A South Korean film, Parasite, may have become the first non-English language best picture winner, but Americans still have little interest in foreign film

A poster for Parasite. In 2020, the South Korean film became the first non-English language film to ever win the best picture award at the Academy Awards . [Credit: CJ Entertainment]
For more than 100 years, the United States has been an exceedingly difficult market for non-English language films to penetrate. The historic win of the best picture award at the 92nd Academy Awards by the South Korean film Parasite cuts against that grain.

But only a little.

Yes, Parasite did break important new ground by becoming the first non-English-language film in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards to win the coveted best picture award. But — and this is an important but — it is the ONLY non-English language film, so far, to ever win this award.

And its win comes against the backdrop of more than a century of American resistance to foreign and non-English language film. This resistance isn’t necessarily the result of American consumer opposition to foreign film. Instead, American resistance to non-English language film is more the result of a long-running and deliberate attempt on the part of the so-called Hollywood cartel to limit distribution of non-English-language and non-American-produced films in the United States.

Indeed, with the exception of a brief period of success in the U.S. before World War I, foreign films have never garnered more than 5% of the total box office revenues in any given year in the U.S. This, across a period of more than 100 years and counting! Compare this to the massive inroads Hollywood films have historically made in countless countries around the world and you see a clear and major imbalance in cultural flow, at least in the domain of major film, with massive outflow of Hollywood films and very little backflow of non-American films into the U.S.

South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho. Joon-ho’s film, Parasite, became the first non-English language film to win best picture at the Academy Awards, winning in the category at the 92nd Academy Awards in February 2020. [Photo Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson]
This imbalance of film flow is perfectly in keeping with, and is also reflective of, and reproduces, a clear American Cultural Insularity in the Center (ACIC). Whether Parasite’s historic win marks the beginning of an important turnaround in American attitudes toward non-English language film and film produced outside of the U.S. is a question whose answer remains to be seen.

I address what I call the “paradox” of Parasite — its win is/was historic and important but because it was/is such an incredible exception to the rule vis-a-vis foreign and non-English-language film in the U.S. so far it actually proves the rule that non-English language films do poorly in the U.S. — in a new paper that I have just written and submitted for consideration for presentation at the International Communication Association Conference in May 2021. I will also be submitting the paper to a peer-reviewed journal for publication consideration, although, as of 11-10-2020, I have not decided to which one yet.

Until it is published, I do not want to provide a full-length version on InsularAmerica.Com. However, here is an abstract of the paper, which is entitled,

When the exception to the rule proves the rule: Parasite’s paradoxical Academy Awards best picture win and American Cultural Insularity in the Center

This paper argues that rather than proving that foreign film, and foreign-language films, have somehow finally “arrived” in the United States that an historic win by the South Korean film Parasite in the best picture category at the 92nd Academy Awards proves precisely the opposite. That is, Parasite’s extreme exception-to-the-rule status as the first non-English language film to win best picture in 92 years proves the rule itself by virtue of the fact that its win is such a clear exception to the rule. The general rule vis-à-vis non-English-language films in the U.S. is that they continue to languish, and continue to be marginalized, just as they have for the better part of the past 100 years. I use Parasite’s historic, exception-to-the-rule win of best picture to illustrate the validity and utility of a larger theory called American Cultural Insularity in the Center (ACIC). According to ACIC, compared to most people in most other countries, Americans tend to consume much more of their own cultural media products and much fewer cultural media products produced in other countries than people in other countries do. Despite the fact that there have been, always have been, and clearly still are important shifts underway in the global cultural and linguistic system – marked in part, for example, by Parasite’s historic best picture win, American Dominant Cultural Group (DCG) members continue to have disproportionate power vis-à-vis the global cultural and linguistic system. The hierarchies and inequalities that characterize the current system will not change meaningfully until those in the DCG and in the center significantly open their own cultural and linguistic horizons and move beyond their insularity, and, in Americans’ case, beyond an ACIC. ACIC not only blinds DCG members in the U.S. to a huge range of cultural, linguistic and life-world possibilities, ACIC continues to stifle the opportunities for those not in the center to feed back into the center and thereby alter what still stands as a profoundly limiting system for far too many people.