The South Korean thriller made history at this year’s Academy Awards. Ninety-two years of Oscar history were shattered on February 9th when the South Korean hit “Parasite” became the first film not in the English language to win the Academy Award for best picture.
The class-struggle thriller faced stiff competition for Hollywood’s top trophy from movies that included Quentin Tarantino’s showbiz epic, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” the billion-dollar comic-book film “Joker” and Martin Scorsese’s Netflix crime drama, “The Irishman.” But “Parasite,” directed by Bong Joon Ho, managed to pull off the final win in a moment that had audience members in the Dolby Theater leaping to their feet.
The historic victories made front-page news in South Korea, where Baek Young-hoon, 50, a Seoul office worker and avid Bong fan noted, “The South Korean movie industry became 100 years old last year, and this is a momentous event that makes South Koreans proud.”
In honoring the film, which also won best director, original screenplay and international feature, voters managed to simultaneously embrace the future — Hollywood’s overreliance on white stories told by white filmmakers may finally be ebbing — and remain reverential to decades-old tradition: Unlike some other best-picture nominees, “Parasite” was given a conventional release in theaters. It has taken in $35.5 million at the North American box office since its release in October. Global ticket sales stand at $165 million.
“We never write to represent our countries” a beaming Bong said through a translator, as he accepted the screenwriting Oscar with Han Jin Won. The comedy-thriller seemed to touch a nerve wherever it played, thanks to its tale of have-nots outsmarting the haves. At least that’s how it seems at first, when the struggling Kim family uses a variety of subterfuges to get jobs working in the household of the wealthy Park family.
The cast included Bong’s frequent collaborator Song Kang Ho as the impoverished patriarch, but the lack of nominations for any of the film’s stars renewed criticism that the academy frequently overlooks Asian actors. Indeed, the best-picture win for “Parasite” was in keeping with tradition in one respect: recent best pictures set in Asia, like “Slumdog Millionaire,” won without any acting nominations.
The celebration of “Parasite” follows a year in which Oscar voters seemed to retrench toward their conservative past. In a choice that prompted immediate blowback — from, among others, the director Spike Lee, who threw up his hands in frustration and started to walk out of the theater — the academy gave the 2019 best-picture Oscar to “Green Book,” a segregation-era buddy film. While admired by some as a feel-good depiction of people uniting against the odds, the movie was criticized by others as woefully retrograde and borderline bigoted.
Many pundits figured the best-picture Oscar would go to the war drama “1917,” which had amassed the most significant trophies until now, including a Golden Globe for best drama and the top prizes from two major industry guilds, the Producers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America. The last film to score with all three of those groups but still miss out on best picture was “La La Land,” which fell to “Moonlight” three years ago on Oscar night.
Still, “Parasite” had shown impressive strength all season, and not just at the box office. The movie won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the Golden Globe for best foreign film last month, the Writers Guild Award for its original screenplay, and a best-ensemble prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards — the first time in its history that the performers’ organization had given its top trophy to a foreign-language film. At that ceremony last month, the “Parasite” actors received a standing ovation when they came out to present a clip from the film, a sign that passion for the twisty thriller ran deep.
Bong, whose credits include “Okja” and “Snowpiercer,” proved to be one of the season’s most popular presences: a Golden Globes party touting “Parasite” even drew well-wishers from competing films, like the “Once Upon a Time” star Leonardo DiCaprio and the “Marriage Story” writer-director Noah Baumbach.
“We never expected all this,” Bong said then. But now that “Parasite” has made Oscar history, it’s clear that traditional expectations should be thrown out the window. In a post-“Parasite” world, the best-picture winner can come from anywhere.