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 favorite 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 theaters throughout fall 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).
Positioned against star-driven hits such as “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “The Irishman,” “Joker” and “Ford v Ferrari,” Bong and his movie 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 organization opted for a progressive emblem: an international film fixated on the class disparities fueling economic division around the world.
“I haven’t been able to really analyze what’s going on,” Bong said when I asked him in November why this movie had struck such a chord. “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 sympathize with, no matter which country you’re from.”
Come Oscar night, “Parasite” faced its steepest competition from “1917,” the other movie 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.
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 color, and a “Parasite” victory realizes the fruits of that initiative.
Of course, Sunday’s Oscars weren’t without blindspots. When nominations were announced on Jan. 13, “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 epitomized what’s off-kilter about the Academy’s sensibilities. The Oscars — and Hollywood more broadly — has a history of prioritizing nonwhite stories only when they depict slavery and other horrors, which could explain why Cynthia Erivo was the only actor of color 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.