In Depth

Five reasons why Parasite won at the Oscars

Bong Joon-ho’s comedy-thriller makes Academy Awards history by winning Best Picture

The 2020 Oscars last night delivered the biggest surprise yet of this awards season, with South Korean film Parasite becoming the first non-English movie ever to win Best Picture.

Bong Joon-ho’s darkly satirical thriller also saw off competition from some of Hollywood’s most seasoned filmmakers to pick up Best Director, Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay.

So what was it that won over the Academy?

A pitch-perfect theme

Parasite “doesn’t just have something to say, but it says it artfully”, says Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson. 

The film follows the Kims, a poor family who scheme their way into the employment of a wealthy household and infiltrate their home.

Wilkinson argues that this “deserving” Best Picture winner taps 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”.

Yet “Parasite makes humans of everyone in its story”, she adds. “Nobody’s a caricature. Nobody’s even really a villain. Instead, the system in which they live is the villain.”

A top acting ensemble

As The Washington Post noted last week, while Parasite was up for six Oscar nominations in total, none of its actors received individual Academy nods, reflecting a history of under-representation of Asians in Hollywood.

However, Parasite’s status as an Oscars front runner was “thanks in no small part” to the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) ensemble award that the cast bagged last month, says the newspaper.

The Post predicted, correctly, that “although the actors won’t be able to collect individual trophies on Sunday, their work could still prove crucial in helping make Oscars history”.

The Bong charm

Director Bong has long had a loyal following in the US, says Glenn Whipp in the Los Angeles Times

“But with Parasite, he also demonstrated a tireless energy during the long awards season, charming voters with his authentic, gracious spirit, his humor and the way he celebrated his cast’s ensemble win at the SAG Awards, filming them like a proud dad,” says the entertainment reporter.

The awards season momentum for Parasite “had been building for months” as adoration for Bong and his film “played out at event after event”, Whipp adds.

The Roma backlash

Whipp also suggests that the attention Roma received in 2019 “paved the way for Parasite to triumph this year”.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Netflix film earned Mexico its first ever win in the Best Foreign Language Film category last year, but missed out on Best Film and Best Director, to the disappointment of many critics.

During his acceptance speech, Cuaron joked that he “grew up watching foreign-language movies... like Citizen Kane, Jaws, Rashomon, The Godfather, Breathless”. According to The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis, the barb contributed to the Academy’s decision to change the category’s name to Best International Film in time for the 2020 awards.

Giorgis adds: “Last night, Parasite built on Cuaron’s challenge to the Academy. In taking home the Best International Film trophy and also claiming the biggest honor of the night, Bong’s movie made the Oscars slightly less local.”

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A bold new direction for the Academy?

LA Times film critic Justin Chang suggested in January that the Oscars needed Parasite more than Parasite needed the Oscars.

He doubted that the Academy membership would “ever acknowledge that cinema is and always has been a global medium, that no national cinema has a monopoly on greatness and that the best film every year is not always - perhaps not even usually - an American one”.

Accepting the Golden Globe for Foreign Language Film last month, Bong also playfully pointed out some of the circuit’s blind spots: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Against expectations, on Sunday the Academy “hopped over that barrier, catching up with audiences who have long shown that it isn’t too high a hurdle”, says Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian.

He concludes: “All of the worries about the Academy Awards and awards ceremonies still persist. It is a conceited white boys’ club. But the triumph of Parasite has done a lot to counteract this: a portent of change.”

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