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
The 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)…