Subtitles Can’t Capture the Full Class Critique in ‘Parasite’

Bong Joon-ho’s film is even more nuanced and incisive than closed captioning would suggest

Photo: Neon

TThe first time I watched Parasite was with my boyfriend and our good friend J, both of whom are white. I jokingly hoped that the Korean dialogue would be easy for me to follow, otherwise I’d have to read the subtitles, just like them. What I didn’t say was that I was afraid of this movie because a version of my private life was being displayed on the big screen for all of America to see. I felt protective. I reserve Korean for conversations with my family, my fluency standing as a skill that has somehow evaded this country’s constant pressure to Americanize. Something about watching Parasite unfold before me—in a language I associate with my immediate family and available for mass consumption—filled me with terror.

At first, I couldn’t decide whether to watch the film’s dialogue or read it. But then I caught it: the peculiarity of translating Korean into English text. I noticed that “늑대” is subtitled as “frat boys,” when it really means “wolves.” The subtitles are not for me, I realized; they’re for American audiences. But this was fun. When the characters refer to the free instant messaging application Kakao Talk, it’s translated onto the screen as “WhatsApp.” “코딱지” became “modest amount,” when it literally means “snot.” Early in the movie, when the Kim family folds pizza boxes for extra cash, they have to then speak to a younger woman who works for the restaurant to receive payment. They address her as “사장님,” which is “boss” — but they use the masculine form of the word. The feminine, “사모님. 사모님,” can be used to address a pastor or boss’s wife or simply a woman of higher class.

These exchanges signal power dynamics at play. What the subtitles can’t portray are the acrobatics of signaling familial love and alliance. I wanted to tap my boyfriend on the shoulder to explain this in the theater. I wanted to pause the film and explain to this mostly white audience in the (unironically named) Oriental Theater that this film isn’t just funny and unconventional when characters call each other “sis” in the middle of a violent argument. “언니” and “동생” are both translated as “sis.” The difference between the two is that “언니” (unni) is used for an older sister, and “동생” (dongsaeng) is for the younger. Since there are no English equivalents, the translation into “sis” erases the push and pull of power in this scene: One is using unni to ally themselves as similar working people; when the power shifts, the other is appealing to her dongsaeng, trying to elicit sympathy. So, when the theater laughed every time “sis” was on the screen, I wanted to explain how it’s fraught with desperation and represents the class dynamics deeply rooted in the language itself. Eventually I caught myself reading the text and not watching the movie — sinking into the sounds of my childhood.

Whiteness and English have shaped the way I understand my own Koreanness for so long that I can have a hard time peeling that varnish off me.

Like most families, the rules of formality differ despite a common culture. Parasite captures a tender moment with a spareness I recognized all too well. After the Kim family leaves the Park house undetected, the flood forces them to sleep in a crowded gym. In the quiet, the son apologizes to the father. The father’s response reads, “For what?” What’s missing in English is the address — two syllables, “임마.” What the father really says is, “For what, punk?” This is one of the most emotional parts of the movie, because I recognized that this terse exchange is filled with familial love. Those two syllables transmit something akin to “I love you.” Perhaps the “punk” was left out because it would’ve distracted the audience. Perhaps it would’ve elicited even more laughter. In my family, we all have a range of fluency in Korean and English. Even when we get tongue-tied, we wait for our established markers of love. If my mother calls me “똥강아지” after an argument, I know things are better. If you copy and paste “똥강아지” into Google Translate, you’ll see it translated as “poop dog.” While it does quite literally mean “poop dog,” for mine and other Korean families, it means we are beloved children. If my mother calls me “우리 새끼,” she means “my child.” If she says just “새끼,” we’re all in trouble.

I was born in South Korea. When I was five years old, my family and I immigrated to Queens, New York, though I spent my formative years in Indiana. My Korean skills look a lot like those of other Korean immigrant children: years of Korean school at my small church, Korean at home, Korean for TV soap operas in middle and high school. Once I went to college, I used Korean less and less. My associations with the language grew purely emotional. As I write this, I am filled with anxiety and anger for all the times white strangers are rude to me and my parents, exaggerating their hand motions as if we don’t understand them. Me, snapping at them in English and whipping back in Korean to my parents that everything is fine. Whiteness and English have shaped the way I understand my own Koreanness for so long that I can have a hard time peeling that varnish off me.

Parasite has been acclaimed as a strong critique of the stratification created by capitalism and class. It’s now up for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But to me, the film’s critique is nothing new. The Korean language and culture embody class stratification, and I was frustrated because I wanted everyone to recognize the ubiquitous nature of the class stratification that happens every day, in every conversation, which isn’t apparent in the subtitles. This ability to navigate the language, even for an immigrant turned naturalized citizen like me, is how you keep in touch with culture. Perhaps this is where translation fails, with the nuances of emotional understanding.

When I told my parents about this article, they wanted to know why foreigners were taken by this film. I went downstairs multiple times to see that they were watching YouTube videos of Koreans translating reviews of Parasite, intrigued by this foreign acceptance and acclaim. I tried to explain to them why it was intriguing to me, and just as I was frustrated trying to explain it in English to my boyfriend and J, I became frustrated trying to explain it to my parents in Korean. My parents asked if I wanted some Korean pears, and I said yes. We had come to a mutual acceptance of our semantic barriers, the crunch of pears louder than the languages from the television, as we continued watching the videos.

Poet & Writer in Milwaukee | Words in Poetry, New England Review, Gulf Coast, & elsewhere. More at www.suchowrites.com

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