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Why the Parasite cast deserves Oscars — and didn’t get nominated

Parasite was honored with Best Picture and directing nods. But its cast was (predictably) shut out.

Park So-Dam in Parasite
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Going by the nominations and wins the 2020 awards season has brought us so far, we expected to see some very familiar trends when the Academy Award nominations were announced Monday.

Martin Scorsese’s robust and exhaustive mafia epic, The Irishman, found nods in the Best Picture and acting categories. Fellow Netflix cohort Marriage Story and The Two Popes were recognized, too, as was Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

And while Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite grabbed nominations in Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film and Director, it wasn’t a big shock that the stars of Bong’s searing film were left out in the cold.

Neglecting the cast of Parasite has been the status quo in Hollywood’s awards season.

Parasite has been lauded as a directorial masterpiece, thanks in large part to Bong’s directing and how seemingly each frame Bong creates is so detailed, so meticulous, that you need several watches to fully grasp every element that’s firing.

But Parasite is nothing without its leads. Its primary cast — Song Kang-Ho, Jang Hye-jin, Choi Woo-Shik, Park So-Dam — a family of anti-heroes, imbue the film with its emotional punch, conveying the humanity behind ideas of poverty and inequality and the sinister limits that people will take themselves to if a chance to evade the system presents itself.

They are the beating heart of Parasite, a collection of actors that confuse your moral instincts, making you root for them despite so many reasons not to.

Yet not one member of the Parasite cast was recognized by this year’s Oscars, Golden Globes or at the 2020 BAFTAs (which only recognized white actors). They fared slightly better as a group, garnering the Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture (which will be awarded on January 19), and a nod for Best Movie Ensemble at the Independent Spirit Awards (February 8). But of the cast members individually, only Song Kang-Ho has come away with a major award nomination this season, winning Best Supporting Actor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

The lack of hardware or even nominations for Parasite’s cast is curious in that the movie has been the best-reviewed movie of the last year. According to Metacritic’s analysis of 522 films and their reviews over 2019, Parasite’s composite score of 96 (based on scored reviews) edges out The Irishman’s 94, Marriage Story’s 93, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s 83 — barring stellar reviews of the acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which hasn’t been widely screened for critics yet, Parasite will be the top-scoring film of 2019.

It rarely happens that a movie is up for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, categories where Parasite was honored, with no acting nods. Among the 544 films nominated for Best Picture over the last 91 years, only 11 have won Best Picture without receiving any acting nominations. And even if this incongruence does happen occasionally, it doesn’t often happen with movies that are as character-driven as Parasite.

While the Academy could’ve bucked the awards season trend of not recognizing the Parasite cast, the Oscars themselves don’t have a particularly good track record of nominating nonwhite actors, let alone giving an acting award to actors in foreign-language films.

So what gives?

Parasite is seen as a director’s movie above all else

The Kim family in Parasite

The last time a movie was nominated for Best Picture without receiving any acting nods happened each in the last two years. In 2019, Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture, and was an anomaly in that it didn’t score any other nominations in the major awards — directing, writing, and the four acting categories.

But perhaps the best parallel for Parasite is 2018 Best Picture nominee, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Parasite and Dunkirk are disparately and disproportionately different movies, but they share one important quality: they’re seen as directorial achievements, first and foremost.

When Vox discussed Dunkirk’s Best Picture chances two years ago, our critics noted that Dunkirk snagged its Best Picture nod thanks to its massive scale, spectacle, visual composition, movement, sound, and visuals, which all came together to create an “experience” more than a traditional story. And Nolan, the maestro at the helm, was recognized for his work with not just a Best Picture nod, but also one for Best Director.

Parasite seems to be receiving a similar treatment.

Bong’s work in Parasite has been the most discussed part of the film in the awards conversation. It garnered him comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock, and has been lauded for treating each frame of his movie like its own piece of art.

