Last fall, as his brilliant black comedy Parasite began to reach American audiences, the South Korean director Bong Joon Ho offered a straightforward assessment during the chaotic lead-up to the U.S. awards season. “The Oscars are not an international film festival,” he told Vulture’s E. Alex Jung then. “They’re very local.”
In two crisp sentences, Bong both described and rejected the Academy’s historic treatment of films outside its voters’ familiar, narrow purviews. The Oscars have never been the pinnacle of artistic recognition for films made outside the U.S. (and perhaps Europe). Yet Parasite’s incredible run at last night’s ceremony—it picked up a total of four awards—marked a departure from the staid playbook typically used by the Academy. Most thrillingly, Bong’s film won Best Picture, prevailing over the predicted options from directors such as Martin Scorsese and Sam Mendes. In doing so, Parasite became the first non-English-language movie to win the Academy’s top award—and made history.
But even before tonight, Parasite had already earned all the accomplishments that really matter; it didn’t need an Oscar. The film had garnered critical acclaim, resonated with audiences in Bong’s home country as well as with viewers around the world, and achieved an unprecedented awards-season run. The film ensorcelled American moviegoers willing to “overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” as Bong shrewdly noted through his interpreter, Sharon Choi, while accepting the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film last month.
Bong’s sharp commentary on the myopia of Hollywood institutions is hardly surprising. The veteran director’s work has long explored the dark social forces that shape the world, and Parasite is no different. The film follows Kim Ki Woo (played by Choi Woo Shik), an enterprising young man who’s secured a tutoring job for the rich Park family. Soon, Ki Woo hatches a devious scheme to ensure that his sister, father, and mother are all hired by the Parks. The Kims move through the Parks’ world as studious interlopers, alternately observing the wealth around them from a distance and gleefully availing themselves of its spoils. Like many of Bong’s films, Parasite builds to its crescendo slowly—and the economic differences that keep its characters tied to one another lead to a dizzying climax.
Of the six categories in which it was nominated, Parasite won in four: Best Original Screenplay, Best International Film, Best Director, and Best Picture. (It lost for production design and film editing.) When accepting the Best Screenplay trophy, Bong once again offered a profound reflection on the imbalanced expectations for filmmakers outside the U.S.: “Writing a script is always such a lonely process; we never write to represent our countries,” he said via Choi, before adding in English: “But this is [the] very first Oscar to South Korea.” He is also the first Asian filmmaker to win that particular award.
Later, while accepting his trophy for Best Director, Bong shouted out two of the auteurs who’d been nominated alongside him. He recalled studying Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre in school and gave a heartwarming shout-out to the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood director, Quentin Tarantino. After the Best Picture win, Bong ceded the stage to Kwak Sin Ae, his co-producer. “We never imagined this to ever happen. We are so happy,” she said via Choi. “I feel like a very opportune moment in history is happening right now.”
Parasite isn’t just the first Korean film to win an Oscar; it’s also the first to ever earn a nomination (a fact that was celebrated extensively in the Korean press). Amid the excitement about its recognition, though, many writers noted that Parasite didn’t receive any acting nods. As Justin Chang wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “The oversight feels especially glaring if you come away from Parasite convinced, as I was, that it features some of the best individual performances—and the single most dazzling, nuanced, and sustained feat of collaborative acting—in any movie last year.” Indeed, Parasite’s genius extends beyond the satirical precision of Bong’s narrative; each actor in the film expertly conveys the hope and terror of their intertwined fates. Their absence from the Academy’s nomination slate continues an unfortunate trend: Even when films with predominantly Asian casts are nominated for multiple Oscars, including Best Picture, voters almost never celebrate the actors who brought those movies to life.
Though the Academy overlooked the cast’s artistry, Parasite earned plenty of acting nods and awards at other, earlier ceremonies: at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Writers Guild Awards, the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards, and the BAFTAs. Such sweeping victories are rare achievements for foreign-language films, a fact that points more to the industry’s patterns of exclusion than it does to the talent of artists around the world.
Parasite’s wins, at the Oscars and beforehand, recall the optimism surrounding Roma’s many nominations at last year’s awards. The Netflix film earned Mexico its first ever win in the Best Foreign-Language Film category. During his acceptance speech for the award, which has since been renamed Best International Film, the director Alfonso Cuarón jokingly pointed out how skewed the Academy’s perspective often is: “I grew up watching foreign-language movies and learning so much from them and being inspired, like Citizen Kane, Jaws, Rashomon, The Godfather, Breathless …” he said, a barb that contributed to the Academy’s controversial decision to change the category’s name.
Last night, Parasite built on Cuarón’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.