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Why Does A Best Picture Contender Include An ISU Reference?

Audiences at the Normal Theater gasped frequently last Thanksgiving weekend during showings of "Parasite."

While the Oscar-nominated Korean black comedy/thriller contains several twists and turns, one brief moment in particular surprised many Bloomington-Normal film buffs: a reference to Illinois State University.

“I cannot describe how surprised and how happy I was, because I take pride in ISU,” said Li Zeng, an associate professor of film studies in the School of Theatre and Dance. Although she watched the film in Peoria, Zeng heard about how the Normal Theater crowds responded.

Credit NEON / CJ Entertainment
The surprising moment when ISU is reference during "Parasite."

“I did talk to people who went there to watch it and know the reaction when the subtitle showed was cheer and joy,” she said. “It kind of feels like something the students and community can feel proud of.”

That connection has several local viewers pulling for director Bong Joon-ho’s sleeper hit to make history during Sunday’s Academy Awards as the first foreign language film to win Best Picture.

“I told my class it probably is my favorite film of the year,” said Zeng. “I just consider it such a perfect film; I cannot pick out any weakness from 'Parasite.'"

ISU English Professor William Thomas McBride, who serves as curator for Normal Theater’s Six Week Film School, praised the style and cinematography of "Parasite" and called the film’s narrative “spectacular.”

“It’s a little confusing at first but I think maybe that was smart, because it slowly builds and pretty soon you don’t know what to expect with the twists,” said McBride.

The story revolves around four members of a poor family who con their way into jobs as tutors, a chauffeur and a housekeeper for a wealthy family. The ISU reference comes when the young man masquerading as an English instructor named “Kevin” seizes an opportunity to get his sister involved in the scam, telling his boss that a woman he knows named “Jessica” is an art therapist who studied at Illinois State.

So, why was ISU chosen for the film? Could it be a nod to Wonsook Kim, the College of Fine Arts’ namesake benefactor? Or might it be merely a mistranslation in the subtitles, or possibly the character’s misstatement with the University of Illinois as the intended institution?

“One of my Korean colleagues said it most likely refers to the University of Illinois because a large number of Korean students come to U of I,” said Zeng (note: an English version of the screenplay does say “Illinois State”). “Among the young people, U of I is one of the universities they are familiar with.”

Ultimately, the reason doesn’t matter: ISU’s presence in the "Parasite" captions has drawn widespread attention regardless. The movie is a box office success with a total gross of more than $160 million as of Wednesday.

“People around the world who are watching the English subtitles see ‘Illinois State University,’” said McBride. “In a review of the film, it mentions ‘the prestigious Illinois State University.’”

"Parasite" has topped at least 45 critics’ Top Ten lists and has already raked in several honors, including the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film. The 10-actor ensemble won the Outstanding Cast top prize at last month’s Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Bong is nominated for the Best Director Oscar, along with Sam Mendes ("1917"), Quentin Tarantino ("Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"), Martin Scorsese ("The Irishman") and Todd Phillips ("Joker"). He could become the second consecutive director of a foreign language film to win, following Alfonso Cuarón ("Roma").

“Bong Joon-ho uses the visual composition and cinematography as a metaphor and I consider it a masterpiece,” said Zeng. “His films have never disappointed me, and when I watched 'Parasite' you can see he reached another level of artistic achievement and also the social commentary.”

McBride believes "Roma," a black-and-white Mexican drama from Netflix that challenged "Green Book" in the Best Picture category a year ago, laid the groundwork for possible Oscar success for "Parasite."

"'Parasite' winning would be huge, it would be amazing,” he said. “That would kick Hollywood in the butt.”

“I definitely hope this film will win,” added Zeng. “I think right now most people consider it’s between either '1917' and 'Parasite.'"

Normal Theater will be screening a black and white print of "Parasite" this week at 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

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