Victory at the Oscars has been followed by triumph at the box office: Bong Joon-ho’s seventh feature film as director, Parasite, is currently predicted to earn $45m in the US, making it the fourth most successful foreign-language import ever (behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Life Is Beautiful and Hero). Meanwhile, the Korean film has smashed records in the UK, taking £1.4m on its opening weekend.
Having steeled themselves for what Mr Bong teasingly calls the “one-inch tall barrier of subtitles”, mainstream audiences have found few obstacles to enjoyment. Parasite is far from being an arthouse movie; it is slick, plot-driven, darkly comic entertainment. In a year when the Academy, like its British equivalent, faced stinging criticism over a lack of diversity among nominees, Parasite – a tale of upstairs-downstairs that shares its theme of inequality in a domestic setting with Knives Out – turned out to be just what Hollywood needed.
But if the film is less complex or challenging than recent best-picture winners, including 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight, it still represents an important milestone when, for the first time in Oscars history, the winner of the top prize is not in English. Given that Alfonso Cuarón’s Spanish-language Mexican epic Roma missed out only narrowly last year, it is perhaps not going too far to suggest that something is shifting. Directors such as France’s Céline Sciamma, whose latest film Portrait of a Lady on Fire delighted audiences and critics at Cannes and opens in the UK next week, may reasonably hope for some sort of knock-on effect, with Parasite serving as a gateway to foreign-language offerings such as her lesbian historical romance.
While some European film fans are already habituated to reading subtitles – although in many countries dubbing is preferred – for mainstream British and US audiences they remain a relative rarity, with programming at most cinemas overwhelmingly dominated by American films. Just a handful of directors reliably buck the trend, the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar among them. Other European directors have achieved one-off success with particular pictures: Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, for example.
Enthusiasts for foreign-language cinema should not therefore get carried away. All the criticism of the lack of diversity at this year’s Baftas and Oscars (including the lack of British films nominated for the former) still holds. But Parasite’s success should be relished, and we can hope that directors making films in languages other than English will be encouraged by it to persist on what is rarely, if ever, an easy path. Sales of translated fiction were reported to have risen sharply in the UK last year. When xenophobia and intolerance are widely understood to be on the rise, such proof of curiosity between and across cultures are useful reminders that while some minds may be closed, many others are open.