Culture shock in parasite

The pressure, anxiety, and relief of translating a film like Parasite loomed over my thoughts while I walked. Finally, in the hotel-like entrance of the Korean Cultural Centre, I met my man: Darcy Paquet, the English translator of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and an award-winning Korean film critic.

Hunched over a library table, I was struck by his quiet, Minnesotan accent and almost faultless manners. There was an affectation for politeness that would make him pause for thought before speeding into soft-spoken barrages as if reading his own subtitles. Still wet from the rain, and with the steady chatter of the wonderful London Korean Film Festival beginning upstairs, I hit record.

ARF: Parasite is a film that’s seen near universal praise – and it remains a breakout film for the traditionally Western dominated Oscars. What gave it such universal appeal?

Darcy: [Laughs]That’s a difficult question! I think it’s a combination of different things. Bong Joon-ho has a real talent for storytelling. There’s something about his humor and the way he tells his stories that’s very accessible. And it felt fresh for international audiences as well because Korean cinema is somewhat different in style.

So when people saw this film it felt like something new. It’s very well made and it touched on timely social issues. The film, you know, it’s fun to analyze. It’s easy to step into that film and try to find meaning in all of the different parts. At the same time, it’s not a film that’s pitched way above the audience’s head, it’s both complex and accessible.

ARF: I’m actually curious. After your time translating Parasite, you must have been so close to the script and I’ve always loved the film’s ending. Do you have your own interpretation of what happened to the characters by the close of the film?

Darcy:  As part of the process of translating Parasite, I actually read the screenplay first before seeing the film and when I reached the end of the screenplay, it was so sad. He’s writing this letter but there’s no way to deliver it. The morse code is one way but [Min’s] vision of the future is not something that I can really believe in – as much as I want to.

It felt almost like an omen in some ways. It was a movie that pointed to the problems of the world and the impending trouble. There’s an old genre noir movie The Rules of the Game which is filled with this kind of impending doom and because it came out before World War Two, it kind of predicted it in some way – Parasite felt like a sort of prediction as well.

ARF: Were there any moments while translating Parasite that you worried might be difficult for an English audience to understand?

Darcy: Yeah – there is a lot of detail hidden within the script. Before I translated the film, Director Bong sent me a four page long email that was concerned about points that might be difficult for an English audience to get.

[Shared laughter]

ARF: My god – what were the points?

Darcy: There’s the scene when the original housekeeper has discovered who the family is and she starts imitating a North Korean news anchor. As soon as she started speaking, the South Korean audience recognized it because there’s this very famous news announcer in North Korea who speaks with a distinctive intonation and tone and she’s copying that.

So we had to add a little bit. In the old dialogue, the husband responds to her and says something like ‘you’re the best at North Korean gags’. Instead we had to translate it as ‘nobody can imitate North Korean news anchors like you’ just to explain it more directly.

There were a couple of moments in the script where we had to do that. One thing we had to kind of give up on was the Taiwanese castella cake shop.  There’s a story behind it that Koreans will recognize. It became very trendy a few years before Parasite came out and all of these Taiwanese castella cake shops were opening all over Korea. But then, somehow, somebody on TV or the internet did this exposé about how poor quality some of the ingredients were. I don’t think it was true for all of them, but suddenly these shops got a bad image in the mind of consumers and they all went bankrupt.

So in the film, you know, both the father of the [Park] family and the man in the basement had lost their Taiwanese castella cake shops….

[Both chuckle]

 …and so the Korean audience will laugh at that reference.

ARF: Beyond translating Parasite, are there any nuances around the Korean language that you pay special attention to?

Darcy: The ones that are most difficult are the way that Korean language captures the relationship between two people who are talking based on the register of language they’re using and the way they call to each other. There’s just so many more layers to it than there is in English. You can do things in Korean like use polite language to someone but underneath the surface you’re slightly insulting them – you can be both polite and insulting at the same time. You can’t really express that in English. You just have to try.

ARF:  Some things are difficult to translate. I understand in your book New Korean Cinema: Breaking The Waves, you’ve provided an overview of Korean cinema from the 80’s to the 2000s. Do you think  Korean films have become more accessible over the decades?

Darcy: They’ve become much more systemised and professional. The 80’s were a time when the government really exercised strong control over the industry and they had policies in place that kept the industry quite weak. When those policies were lifted, it took about 10 years for the industry to start creating a new type of settlement and to build a different kind of industry. But initially, it was really chaotic and it took a lot of trial and error.

There are companies that appeared and disappeared and it took time for big companies to become established. But these days there is a very streamlined professional system so there’s kind of a floor on the quality of Korean films it doesn’t go below.

Because the system is so well developed the concern is that it’s hard to get through some kind of crazy, unusual ideas sometimes because investors are a little more conservative. Whereas in the past, there was this attitude that we need to try something crazy in order to attract the attention of young audiences.

ARF: Are there any particular periods of Korean cinema that you’re particularly fond of?

Darcy: Each decade has its own different energy. I’ve been watching films from the 90s these days and in some ways they’re a lot more hard-hitting than contemporary films – the directors could be more provocative and shocking than directors can be today.

Even the older decades like the 70s, though, because they were made in a time of strict censorship, there was all these directors that had this spirit of resistance – you can feel it to a certain extent in their films. And now, today’s directors are just kind of looking for a comfortable place inside the system; you get the hard hitting films, certainly, but it’s a different energy.

ARF: Surely there are there upcoming Korean filmmakers that you’ve really enjoyed?

Darcy: The thing about Korean cinema is that every year there are a huge number of first time directors. It’s comparatively easier to make your debut film in Korea but really hard to make your second or third. But among recent years – there’s a movie called Moving On that I love and which won a prize at the Rotterdam festival. And of course, there are all the films in our LKFF programme.

ARF: There’s been such an explosion of interest in Korean films. What do you think has been driving that?

In some ways, the recognition has been more of a lag because it’s hard to market films from a country you’re not that familiar with. So the success of K-pop and TV dramas has helped the film industry as people get the sense that Korea is a culture that produces interesting content. And the attention that Parasyte got was a big help, as was Squid Game obviously.

But the content has been at this level for a while, it’s just that now, it’s finally been able to break through into the consciousness of other countries.

Did learning about translating Parasite inspire you to dig deeper into Korean culture? Keep an eye out for the London Korean Film Festival‘s upcoming events and learn more about Darcy Paquet’s work here