We dared to hope. Ever since Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” first began being screened in 2019, we dared to imagine this could win an Academy Award. The Korean director had amassed an impressive body of work, from the psychological urban drama “Barking Dogs Don’t Bite” to his Hollywood environmental romp “Okja” as a visionary and a craftsman.
But “Parasite” is clearly his masterpiece, a genre-defying drama about a family of con men (the Kims, led by Bong’s favorite actor Song Kang-ho) who slowly take over the life of a wealthy, clueless Seoul family, the Parks (led by Lee Sun-kyun). It’s like two excellent movies piled on top of each other; if you watched only the first half and someone else watched the second half, you’d feel like you were watching two separate movies, connected by the ringing of the doorbell. It’s a beautiful, razor-sharp commentary about class, identity and narratives.
There was reason to hope. “Parasite” earned six Oscar noms, including Best Foreign Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture, all firsts for a South Korean film. In a time when there was a call for the Oscars to become more diverse and embrace films from all over, it seemed like the time was ripe for “Parasite.”
“Parasite” won the Palm d’Or at. The Cannes International Film Festival, Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes and Outstanding Performance by a Cast at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, among others. There had been fighting words before, as Bong had called the Oscars “a local festival” instead of an international festival. At the Golden Globes, he challenged viewers to overcome the “one-inch barrier” of subtitles.
It had serious challengers. Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” boasted A-listers Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in a love letter to 1960s Golden Era of Hollywood, for example. But the most serious challenger was “1917,” directed by Sam Mendes, a poetic World War I tale of two soldiers carrying a message as ticks ticks away. It had won Best Picture for a Drama at the Golden Globes, Best Picture at the Prodocers Guild of America Awards and Mendes had won the top prize at the Directors Guild of America Awards over Bong. It had even more Oscar noms than “Parasite,” 10 in all. Most of all, it represented a very safe choice for Academy voters, a well-crafted, powerful tale of humanity and war.
“Parasite” required voters to step out of the basement home of their comfort zones. It required them to vote for the first best-picture winner ever to not be in English. It required them to read subtitles all throughout, to embrace ambiguity and unpredictability.
This year’s Oscars are interesting in that the acting awards were all set in stone, as the favorite had cleanly swept all the previous awards nights: Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker,” Renee Zelwegger in “Judy,” Laura Dern in “Marriage Story” and Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” Even the other categories, such as Best Adapted Screenplay (Taika Waititi for “Jojo Rabbit”), Best Original Song (Elton John’s “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again ” for “Rocketman”), Best Score (Ingur Guonadottir for “Joker”) and the technical categories (basically shared by “Ford v. Ferrari” and “1917”) were pretty much spoken for. Roger Deakins won for the nth time for Best Cinematography for “1917” (well deserved). Jaqualine Durran’s win for Best Costume for “Little Women” came as no surprise, as did “Bombshell’s” win for Makeup and “Once’s” win for Production Design. “Toy Story 4?” Sure thing.
There was no suspense there at all.
The fact that “Parasite” was nominated for Best Picture meant that its winning Best Foreign Language Film was a fait accompli? It was really only the three big categories that “Parasite” was seriously in the running for that remained wide open. Would Bong beat Tarantino? Would Bong beat Mendes? Is it possible that “Parasite” would be Best Picture?
The Oscars have disappointed us before.
But not tonight. Tonight, the best won.
“Parasite” made history as it became the first South Korean film—the first one not in English—to win Best Picture even as Bong won Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (with cowriter Han Ji-won) and the expected Best Foreign Language Film trophy.
It’s a great invitation for viewers to watch the movie in cinemas with the expected re-release and re-watch it on digital. Bong is developing an HBO series that happens within the movie.
What does it mean? Is it a case of tokenism, to allow Hollywood to oat itself on the back because it’s more diverse now? Or is it a major breakthrough that will change the game forever?
It’s a little bit of both, actually. It is certainly historical, and yes, Hollywood is certainly celebrating itself tonight for what it’s done. But “Parasite’s” dominance means voters would be ready to at least consider movies for Best Picture not only from South Korea, Japan and China, all of which have thriving film industries. It would mean that movies can be subtitled instead of shot in or dubbed in English and maybe actors in foreign films can be considered for the acting categories, which didn’t happen this year (you’re still the best, Song Kang-ho and Park So-dam).
It’s a very good. Now time to make more movies.