In a field that included an ode to Hollywood, a Scorsese gangster picture, a period piece drama, a sports movie starring two big movie stars, and both a WWI AND WWII movie, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences went with the social satire thriller from South Korea. So typical, right? Same old borin…
Hold on. Did I just say “South Korea”? Holy shit. Parasite won! (Head here for a full list of winners.)
Up against a bunch of other nominees that could have easily taken Best Picture in a more typical year, Parasite triumphed, becoming the first foreign-language film to take home the Academy’s top honor. (Slumdog Millionaire contains stretches of dialogue in Hindi but is predominantly English and was produced by an American company.) No South Korean film had ever even been nominated for a single Oscar before. Now, Bong Joon-ho is bringing home four total Oscars – International Feature, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture.
Before now, casual Oscar viewers probably assumed foreign films weren’t even eligible in the main categories. When something hasn’t happened before, it’s understandable to assume it must not be possible. However, to those paying closer attention, there’s been plenty of evidence of foreign film eligibility. To name the first examples that come to mind:
- In 2012, Michael Haneke’s masterful French-language drama Amour was nominated for Picture, Lead Actress, Original Screenplay, and Director. (It lost all four but did win for Foreign Film.)
- In 2007, Marion Cotillard became the first actress to win Best Actress for a French-language film, La Vie En Rose, which also won the Oscar for Best Makeup but lost in the Costume Design category.
- In 2001, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Ang Lee’s martial arts epic with Mandarin dialogue – scored 10 nominations, trailing only Gladiator for most of any film that year. It ultimately lost in all of the marquee categories – Picture, Director, Screenplay – but won 3 technical awards (Art Direction, Score, Cinematography) and another for Foreign Film.
So, yes, international features have been Oscar eligible for quite some time now. However, considering the ever-rising cost of Oscar campaigns the films best positioned to make awards runs have been those produced by American companies. The Oscars, as Bong Joon-ho once joked, is really just a regional awards show for people who either work in or are supported by Hollywood. (Heck, the show was originally spearheaded by Louis B. Mayer back in the 20s to combat the winds of unionization. Epic fail on his part.)
Anyone who falls outside of that ecosystem can certainly win awards for short films or documentaries. Otherwise, they have their own category, Best International Feature, formerly known as Best Foreign Language Film. No foreign-language film had a shot at Best Picture for the same reason no animated film did: Academy voters would be too hesitant to double-dip. “I already voted for Up in the Animated Film category. Do I really want to do that again for Best Picture?” is one example.
Or so traditional logic dictated.
Parasite just proved all of that wrong. It’s an inspiring moment, a faith-restoring gesture for all those cinephiles who felt burned by Green Book’s big win last year, and likely further confirmation of something we already knew: the Academy is morphing into a more international body.
The post-#OscarsSoWhite membership drive to add more women and people of color also resulted in an influx of new international voters. How many new voters and what’s their exact impact on voting? We can’t tell for sure. However, the Best Director category, for example, is consistently pointed to as sexist for consistently failing to nominate woman filmmakers. What’s gone somewhat underappreciated is that 7 of the last 8 awards have gone to people of color – Ang Lee, Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro G. Inarritu twice, Alfonso Cuaron twice, and Bong Joon-ho.
That hasn’t gone unnoticed by at least one anonymous voter who told The Hollywood Reporter before this year’s show, “I want an American director to win. The Oscars is an American thing; English things win BAFTAs and the French vote for the French.” If she was in attendance, I doubt she was part of the countless standing ovations Bong Joon-ho received throughout the night.
There seemed to be so much love for Parasite in the room that as the telecast wore on you could sense the upset win was on the way. 1917 – the presumptive front-runner for Picture and Director – was on notice. It ultimately took home just 3 below-the-line awards (Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects.) Other heavily nominated flicks like Joker and Once Upon a Time In Hollywood settled for two wins apiece while The Irishman went 0/10. Ouch. Netflix at least won Best Documentary (American Factory) and Supporting Actress (Laura Dern, Marriage Story).
I can see the headlines now: “What Does $100m in Oscar Campaigning Get You? Not Nearly Enough, Netflix Discovers.”
Indeed, prior to the telecast there were whispers that some Oscar voters had actually been turned off by Netflix’s aggressiveness, tirelessly pushing Irishman, Marriage Story, and Two Popes, as well as several others like Dolemite Is My Name which didn’t even get nominated. It reeked of Harvey Weinstein’s old playbook for winning an Oscar, partially because Netflix hired an old Weinstein employee to be its chief awards strategist. That’s a playbook Tom Quinn knows as well. Prior to co-founding the indie distributor Neon, he headed a specialty indie division for The Weinstein Co., and part of what led him out the door was when Harvey gave up on Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and gave it to Quinn to deal with.
