No one is perhaps more surprised than South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho by the runaway success of his film “Parasite”. After winning the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last May, the foreign-language film has gone on to collect a bevy of international accolades and at its climax, make Oscars history by taking home best picture at the Academy Awards.
Widely acclaimed as an upstairs-downstairs drama, “Parasite” is about a poor Korean family who hustles their way into a rich household only to confront the original parasites already living there. The arrival of a lucky stone-turned-monkey’s paw sets off a chain of events that transmogrifies the story from social satire and family drama to ghost story and horror film. It is director Bong at his finest with a black comedy of errors that not only turns capitalism on its head but also explores the social breakdown that follows in its tragic wake.
Through “Parasite”, Bong has become a conspicuous fixture on the awards circuit, disarming both fans and critics with his humble enthusiasm and unexpected candor. He has also become famous in his own right by earning droll monikers like “Bong d’Or”, #BongHive, and “Bongtail”.
But alongside Bong, there has emerged another unlikely albeit inadvertent star who has been instrumental to Bong’s success. You would be wrong to guess Song Kang-Ho, the film’s protagonist and Bong’s frequent collaborator who has accompanied him on his cast interviews. Nor is it Park So-dam of “Jessica Jingle” fame or Korean-Canadian Choi Woo Shik who plays the Kim family’s son.
The most visible person in the whole line-up is none other than Bong’s translator, Sharon Choi.
Bong is no newcomer to the Hollywood stage and like Asian filmmakers before him such as Ang Lee and Park Chan-Wook, he has directed English language films with an international cast. Although Bong unapologetically uses a mix of Korean and English, he has relied on translators for his American films “Snowpiercer” and more recently, “Okja”.
However, Bong’s success with “Parasite” has projected him into the public eye and like it or not, English is the lingua franca for international awards season.
Surprisingly, Bong has chosen not to go with a professional interpreter but instead, has solicited the services of Sharon Choi (Korean name Choi Sung-Jae), herself a budding film student and aspiring director.
Dressed in twin ensembles of all-black suits, Bong and Ms. Choi have shared their own symbiosis as they have navigated a fairly hectic awards season. Whether Bong is giving acceptance speeches at awards ceremonies or participating in audience Q&As, Sharon Choi is not far from his side.
With each mounting interview and public appearance, Ms. Choi has developed a following online from Korean viewers who have dissected her seamless translations and smooth delivery of Bong-isms. In fact, she has been such a crowd favorite that some Hollywood reporters have passed the mic to her not to interpret Bong’s remarks but to add some of her own.
Nevertheless, Sharon Choi is more than just clear diction and good vocabulary. She deserves much kudos for her translations on the fly while maintaining a professional aplomb in the face of all the glitz. To any native English or Korean speaker, it is evident that Ms. Choi is supremely bilingual. She is an interpreter set apart by her deft command of American idioms and slang that might trouble even the best of Korean translators.
Ms. Choi’s level of fluency however, doesn’t undermine the reality that Korean is a very difficult language to interpret.
This is because by English convention, Koreans speak backwards.
For most interpreters, this presents a technical challenge since real-time translation is nearly impossible; speakers would have to first finish their sentences to get the full gist of their meaning.
The importance of public relations for Korean entertainment in America has been tricky.
Bong is just one of many South Korean exports who have entered the American spotlight; singer Psy of “Gangnam Style” and K-pop groups BTS and Blackpink are the latest examples of Korean talent crossing over into the U.S.
They have also arrived with varying degrees of English fluency.
When “Gangnam Style” first became a national sensation, Psy didn’t require a formal translator since he spoke passable English after briefly attending school in Boston, MA. Recent K-pop group Blackpink also operates without an interpreter with two of their members, Jenny and Rosé, having lived or studied in New Zealand and Australia respectively.
In that respect, Bong Joon-Ho and BTS are probably the most “Korean” of the bunch in that neither have lived or studied abroad in English-speaking countries. But where as BTS relies on their best English speaker, rapper RM (real name Kim Nam-Joon), to act as their mediator, Bong has depended on Sharon Choi, a lay translator with close to no ties to the Korean entertainment industry.
Commonly mistaken as Korean-American, Ms. Choi’s nationality is Korean although she has previously lived in the United States. According to Korean news sources, she had spent her early years in Los Angeles, CA before moving back to South Korea in elementary school. Since then, she has studied film at the University of Southern California and currently resides in Seoul.
Bong’s controversial win at the Oscars comes at an opportune moment in American cinema as international films gain universal traction. In Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar speech, he recognized Martin Scorsese as an early mentor and in other interviews, recalled drafting subtitles for Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and “Do the Right Thing”. This is all to say that Americans are not the only inheritors of great filmmaking.
Not one to be pigeon-holed as an Asian filmmaker, Bong has also resisted categories based on his race and ethnicity: “I am just [sic] filmmaker.”
Moving forward, these types of communication will become increasingly significant as foreign-language speakers make their way into the U.S. market. With South Korea, this is especially the case as Korean culture, which includes music, food and film, is adopted into the American mainstream.
Sharon Choi isn’t celebrated because she is necessarily involved with the “Parasite” film but because she has gracefully negotiated the gap between Bong and the American public. She has helped the director connect to American audiences in ways that Bong’s predecessors have failed to do.
Future stars looking to cross the Pacific should take note and if the need should ever arise, maybe ask Sharon Choi to interpret.