“He likes to move the camera, sometimes just to nudge your attention from where you think it should be, but always in concert with his restlessly inventive staging,” the New York Times’s Manohla Dargis wrote in her glowing review of the film from October.

One of the most tantalizing stories surrounding the film, which will surely rise again during Oscar season, is that the movie’s primary setting, a gorgeous designer house worthy of a spread in a shelter magazine, was actually built from scratch to accommodate Bong’s meticulous camera work. The director needed to have every physical space conceived to match his vision, so that he could get the right angles, composition, and staging that the story required.

But outstanding directing is the end of the similarities between Dunkirk and Parasite, considering the latter’s dark, emotional heart. Parasite, after all, is a family drama deep down — much unlike the austere wartime action of Dunkirk.

The film focuses on Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-Ho), his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), his son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-Shik), and his daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-Dam). The family of four lives in claustrophobic, suffocating poverty. When a rare opportunity lands in their laps, they devise a plan to wriggle their way into another, wealthier family’s life. The first half of the movie occupies the space between heist and comedy, before morphing into something more horrific and malevolent.

My favorite performance of the film belongs to Park So Dam’s Ki-jeong, who takes on the persona “Jessica from Illinois” to fool the family’s prey into believing she’s an art therapist with experience in the United States. Park’s essentially playing two different characters, with her body language sharpening into an authoritative figure as Jessica and relaxing, slouching, to become more observant as Kim Ki-Jeong. The two personas eventually crash into each other as the plan goes to literal shit, with Park giving Ki-jeong a desperate and haunting vulnerability that’s only heightened by how menacingly she plays Jessica.

The other standout performance is Cho Yeo-Jeong’s Park Yeon-kyo, the neurotic and wealthy mistress of the house. Cho unleashes her knack for comedy as a housewife that’s completely helpless at domesticity. In Cho’s talented hands, minuscule inconveniences balloon into disasters, making you fully believe that the only reason Cho’s Park has made it to this stage in her life is a trust fund and a bank account brimming with South Korean won.

Therein is the meaty, unexpected marrow of Parasite’s story: You’re rooting for the villains, the Kim family that worms its way into the affluent Parks’ lives, the entire time. Its perfect, beautifully intricate directing by Bong confuses our sense of morality and questions the value we place on perceived innocence. But each actor’s performance plays a role in conceiving these themes, as well — the film would not succeed as well as it does without them.

The Academy that doesn’t have a good track record of rewarding foreign-language films and actors

Park So-Dam in Parasite

The last movie to win a Best Picture Oscar with no acting nominations was 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. As Reuters pointed out, the cast of Slumdog — a movie set in India, starring a nonwhite cast — comprise relative unknowns; the acting nominees that year were instead dominated by mostly white A-Listers.

And 12 years later, the same scenario happened with Parasite.

The other reason Parasite’s cast was overlooked is that the Oscars have become predictably skewed toward domestic films with A-List actors, and has, over the past few years, come under fire for its reluctance to recognize nonwhite actors.

Coinciding with the notion that the Academy doesn’t like to hand out awards to relatively unknown actors, the Oscars hasn’t traditionally been great at honoring nonwhite actors (in 2015 and 2016, all 20 acting nominees were white), nor has it ever given a foreign language film the award for Best Picture. 2018’s Roma was just the 10th foreign language film to ever be nominated for Best Picture, and it eventually lost out to the much-maligned Green Book. And the last actor or actress in a foreign film to win an Academy Award was Marion Cotillard in 2007 for La Vie En Rose.

Parasite’s cast wasn’t able to buck the Academy’s stifling history. But its fate doesn’t have to be hollow — even if the cast doesn’t earn the accolades they deserve, perhaps Parasite can be the disruptor the film industry needs.

“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” Bong Joon-ho said on Sunday’s Golden Globes, insisting that filmgoers, including the people that hand out awards, still have work to do and cinematic worlds to discover. That applies to performances, too.

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