Don't Make An American Version of Parasite. Just Don't.
At the 76th Golden Globe awards, Parasite director Bong Joon Ho collected the award for best foreign-language film. His translator addressed the audience on his behalf, telling them: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The sarcasm was palpable, even through a translator.
Bong's comment is hardly unwarranted. His biting social satire won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, but at the Globes it's unable to compete for the top award. That, they say, in a piece of nativism of which the Trump administration would be proud, is "exclusively for English-language motion pictures."
In Parasite, the poor Kim family infiltrate the lives and family of the wealthy Park family, conning their way into jobs as their tutors, driver and housekeeper. As their greed grows, Bong's darkly hilarious film holds a mirror up to the horrors that are already around us, as it dissects inequality and the class warfare it breeds.
Next week, the Oscar nominations announcement gives the Academy a chance to show up the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs by recognising the acting, directing and writing talent of Bong and his cast. However, news that it will be adapted into a series casts doubt on the possibility of a big moment for foreign cinema at the Oscars.
The Hollywood Reporter confirmed that HBO beat out Netflix in a bidding war for the rights to an adaptation of Parasite. The limited series would see a team-up between Bong and Adam McKay, director of The Big Short and Succession (and, prior to his pivot to ‘Important Issues Cinema’, Anchorman). It hasn't been confirmed yet whether this is a remake of the movie in English, or a continuation, but the former seems sadly more likely given the names involved. I'd be willing to bet the Park's roomy mansion that Adam McKay is not making a Korean-language TV series.
The Kim family assembling pizza boxes in one scene in Parasite
That isn't to say that HBO isn't merely thinking of the potential money to be made from re-spinning a story that has resonated so well (and won lots of lovely awards). But the fact the studio thinks that there's an audience for a remake of something that's not even globally released yet shows how embarrassingly small-minded audiences are about foreign-language cinema.
Having made 2017’s Okja and 2013’s Snowpiercer, both in English, Bong returned to his native Korean for Parasite. The director is based in Seoul and wanted to tell the stories of the neighbourhood, and the people around him, in the language that they speak. Naturally.
Bong managed to find comedy in poverty in Parasite: the Kim family jostling for the one spot the WiFi reaches in their tiny house, or the daughter unfazed while smoking on top of an exploding toilet. The true horror comes from the world of the rich: the blithe indifference of Mrs Park shopping for shellfish and wine, while much of the rest of the city huddles in a disaster relief shelter.
So-dam Park and Woo-sik Choi who play the Kim siblings Ki-woo and Ki-jung
It's entirely possible to tell these stories in English, or about an American family, but doing so begs the question of: why? Foreign cinema can transport us to worlds we might not otherwise see and encourages empathy for people who don't look like us at a time when it's dearly needed. The setting and the language might not be familiar, but the experiences and the humanity are. Transplanting them to somewhere more recognisable just dilutes the idea that, deep down, we're all pretty much the same.
With Parasite not even released in UK cinemas yet, the promise of an English adaptation that you can stream at home is yet another reason for viewers to be less adventurous and seek it out at the cinema. If done poorly it could erode the reputation of the original—see the wooden Captain Philips compared to the lesser-known, but far superior, Danish original A Hijacking.
If people thought the Oscars might help broaden people's minds, then last year was disappointing. The foreign-language film nominations in 2019 (Never Look Away, Cold War, Capernaum, Roma and Shoplifters) were arguably stronger than the nominees for 'Best Picture' (middling features such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice and Green Book) yet only Roma was in the running for both.
Mr and Mrs Park in Parasite, the wealthy family tricked by the Kims
Many predicted Alfonso Cuaron's black and white film would swoop the top prize after its nominations in the big acting, directing and writing categories. Instead it took—you guessed it—the foreign-language prize. Did it ever really have a chance to walk away with best picture, or was Netflix's heavily funded publicity campaign masking the reality that the film was always seen as 'foreign'?
Parasite hasn't been able to compete with the same marketing budget as Netflix, so it's unlikely to fare as well. A shame given that Bong's masterpiece doesn't just deserve to be included in the Best Picture category, for my money, it should be a credible threat for the trophy.
A one-inch barrier doesn't seem much to overcome in exchange for a entire world of challenging and transporting cinema.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by Esquiremag.ph editors.