From her first appearance at Bong Joon Ho’s side in Cannes, where he accepted the Palme d’Or for his sensational “Parasite,” interpreter Sharon Choi has been an unwitting award season MVP. Clad in minimal black and permanently clutching a notebook, the retreating student filmmaker has imparted Bong’s messages of gratitude on the most coveted stages of Hollywood. After declining hundreds of interview requests, Choi shares exclusively with Variety the 10-month ride that began with a phone call last April, and ended two weeks ago at the Dolby Theater with a Best Picture trophy.
For the first time in a while, there’s nothing but silence. My eyes are still puffy from the tearful goodbyes that punctuated a historic night, one that ended with six Oscar trophies but surprisingly no karaoke. That night was already far gone for sleep, so I mindlessly went to the beach hoping to watch the sun come up — as if the cosmic win of “Parasite” could make the sun rise from the west. Instead of the sun on the horizon, I watched the moon fade in and out of the grey brushstrokes left behind by the previous night’s rain. The sky started to pour on our way to the Oscars. Raindrops hit hard against the sprinter bus as we tried to contain our anxious buzz. It was a good omen. After all, “Parasite” is a rain movie.
The past six months has been a blur of new cities, microphones and good news, with endless orders of honey lemon tea as I tried to preserve my voice. Driven from one crowd to the next, I shook hands with hundreds of people whose eyes shone with the excitement of having watched a special film. Moments alone were still riddled with the absurdity that I was sharing hand sanitizers with a man whose films I’d organized movie nights for in college. Somehow, despite having only micro-short films to my name, I got sucked into the heart of Hollywood. In January, I made sure to stay close to the beach so that I might have the safety net of the ocean against the melancholy that would surely hit once this crazy ride ended.
In April of 2019, I received a last-minute email asking me to interpret a phone interview with Bong Joon Ho. I had already missed the interview, thanks to a night spent in crunch mode staring at the blinking cursor on a pilot script. It took every professional fiber in my being to erase all of the exclamation marks and reply with, “I am available for future calls so please let me know.” A few days later, another request came, and soon I was sitting at my desk with my favorite notepad and pen, praying that my nervous bladder would be quiet for the next hour. My interpreting experience prior to this amounted to just a week, mostly with director Lee Chang Dong for his snubbed masterpiece “Burning.” So when I missed an obscure film reference made by director Bong during the call, I was sure another interpreter would get the chance to be afraid of the bathroom.
“Translations are sacred,” Bong once declared, through Steven Yeun’s arm in “Okja.” But the stars seemed to align when I got asked to come to Cannes. Coincidentally, I’d already planned to be in southern France at the time of the festival for vacation. Had I known that I’d be lugging around a backpack full of business attire on my way to witness Korea’s first Palme d’Or, I wouldn’t have booked all those carry-on-only flights and eight-person hostel rooms.
There was palpable electricity in the Grand Theater Lumiere when the film premiered at Cannes. It was moving to see a film about my home country touch people from so many different cultures. The two years I spent in the U.S. as a kid had turned me into a strange hybrid — too Korean to be American, too American to be Korean, and not even Korean American. I kept up my English by reading books and watching movies, but I still didn’t know how to respond to the oh-so-casual “What’s up?” when I came back to L.A. for college. I had to come to terms with the fact that I would be able to share only half of myself with most people I met. Likewise, two cultures are usually just one too many for a film to contain. And yet here was this story that seemed to effortlessly break through all barriers. Originally, I was only needed at the festival for two days to do English press, but I ended up backstage at the closing ceremony sweating with anticipation until “Parasite” was the only one left on the list of films to win an award.
The rest of my year is all on YouTube. Truth is, there is no time to reminisce when you’re interpreting. It’s all about the moment that exists now, and I have to wipe away each memory to make room for the next. I had to rely on the films I’d watched my whole life to soothe my insomnia, to maintain my grasp on Eastern and Western cultures, and on the clarity of director Bong’s articulate words. My job was made easy by his consideration, and it helped that I was already familiar with his language as a filmmaker and a thinker, having written college papers about him. Yet I was constantly battling impostor syndrome, and an anxiety that I might misrepresent the words of someone so beloved in front of people I’d grown up admiring. The only cures for stage fright were ten-second meditations backstage, and knowing that I was not who they were seeing. There is no medium I love more than cinema, but I constantly had to tell myself something I overheard a French publicist shout to her stressed peers: “It’s just cinema!”
