Bong Joon Ho poses with the Oscars for "Parasite" at the Governors Ball following the 92nd Academy Awards. Photograph by REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Culture Movies

By giving Best Picture honor to Korea’s ‘Parasite,’ the Oscars just became relevant again

The film from South Korea shook up the would-have-been business-as-usual Academy Awards and ran away with four of its top honors. A ceiling has indeed been broken.
Andrew Paredes | Feb 10 2020

It was a ceremony marked by chaos. Janelle Monae opened the 92nd Academy Awards first by channeling Mister Rogers, then led a plethora of Midsommar May Queens, the Untethered from Us, and a bunch of Dolemites in a performance that ultimately had Ms. Monae lying down in the aisles. Elsas from parallel worlds (well, countries) swarmed the stage alongside Idina Menzel for a performance of “Into the Unknown.” Eminem performed a song that won back in 2003–a ceremony he failed to show up for—and nobody bothered to issue a memo why the do-over was necessary. Celebrities went onstage to introduce other celebrities who then introduced nominees.

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Brad Pitt accepts the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" at the 92nd Academy Awards. Photograph by REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

But much like the Big Bang, out of chaos came new life. And in a recent run of best picture winners marked by more and more redundancy—were we going to get another display of industry self-aggrandizement in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood? Another piece of stodgy nobility in 1917? Another example of men-run-the-world storytelling in Ford V Ferrari?—Oscar saw clear to buck 92 years of history and reward the top prize to a film not in the English language. To insert a cringe-worthy pun into this article, Oscar experienced a Big Bong.

The awards season certainly did not seem to presage this outcome. The Golden Globes—an awards show run by foreign journalists, mind you—did not see fit to let Parasite compete with the big boys in the drama film category. When the Oscar nominations were announced in early January, #OscarsSoWhite reared its dispiriting head again, seeming to ring a death knell to the Academy’s hopes of injecting a more diverse perspective among its ranks. And as the guild awards and BAFTA rolled along, 1917 seemed to flex its primacy.

Bong Joon Ho and the cast of "Parasite" pose at the 92nd Academy Awards in Hollywood. Photograph by Matt Petit/A.M.P.A.S./Handout via REUTERS

But there were rumblings captured by the cameras and roiling behind the scenes. The cast of Parasite got a standing ovation at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and this was before they even won the Best Ensemble prize. Parasite director Bong Joon Ho used his Golden Globe Foreign Language Film win to mildly chide Hollywood for its subtitle phobia, and then remained the belle of the awards season ball with his unassuming charm and quick wit. 

Bong and the Parasite crew garnered the loudest claps in the Academy nominees luncheon. The auteur was such a rock star, the film’s campaign simply chugged along even when social media lifted his remarks about the Oscar being a “local award” out of context, churning out press releases about his plans for Hollywood projects (an expansion of the Parasite universe to be produced by HBO) and shrewdly deploying multi-page features in Varietyon the first day of voting. In fact, burning the Academy Award as an insular recognition might have even helped the cause.

Director Bong Joon-ho accepts the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for "Parasite" of South Korea at the 92nd Academy Awards. Photograph by REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

And so a narrative was set up: the Establishment behemoth versus the underdog foreigner. The result was a ceremony where the suspense was focused on where it rightly belonged—the race for best picture. And because neither 1917 nor Parasite had any nominees in the acting categories, Oscarologists suddenly found themselves paying inordinate attention to the technical categories, hoping they could be indicators of where the evening was headed. But even here, Academy voters played their cards delightfully close to the chest. 

Best editing usually goes hand-in-hand with a Best Picture win—but that went to non-starter Ford V Ferrari. Suddenly, Best Production Design took on outsize significance; a win for Parasite here would indicate that voters recognized its crucial role in the film’s narrative—but the trophy went to the sputtering Once Upon a Time. Best Visual Effects went to 1917...could that mean something?

Renee Zellweger accepts the Oscar for Best Actress for "Judy" at the 92nd Academy Awards. Photograph by REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Joaquin Phoenix wins the Oscar for Best Actor in "Joker" at the 92nd Academy Awards. Photograph by REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The downside was that the acting categories were a bore, the victories going according to the script laid down by the bellwether awards. Brad Pitt took a jab at the travesty that was Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, but adopted a generally more serious tone in his speech. Laura Dern made history as half of the only mother-daughter tandem to take home Oscars, but her thank-yous had all the spontaneity and emotion of a corporate pep rally. Joaquin Phoenix continued his brand of discussing worthy issues in the most incoherent ways possible, while Renee Zellweger struggled to connect Judy Garland to Serena Williams and first responders.

Oscar still committed its share of blunders along the way—a show that runs past the three-hour mark can’t help it. Hollywood can’t shake the idea that a film with the most cuts must be the best edited. The Academy’s love for Jojo Rabbit and kumbaya messaging led it to reward Taika Waititi—by all indications a charming man with his heart in the right place—the Best Adapted Screenplay award, despite the fact that his film did not adapt its source material’s tone, intent or even ending. Winner for Best Sound Editing Donald Sylvester decried Ford V Ferrari director James Mangold’s lack of a nomination, a tin-eared complaint in a year when Natalie Portman had the names of unheralded female directors sewn along the sides of her cape.

Bong Joon Ho poses with two Oscars, one for Best Director and one for Best International Feature Film for "Parasite" in the photo room during the 92nd Academy Awards. Photograph by REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Nonetheless, a pattern started to emerge as the evening wore on. Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film, Best Director…all these significant categories went Parasite’s way. But would it achieve what nine other foreign-language films also nominated for the picture prize could not? The question did not seem to have an assured answer over the course of the ceremony, but on hindsight the outcome seemed to have been willed into being. A movie that broke out of its South Korean origins to speak to this current moment of disillusionment with the global ruling class, a movie that generated excitement not just among critics but also word-of-mouth elation from Brooklyn hipsters and Parisian bodybuilders…surely a film like this cannot afford to be ignored by Oscar!

And so whether Parasite garnered near-unanimous first-choice votes or gathered enough points in the second- or third-choice votes in the preferential ballot ultimately didn’t matter. It broke a glass ceiling, and gave Oscar the patina of being a global award. Now, new voices in different languages were welcome to the party. And after years of hit-or-miss choices, Oscar became relevant again. Out of the chaos, a message emerged: Oscar rewarded Parasite best picture not because it chose to—but because it had to.