie of the year? Was it good? I don’t know. Let’s get Gone With the Wind. Can we get Gone With the Wind back, please? Sunset Boulevard. So many great movies. The winner is from South Korea. I thought it was Best Foreign Film, right? Best Foreign Movie? Did this ever happen before?”

Trump’s comments highlight the arrogance that comes with Hollywood’s dominance, as he is clinging on to classics from 70+ years ago. If we are going to award the best film, then why should it only be English-speaking ones? Times change.

Moreover, these statements have led to foreign cinema’s inability to have an even playing field in world cinema. In the UK, Sight & Sound magazine concluded that foreign-language films' poor performance was a “crushing disappointment” to their respective industries. The Guardian examines the state of play:

“In much the same way cinema-going has been dominated by pre-packaged Hollywood films (easy to sell and hit all the entertainment buttons), the online world of streaming and VoD is also in danger of becoming a narrow spectrum of film culture.”

Despite Amazon and Netflix spending big money on the Sundance festival (Amazon has also put Parasite on Prime), it is clear that English-speaking cultures need to become more accepting of foreign-language films to survive on a global scale. There is plenty of an argument for that, as there are some great foreign films out there.

Delve deeper into Netflix’s catalog, and you will find a vast array of foreign language films worth your time. The 12th Man is a harrowing Norwegian film detailing a resistance fighter's brutal true story attempting to escape Nazi occupation after a planned sabotage plot went array. Then there is Roma, the Oscar-winning Mexican film that reduced me to tears. A Danish film called The Guilty left me stunned at its ability to tell such a shocking story entirely from a police alarm dispatcher's perspective.

Unless they get colossal distribution and marketing boosts from the likes of Netflix, these films will likely go under your radar. Hollywood’s global influence has led to an all too real dismissal of foreign language films. Yet, on my various holidays to Europe’s hotspots, I’ve rarely had difficulty ordering food or buying something. I’ve wanted to learn another language for some time, but because it isn’t a necessity, I don’t. Which, if I’m frank, is why I have also snubbed foreign language films in the past.

In the last few years, however, my eyes have been opened. Studying film at university meant I had the opportunity to learn about Korean, German, Spanish, Italian cinema, and much more. The disparity is colossal. According to Investopedia, the average major Hollywood movie’s budget is $65 million, which doesn’t include the $35 million needed for distribution and marketing. Compare that to a German feature film production budget, for example, which lies at about €3 million, according to Statista.

It was not until Parasite’s win did I realize the extent to which people disregard foreign films so quickly — even when they reach the pinnacle of the industry. When Hollywood accepted the movie as it’s best, ticket sales skyrocketed, collecting a 234% increase according to Variety. Of course, this is not unusual. Previous winners Green Book and Moonlight saw similar levels of post-Oscars success. Even so, it highlights the power of acceptance from an English-speaking audience.

This is, in part, due to America’s preference for subtitles. As Hollywood’s global influence is unrivaled, other countries have different systems of operating. In Germany, they have awards for voice actors, so they take dubbing seriously. Only 19% of Poles prefer subtitles, despite one person dubbing every voice. You have Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands, all of which have subtitles instead of dubs in everything except for children’s programs. It’s no surprise then that these countries rank highly on the English Proficiency Index.

Netflix claims to know its viewers better than they know themselves, as some countries found that shows like Dark had dubbing as the default setting. According to Variety, this is a tactic to get more views as it's tailored to the more relaxed viewer. In the article, Variety report that this was the default setting in America, which again highlights an unfortunate unwillingness to immerse into the art. Even if it is out of sync, English is preferred, so people don’t need to concentrate fully.

For some nations, however, it is a matter of language preservation. In Quebec, most films are dubbed. As Canada borders the US, there is a real fear among French Canadians that English will replace French as the primary language. To be honest, I prefer subtitles. Even when I watch English-speaking films, I have them on just in case I miss anything. If you’re reading this and want to watch more foreign language films but don’t like dubbing, I suggest you start there.

Still, it angers me when people dismiss films from other countries purely based on the language barrier. There are some real gems out there. Besides, if other countries' screens are filled with Hollywood films, why should we dismiss what they have to offer?

Even though Parasite made history, the Oscars still seems to refuse actors for its awards. Variety reports that “more white female actors have won Oscars for playing East Asian characters than female actors of actual East Asian descent.” The Parasite cast was referred to as “the cast” by the press, instead of their names. Moreover, despite the impressive acting, they only won one award for outstanding performance by a cast at the Screen Actor Guild awards.

I don’t say all of this to dismiss the performance of Hollywood’s stars. Most of them are exceptional, and being nominated for an Oscar is no mean feat. Still, there appears to be a damaging dismissal of actors outside the English-speaking realm. Parasite’s win is momentous; that much is certain. Even so, the worrying videos of English-speakers hearing another language and shouting “go back to your country” are still common. There is still a long way to go before language barriers are crossed, and we can all appreciate art for what it is. The world has something to offer — not just Hollywood.

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