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Tea Leaves

'Parasite' versus 'Winnie the Pooh'

Globalization of the film industry brings risks as well as benefits

Bong Joon Ho, right, is presented with the Academy Award for best picture for "Parasite" on Feb. 9 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.   © AP

Going to the cinema in Britain these days is like spinning an LP, an old-fashioned activity totally foreign to the millennial generation. I still treasure my vinyl, and I enjoy the occasional trip to the cinema, especially the intimate, luxurious kind with soft banquettes and holders for wine glasses.

Such were the surroundings in which I watched Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite," shortly after the South Korean film made cinema history by winning a clutch of Oscars, including best film and best director. Without giving too much away, I would describe it as an entertaining satire-cum-splatter flick, rather as if Hirokazu Koreeda's "Shoplifters" (2018) -- a contemporary Japanese masterpiece -- had been directed by Quentin Tarantino.

"Shoplifters" is a far more subtle and emotionally involving work. But "Parasite" is likely to be remembered less for its artistic merits than for being the first foreign language film in the 92-year history of the Oscars to win the best film award. In so doing, Bong has accomplished what cinema masters such as Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut never managed.

This is not a reflection of relative merit. Those directors lived and worked in a preglobalization era when America dominated the world economically and culturally. Box office takings in the U.S. domestic market were all-important to a film's success or failure -- and the American masses had no stomach for subtitled foreign films.

Hence the predilection for inferior remakes such as "The Magnificent Seven" (from Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai") and "Breathless" (from Jean-Luc Godard's "A Bout de Souffle"). The originals of these and many other foreign-language masterpieces had only cursory and/or delayed screenings in the world's most important market.

According to Stephen Follows, a film scholar, box office takings for Hollywood films in 1991 split 70% for North America and 30% for international. By 2019, the proportions had reversed, with North America accounting for just 27%. The overwhelming majority of filmgoers watch Hollywood films with subtitles and will have no resistance to watching non-English language films with subtitles too. The industry's sudden embrace of "diversity," symbolized by Bong's Oscars, is simply a question of following the cash flow.

Hopefully, the Oscars won by "Parasite" will be the first of many such awards for interesting foreign-language films. They might even encourage a wider American audience for foreign films in their original form. As Bong said in his Oscar acceptance speech, "once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films."

Yet in the world of cinema, as in many other areas, globalization brings serious risks as well as benefits. Paradoxically, the era of multicultural diversity is also the era of stultifying homogeneity, as global box office receipts are dominated by brainless superhero fare, chase movies and further instalments of the interminable "Star Wars" saga. Not for nothing did the great director Martin Scorsese liken such films to "theme parks," offering audiences thrill and spills, but no "mystery, revelation or emotional danger."

Even more disturbing is the willingness of Hollywood studios to bow to the political whims of the Chinese authorities to access China's enormous movie market. In the original 1963 "Doctor Strange" comic, the doctor's magical mentor is a Tibetan mystic, but in the 2016 film version, the character becomes a white woman. Even in the unreal world of Marvel superheroes, Tibetan culture is not allowed to exist. Likewise, you will never again see Richard Gere - a well-known sympathizer of the Dalai Lama -- in a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster of any genre.

Actor Jim Cummings, who voiced Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, at the European premiere of "Christopher Robin" in London, in August 2018.    © Reuters

Steve Bannon, a former adviser to President Donald Trump, once described The Walt Disney Co. as the American company that has done the most kowtowing to the Chinese Communist Party, but even the owner of the "Star Wars," Marvel and Mickey Mouse franchises slips up sometimes.

Beijing's censors banned its 2018 offering "Christopher Robin" because Chinese netizens poked fun at the supposed resemblance between President Xi Jinping and Christopher Robin's imaginary friend, Winnie the Pooh. Pooh, like Gere, has been cancelled in China.

Globalization has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and brought down the price of the clever electronic gadgets that surround us. At the same time, it has disrupted communities, wreaked environmental chaos and allowed coronavirus to spread, shutting industries and creating health scares all over the world.

If the Oscars for a subtitled foreign film symbolize the positive side of globalization, Disney's self-censorship epitomizes the negative side. In the early years of this century, there was a benignly naive view in Washington that as China became richer, it would become more "Western," politically speaking. The reality is the other way around. The richer China gets, the more "Chinese" the West becomes.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Arcus Research and author of "On Kurosawa: A Tribute to the Master Director."

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