This journey has been nothing but a privilege. I got to witness firsthand the roaring laughter for the comedy duo that became Bong and Song Kang Ho, the standing ovation for the “Parasite” cast when they won the ensemble prize at the SAG Awards, and the golden hue that fell upon the audience as Bong paid tribute to Martin Scorsese on the Oscars stage. I got to meet some of my personal heroes. I told Phoebe Waller-Bridge that I wished for a Hot Priest for Christmas, and paid for it by crying to “The Wall” on New Year’s Day. I ended up at Taco Bell with Celine Sciamma at 4 a.m. musing about love and vulnerability. After hours of discussing diversity and stories, I exited a restaurant with Lulu Wang as “Closing Time” played in the background. I got to tell John Cameron Mitchell his movies made me want to work in film as director Bong made fun of how starstruck I was. But above all, the true gifts are the private conversations and one-on-one relationships I got to form with team members and artists I saw on a daily basis during this job. I will spend the next years of my life doing my best to earn the chance to work with these people again. It will take a while.
Between Cannes and Telluride, I was deep in the abyss of a friend’s thesis project that, apart from the amazing crew, had all the usual difficulties. I finally broke down crying when the bathroom we’d discreetly planned to shoot in began construction the morning of and, as the first AD, I had to send out a sick PA on an impromptu location scout. Three days after we wrapped, I got on the plane to Telluride to begin the Oscars campaign. I needed an oxygen tank to adjust to the jump in altitude and the industry ladder. Despite the great moments I got to be a part of, I feel that my place is still on that student set — in the midst of struggles to make small, heartfelt projects. I’m still learning to cultivate my voice as a filmmaker.
There are two days I hold dear: when I got glimpses into director Bong’s eye as a filmmaker. New York magazine held an interview at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House in L.A., a beautiful ode to California. Just listening to director Bong intuitively read the space was like taking a masterclass on the holy trinity of camera, space, and characters. His effortless way of sharing his vision was even more evident when he directed the cover shoot with Cho Yeo Jeong for W magazine. His quick precision, always tinged with humor and wit, was instructive and inspiring. So many other great artists worked to bring ‘Parasite” to life, and I would trade any one of my experiences for a day on set taking notes of their process.
Switching back and forth between languages has never been my job; it’s the only way of life I know. I’ve been my own interpreter for 20 years. A psychologist specializing in bilingual children once told me that most people have a similar brain capacity — if a monolingual knows 10,000 words, a bilingual would only know 5,000 in each language. All my life I’ve been frustrated by having to choose one of the two. This is why I fell in love with cinema’s visual language. Filmmaking is a similar process of translating my interior into a language that can communicate with the outside world, but I didn’t have to search for equivalents that were only approximations of the original.
The psychologist also added that switching languages involves not the language part of the brain, but the part that controls flexibility in thought. It’s a muscle that gains skill with practice. Flexibility is what brought “Parasite” to where it is now. It fosters understanding and empathy. Empathy bridges the gap between the perpetual “others.” And to feel a little less lonely is why I want to be a storyteller. And no, I am not writing a feature on the awards season. This is a deeply personal experience I’ve yet to process, and it will find another time to seep into my stories. The one I am writing about is a small story set in Korea that’s close to my heart because, as director Bong quoted the sincere words of Martin Scorsese, “the personal is the most creative.”
Seeing my face on my social media feed has been so bizarre. I realized this was my 15 minutes of fame when I found a string of bot tweets that looped my name into the hashtag for Viagra ads. I hear there’s even an offer for a beauty commercial. I’m grateful for people who’ve spread their warmth for the film to me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Korean government declares February 9 as National Parasite Day. But I can’t wait for my minutes to end so that next time my name pops up with a spam ad, it’s with my own story.
It’ll just be me and my laptop for a while, and the only translating job I have now is between myself and the language of cinema.