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Korea Blog: Bong Joon-ho’s Biggest Victory, Accepting His Oscars in Korean

When we cinephiles of a certain age remember our discovery of film, we remember browsing video-store shelves in search of interesting movies to rent. But explaining the facts of that era in the face of disbelief from the young — You mean you couldn’t watch a movie someone else was watching? You had to pay “late fees”? — should keep us from looking back with excessive fondness. Not only did we have to contend with the contingencies of physical media, from unwound VHS tapes to scratched DVDs, we had to accept whatever our local video store happened to carry. Some of us could expand our cinematic horizons with trip to the nearest major city’s speciality rental shop, with its large and intensively curated stock organized by director, by movement, by country. But most of the time we had to make do with suburban chain stores, who broke down their Hollywood-dominated selection into crude genres like “action/adventure,” “drama,” “comedy,” — and, over in the back, “foreign.”

I’d like to say I discovered Korean cinema back then, but in fact it took another decade before I came upon the fateful cache of Korean Film Council releases in my university’s media library. Still, my near-random picks from the foreign section, usually from Japan or Hong Kong, got me used to two aspects of cinematically faithful home video, both of which bothered viewers across America at the time. The first was letterboxing, which fit a film’s entire rectangular frame within the then-square frame of television screens, causing some to insist that part of the image was actually hidden by “black bars.” The second was subtitling, which obviated the need to dub a film not originally shot in English into English, much to the consternation of those unwilling to “read a movie.” But not long thereafter, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved that a subtitled movie could succeed in the United States, in not just its urban “art houses” but its anonymous multiplexes as well.

Or rather I’d thought it did, not least because I haven’t encountered a single English-dubbed film this century. Hence my surprise when I heard Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho poking fun at the non-movie-readers of America after accepting his Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He won it with Parasite, a suspenseful, funny, violent, and tightly crafted and tale of class warfare I wrote about here on the Korea Blog after it won the Palme d’Or last May. The audience at Cannes, whose last few big winners have come from Japan, Sweden, England, France, and Turkey, are presumably no strangers to subtitles. The same, perhaps, cannot be said of the audience at the Golden Globes, to whom Bong gave these words of advice: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” I admit to never having made a habit of overestimating the cultural acumen of my fellow Americans, but still I wondered: how many of us really had yet to step over that barrier?

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.