International Policy Digest

Barunson E&A
Entertainment /24 Feb 2020
02.24.20

‘Parasite’: A Revelation at the Oscars, a Revolution in Global Cinema

Here are some of the most unexpected, most surprising, most heartwarming words I have ever typed: Parasite is the Best Picture winner at the 92nd Academy Awards. It is the first movie not in the English language to win the award, as well as my personal favorite film of 2019. It also won Best Director for the brilliant auteur Bong Joon-ho, Best Original Screenplay (which Bong shared with co-writer Han Jin-won) and the recently-renamed Best International Feature Film. The South Korean dark satire addresses everything from economic inequality to familial dynamics to existential questions about fate and destiny.

From the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival to Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Parasite’s unlikely journey is likely to give anyone who loves the movie optimism. As many commentators have noted, its victory feels downright revolutionary. Parasite was the bold choice, a deliberate shift by the Academy, and yes, most important of all, the right choice. No other film released this year, American or otherwise, so successfully sums up the current moment.

Upon watching it a second time, it became apparent to me that the real power of Parasite is very much observable. It is able to truly reel you in, to be captivating and engrossing in a way few movies can. It very much has Hitchcock on its mind, yet tackles themes even Alfred himself would think might be a bit too daring. Like any great story, it unravels in a series of acts, each playing off of and building on top of each other. The characters each feel distinct, even within the broader context of their respective families and social status. There is almost an operatic element to it, powerful scenes motivated by intense characters and their desires. Other films might suffer for the leaps in narrative logic, but Parasite doesn’t. On a second viewing, you notice things you didn’t the first time, and certain motifs become much more apparent and help inform the story. Any film that keeps adding to your experience the more you watch it already distinguishes itself as something extraordinary.

South Koreans are celebrating Parasite’s historic win as a point of national pride, a validation of the nation’s cultural triumph in the West, and a recognition that the country can export more than just K-Pop. It’s given even more weight by the fact that now-Academy Award-winning director Bong Joon-ho was at one point blacklisted by former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who was later impeached, removed from office, and is currently serving a prison term. (If only such a thing could happen stateside!) Bong once addressed that time, saying “it was such a nightmarish few years that left many South Korean artists deeply traumatized.” In a Hollywood where the legacy of blacklisting during McCarthyism still lingers, this serves as both a feat for a filmmaker who at one time was essentially ostracized by his home country’s government and a remarkable rebuke of censorship.

Despite this, the film does have a significant detractor in the form of President Trump. In a recent rally in Colorado, the president asked: “By the way, how bad were the Academy Awards this year?” He then added “The winner is a movie from South Korea, what the hell was that all about? We’ve got enough problems with South Korea, with trade. On top of it, they give them best movie of the year? Was it good? I dunno.” The president then bemoaned the decision, asking if they could get classic American movies like Gone with the Wind and Sunset Boulevard “back,” as if they ever left. The ultimate clap back came from Parasite’s U.S. distributor Neon, who tweeted that the president didn’t like the film simply because “he can’t read.” When the leader of the free world is an uncultured ignoramus who lashes out at that which he hasn’t seen or doesn’t like, the only response is to be as critical and dismissive as Neon was. My kudos to them.

Its win comes on the heels of Oscar controversies about the lack of diverse inclusions for both race (Cynthia Erivo was the only person of color nominated in an acting category this year, for her role as Harriet Tubman in Harriet) and gender (Greta Gerwig’s lack of an Best Director nod for Little Women was seen by many to be an egregious snub). Perhaps the biggest controversy of all was the tone-deaf awarding of last year’s Best Picture prize to Green Book, a middling racial-buddy-dramedy that seemed pandering at best and out-of-touch at worst, particularly where the film’s racial issues were concerned.

The A.V. Club said it best when they wrote that “Green Book’s big Oscar victory proves that the Academy, like America, still has a long way to go.” Green Book seems destined to join the ranks of Driving Miss Daisy, Dances with Wolves, Shakespeare in Love, and Crash as Best Picture winners perceived to have robbed more deserving movies (like Goodfellas, Saving Private Ryan, and Brokeback Mountain) of the trophy. Green Book’s win sparked a conversation about the obliviousness of the Academy, the typical fare (nicknamed “Oscar-bait”) the Academy usually awards with its most prestigious prize, and the seemingly unwillingness to accept anything radical or different, or to hear from different kinds of voices. In one fell swoop, Parasite’s staggering victory has completely changed, and possibly reversed, the entire conversation.

Parasite’s win feels emblematic of a larger trend: typical Oscar-bait movies, like Green Book and arguably The Shape of Water, will still get the gold most of the time. But every once in a while, a Best Picture winner will buck expectations and stand as a unique, progressive choice. In 2017, that choice was Moonlight, a coming-of-age drama about a gay, black youth in Miami. However, how revolutionary that choice was ultimately ended up being overshadowed by the most unfortunate blunder in Oscar history: the infamous snafu of Faye Dunaway calling out La La Land as Best Picture before it was revealed that the winner was actually Moonlight…after most of the La La Land people had already given their speeches. That ended up eclipsing just what a radical moment it was for the Academy to pick such a mature, political and socially-motivated film like Moonlight over the much more traditional La La Land.

Now, because of a lack of slipup (though Jane Fonda looked as shocked announcing it as we at home did hearing it), the conversation these days after the Oscars ceremony and telecast have felt like what the conversation should have been after Moonlight’s win: the Academy didn’t just pick a departure from their usual fare, they might have ended up picking the actual best movie of the year. This has allowed Parasite’s win to transcend and reverberate in a way that it feels like Moonlight’s win never could because of the announcement gaffe.

Throughout its history, various foreign films have tried, but never successfully broken through the glass ceiling of American dominance at the Academy Awards. Some have come close, including Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma from just last year. Some are crediting the success of Roma at last year’s Oscars, which included a Best Director win for Cuaron, for laying the path for Parasite to succeed. But now, the floodgates are open. Global cinema used to be considered a niche, something that American audiences viewed as a curiosity. How many other voices and films can break through now that Parasite has pioneered the way? At the end of the day, the Best Picture winner can now come from anywhere in the world, and I, for one, take solace in that thought.