Reunited with Joon-ho for Parasite, Quinn’s Neon didn’t have the kind of money Netflix uses to gobble up billboards or mass-produce collector’s edition coffee table books sent out for free to Oscar voters. His best weapon was Joon-ho himself. Although the director’s grasp of the English language is limited, he is a supremely charming figure – intelligent, amusing, just the right amount of self-deprecating, and very reverential to his fellow filmmakers. Thus, Quinn’s team got Joon-ho in front of as many microphones and meet-and-greets as possible, sending the director out for a six-month publicity tour to stir up interest in Parasite and hopefully nudge it into the awards conversation.
The fans took it from there, organically building word of mouth around Parasite before eventually something called #BongHive formed on Twitter and set about spreading the gospel of Joon-ho. In prior awards seasons, that’s exactly the kind of adorable movement that would ultimately amount to nothing more than just film fans raving about a movie they like. After all, the Academy doesn’t give a shit about #FilmTwitter.
Yet, here we are with Parasite as a Best Picture winner. As I watched the film’s team accept the award from the Dolby Theater stage, I thought back to Moonlight. That, too, was a faith-restoring Best Picture win that told cinephiles, “See, sometimes the Academy does get it right.” (Well, gets it right after accidentally trying to give the award to La La Land.) That, however, was also a movie hardly anyone had seen, with a domestic take of just $22m prior to its Oscar win. If anything in 2017 could have used the boost from the Best Picture win, it was Moonlight.
Parasite is a little different, but also kind of the same. At a current domestic tally of $35m, it is easily one of the highest-grossing foreign-language films in US history, and long ago became Joon-ho’s most successful title in South Korea. Combine the two and you have a current worldwide total of $165m. However, of the rest of the competition in the Best Picture category only Jojo Rabbit has sold fewer tickets domestically. The rest of the nominees were either box office hits or put out by Netflix. Parasite is more likely to benefit from this than them. By virtue of the historic nature of its win, perhaps more people will actually see it now because for as much as film culture has revolved around Parasite for months it’s still something few have seen relative to the other nominees.
That probably reads as a rather cold reaction. After all, Korean people instantly flooded Twitter with stories about how much Parasite’s win meant to them, describing themselves as openly weeping for joy. I’m happy for them and happy that the Academy picked something not only historic but also a film that speaks about class and what’s going on in the world right now. This is certainly a better winner than 1917. It’s just, Parasite wasn’t my favorite film of the year, and even though I knew it was coming now that we definitely live in a world in which Marriage Story and Little Women each only won a single Oscar I’m a little bummed.
On the flipside, Laura Dern has an Oscar! And the consensus pick for film of the year actually won Best Picture. That’s rare. Skol!
Stray Thoughts About the Show
- So funny to me that Janelle Monet’s opening performance relied so heavily on imagery from Midsommar, a film that didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination. As a Midsommar stan, I didn’t mind. The people watching the show with me were utterly confused.
- The telecast had new producers this year and, again, no host. I noticed the lack of an MC more than I did last year, particularly with some of the unexplained segues into musical numbers.
- There is only so much the Academy can do to inject new life into the Oscars ceremony. This isn’t the Grammys! You can’t have performances every 10 minutes. What, is Roger Deakins going to come on stage and show us how to be a cinematographer? Obviously not. The producers, however, seemed to be doing their best to bring some Grammys energy to the show, hanging a lot on performances. Noble effort, if sometimes confusing.
- I had no idea why Emimen was there performing his 8 Mile song from 18 years ago until I was reminded he won Best Original Song back then but didn’t show up at the ceremony to accept the award.
- Poor Renee Zellweger has been lapped all season by Laura Dern, Joaquin Phoenix, and Brad Pitt in the “who gave the best acceptance speech?” derby. Tonight was no different.
- That being said, Phoenix and Pitt delivered better speeches at earlier awards shows.
- Elton John really, really, really wanted to win for Best Song. Almost none of the other winners dared to be so open about that.
- Even on a night which saw Parasite make history, I still feel cynical, mostly about the ability of the night’s speeches and endless references to social causes and diversity to truly make a difference. Just feels like an echo chamber to me.
- I went 14/21 on my predictions. Biggest gripe: I correctly guessed 1917 and Ford v Ferrari would split the Sound Editing/Sound Mixing awards. I just got it wrong about which film would win which one.