The deck was stacked against the film from the start, for reasons that its good-natured and much-beloved director Bong Joon-ho cheekily joked about all season as he collected awards from critics’ groups and industry guilds. “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” Bong bantered after collecting his Golden Globe for best foreign language film in January, “you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
The challenge was simple: Americans just don’t like reading subtitles, and the Academy is mostly made up of Americans, working in the American film industry. So I figured that when it came down to brass tacks, the one-inch barrier would get in the way of Parasite’s Best Picture chances, as it did for non-English-language films in the previous 91 Oscar ceremonies. Parasite’s dialogue is almost entirely in Korean, and usually films that aren’t in English get shut out of the “major” categories; typically, the Academy relegates them to the Best International Feature category (named Best Foreign Language Feature until 2019).
Even getting into the International Feature category was a milestone for Parasite and its home country of South Korea, which had never managed to get a film even nominated for Best International Feature, let alone in the big categories like director, screenplay, and picture.
Yet Parasite premiered in triumph at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019. At Cannes, the film covered itself in critical glory and took home the coveted Palme d’Or, arguably the most prestigious award in world cinema. It continued that trend into its fall festival tour and theatrical release, where it earned universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike. It’s one of the most successful non-English-language films in US history, raking in more than $30 million to date and far exceeding box office prognosticators.
And when awards season arrived, Bong campaigned with apparent effortlessness; he was the guy whose hand everyone wanted to shake in rooms full of Hollywood celebrities. He told memorable stories (like the one about a rat in a screening that he recounted at the Indie Spirit Awards, held the night before the Oscars) and gave memorable interviews in which he seemed both delighted by his success and a little bemused by it. “The Oscars are not an international film festival,” Bong told Vulture’s E. Alex Jung in October. “They’re very local.”
Of course, awards campaigns are never effortless. Bong, who spent weeks on end in the US attending events and campaigning for the film, was clearly ready for it all to end. “After the ceremony, there will be a party, and after the party I will get to go home,” he told a reporter on the red carpet outside the Oscars ceremony. “So thinking about those two things doesn’t make me nervous at all.”
The thing is, if you make a great movie and sprinkle in a little bit of luck, people might want to give awards to it. And Bong did just that. Parasite is a pitch-perfect thrill ride with a dark social conscience that tapped into a prevailing theme in world cinema in 2019: that rampant inequality all over the world was building to some kind of inevitable breaking point. It was evident in films shown at Cannes, and it continued throughout the year, with movies like Joker picking up the same threads.
But no movie handled those socioeconomic themes like Parasite. What makes Bong’s movie the best in its class isn’t just that it understands its themes well, though its grasp of class and income inequality is more nuanced than other films from the same year. One of Parasite’s most radical moves is to make its wealthy characters, the Park family, not particularly miserable or bad; they’re nothing like, for instance, the Roy family in HBO’s popular show Succession. The Parks are moral, friendly, and not harboring any horrible secrets (that they’re aware of, anyhow), and they’re not made miserable so we can experience schadenfreude. They’re oblivious to their privilege, but they’re not heinous monsters.
Similarly, the poorer family the Kims are not righteous and upright heroes. Parasite doesn’t patronize them by pretending they are ennobled by their poverty. Yet they’re still people who love one another and experience moments of happiness together. And when even poorer people show up, people who are in more dire straits than the Kims or the Parks, the movie pointedly makes it clear to us that they have, and enjoy, sex.
In this way, Parasite makes humans of everyone in its story. Nobody’s a caricature. Nobody’s even really a villain. Instead, the system in which they live is the villain, a system that permits them to live at these different levels (levels being very important in this film) — even though they’re all humans, and all deserve equal dignity and footing in the world.
What you actually see in Parasite’s social critique probably has a lot to do with whatever wavelengths your political radar is tuned in to. But in a way, that fact makes it even better. Parasite embodies a very clear indictment of systematic inequality, but it makes plenty of room for audiences to simply watch it and enjoy it as entertainment; it never sermonizes. The message is there, but Parasite plays its cards so close to its chest that you might not realize what it’s saying till you’re already on board.
And that makes it a worthy Best Picture winner: Parasite doesn’t just have something to say, but it says it artfully, in a way that leaves room for the audience to walk around inside of it and glean new meanings on rewatch. (Plus, it’s hilarious, and its cast should have been nominated for bringing the story to life.)
Despite all these strengths, though, I still didn’t think it would win Best Picture. The Academy had never honored a non-English-language film with the night’s biggest prize in its 91-year history; the Oscars’ inclination is largely to stick to tradition. In recent years, the Oscars have veered dangerously close to total irrelevance as a result, and, as Justin Chang wrote at the LA Times, it seemed like the Oscars needed to recognize Parasite more than Parasite needed the Oscars’ recognition.
But I am very, very happy to be wrong. Parasite made history, and the Academy made history by giving it Best Picture. People who didn’t see Parasite might now be more likely to see it, and more distributors in the US may start considering non-English-language films for their Oscar campaigns in the future. The door is now open — however briefly, but still, it’s open — to world cinema making inroads in future Oscars ceremonies, and to the segment of American moviegoers who see the Oscars as a starting point for their own viewing.
And it’s nice, every so often, to see the year’s actual best picture take home Best Picture.