Why Parasite Winning Best Picture Is A Huge Leap Forward For The Oscars

Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece enjoyed an organic awards-season rise, becoming the first foreign-language film to score Hollywood’s top prize.

This is major. For the first time in the Oscars’ 92-year history, a foreign-language film was crowned Best Picture.

Parasite, the genre-busting South Korean masterpiece about a struggling family of four who con their way into a wealthy clan’s employ, began awards season as a long-shot contender. It won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May and became a runaway favourite among stateside critics. Still, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ relative aversion to subtitles seemed deterring. At first, a nomination was the most anyone could hope for.

But Parasite assumed a life of its own, forging one of the most exciting Oscar trajectories in recent memory. The film found box-office fortune as it expanded across North American cinemas throughout autumn and winter, and Bong Joon-ho solidified his reputation as a cunning director skilled at disguising nuanced political allegories as crowd-pleasing blockbusters, something he’d already done with The Host, Snowpiercer and Okja.

During the months he spent traveling the globe to promote Parasite and charm industry voters, Bong gained rock-star status. His warm smile and rumpled hair lit up room after room, as well as the cover of Variety. He even acquired an online fan army that adopted the Beyoncé-inspired hashtag #BongHive. And on Sunday, Bong also won Best Director, Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay (with Han Jin-won).

Bong Joon-ho, alongside translator Susan Choi, accepting the award for Best International Feature Film
Bong Joon-ho, alongside translator Susan Choi, accepting the award for Best International Feature Film
MARK RALSTON via Getty Images

Positioned against star-driven hits such as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman, Joker and Ford v Ferrari, Bong and his film were underdogs representing the best of what cinema is capable of. The 50-year-old director became an unlikely unifier, someone people could feel proud to support.

The Oscars tell us a lot about the state of popular culture at any given moment, or at least what Hollywood values. Last year, the Academy made a regressive Best Picture choice in Green Book, an oversimplified portrait of race relations that could have just as easily opened 30 years ago, over forward-thinking choices like Roma, Black Panther and The Favourite. This time, with awards season unfolding alongside President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, the 8,469-member organisation opted for a progressive emblem: an international film fixated on the class disparities fuelling economic division around the world.

Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: NEON + CJ Entertainment/Getty

“I haven’t been able to really analyse what’s going on,” Bong said when I asked him in November why this movie had struck such a cord. “Perhaps it’s because ‘Parasite’ is a true story about our lives, and also the story about the gap between rich and poor is something that everyone can sympathise with, no matter which country you’re from.”

Come Oscar night, Parasite faced its steepest competition from 1917, the other film that fared particularly well in the predictive precursor accolades. Parasite won the Screen Actors Guild’s top prize (and a televised standing ovation) in January, indicating a lift in the Best Picture contest since SAG boasts a significant voter overlap with the Academy. But 1917 later took the Bafta, Directors Guild Award and Producers Guild Award, ostensibly dampening the odds of a Parasite victory. The World War I drama also scored the Golden Globe, but that one is a bit of a wash, as foreign films are ineligible for the Globes’ best-picture categories.

Choi Woo-shik, Song Kang-hoi, Jang Hye-jin and Park So-dam in Parasite
Choi Woo-shik, Song Kang-hoi, Jang Hye-jin and Park So-dam in Parasite

With a two-pony race, the narrative was clear. 1917, for all its handsomeness, was the old-guard choice, a war drama contending for a statue that has gone to war dramas since the day the Oscars were born. (The first movie to win Best Picture was Wings, a 1927 silent film set during, yep, World War I.) Parasite, on the other hand, marked a path forward at a moment when Hollywood is facing technological, economic and social upheaval. The Academy has diversified its membership in recent years to include more women and people of colour, and a Parasite victory realises the fruits of that initiative.

Of course, Sunday’s Oscars weren’t without blindspots. When nominations were announced last month, Parasite received nods for its direction, screenplay, production design and editing – but nothing for its actors. That was no shock, considering the Asian cast isn’t well-known among American audiences, but the snub nonetheless epitomised what’s off-kilter about the Academy’s sensibilities. The Oscars – and Hollywood more broadly – has a history of prioritising non-white stories only when they depict slavery and other horrors, which could explain why Cynthia Erivo was the only actor of colour to make this year’s shortlist. (Erivo earned her nomination for portraying Harriet Tubman.) If Parasite was so beloved, why didn’t that extend to the actors who telegraphed the film’s humanity?

But that oversight, in turn, makes Best Picture even more of a triumph for Parasite. It’s only the 12th movie in Oscar history – and the first since 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire – to win without a single acting nomination to its name.

As a new decade begins, maybe we can finally start putting an end to the conventional wisdom that dictates what can reasonably vie for Best Picture.

Renée Zellweger

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