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Korean Americans share how their families bonded over 'Parasite'

One Korean American said he found himself on his parents' "turf," for a change. "They had to explain the culturally significant facts to us."
image Parasite movie
The Kim Family (Woo-sik Choi, Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, So-dam Park) in Parasite.Courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment

Beyond the awards and critical acclaim from major Hollywood institutions, “Parasite” has proven to serve as a powerful moment for many in the Korean American community.

The movie, which is a contender in multiple categories at Sunday’s Academy Awards, marked a rare occasion when some immigrant families in the Korean community could attend a showing at a mainstream theater and witness elements of their culture and language up on the big screen.

Several Korean Americans shared the emotional impact the film had on their families and how representation prompted some unique bonding experiences.

“I grew up in America, so my taste in movies are a lot different from my parents, and they can understand English, but their preferred language is definitely Korean,” “Parasite” fan Jessica Do told NBC News. “So it was just nice to see a movie we all could enjoy … it was a rare thing to be in a theater together and enjoying [a movie] together in that way. It was definitely comforting.”

Do explained that in the past, her parents have found ways to watch Korean movies at home, however the experience of watching a foreign-language film in a theater, surrounded by the wider public, proved to be eye-opening. She said at one point, her father turned to her and asked if the “other Americans” truly enjoyed what they were seeing before them. The comment underscored how her immigrant parents see their own place in the country, she said.

Given the pervasive perpetual foreigner stereotype attached to Asian Americans, Do noted that her mother and father somewhat internalized it and “still feel like outsiders.”

“For them to see that other people can enjoy their culture … they're just surprised," she said. "And I think they have assumptions on what non-Korean people will like, so when they see they like a movie or they like a certain food, they’re just always taken aback in a positive way. But it’s because they don't feel like more people are accepting of their culture.”

William Kye says he discussed the movie with his family after they all saw it independently, said that while he’s used to explaining different American cultural references to his parents, the film flipped the script and he found himself “on their turf.” Kye, who lives in New York and whose family lives in Pennsylvania, said the film was a springboard for him to get to know his own parents’ roots better.

“When we’re talking about an English film, me and my sister explain the cultural things to my parents. But this film takes place in Korea and me and my sister have never lived in Korea. They had to explain the culturally significant facts to us,” he said. “[My dad] kept pointing out how the film did such a good job, drawing the distinction between the rich and poor in Korea.”

Some viewers said that the theme of familial loyalty, presented throughout the movie, brought their own families closer together. Soojung Kim, a teacher based in New York, saw the film with her mother and said it “just reminded me of my parents’ love for me once again.”

“[My mother] shared that the difficulty of life and survival is very real and how people would go beyond measures to protect their family and make everyone happy. Through the disturbing plan of the family, the movie highlights the sacrificial love that families have for each other and how some situations are inevitable,” Kim added.

Many noted that not only was seeing the film itself a meaningful experience, but the positive reception to the film from Western audiences also stirred up pride among their families. Do said that Korean cinema has had a legacy of masterpieces and director Bong Joon-ho has long been known for his talents. But this is one of the first times Western audiences are acknowledging this — something she didn’t believe would even be in the realm of possibility.

“I never thought it would be ever nominated for anything. So when it did, it just caught me off guard,” Do said. “I'm proud because I never thought it would be a thing that would ever happen.”