Hello, sunshine! (It’s actually raining here, but whatever, I’m talking about the weather system of my soul.) Welcome to the first day of the rest of our “PARASITE” WON BEST PICTURE lives, brought to you by, of all people, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Before the fizz goes flat in the champagne flute of our hearts (and if I occasionally lapse into a [Fuck, yeah!] mid-sentence, I apologize, it’s just that I’ve suddenly remembered what I’m writing about) and something happens to remind us that the world is still broken and awful, let’s take a look at how and why this joyous, historic, unprecedented, impossible #daretodream triumph came to pass.
1. Because the moral arc of the Academy Awards is long, but it bends toward justice.
The stat is that it’s taken 92 years for a film not in English to win Best Picture at the Oscars. And that is true, but it’s helpful to remember that the Academy Awards has not always taken the exact form it does now, and the global cinematic landscape it occupies has changed a great deal over the course of that time. Technically speaking, in the early years of the Oscars, (1928-1946) there was no Foreign category because the awards were in their infancy, Hollywood was only just establishing its pre-eminence in terms of sheer volume of production (WWII would decimate many previously flourishing national industries elsewhere) and with so little precedent, there was no real reason to assume a foreign-language film might not be nominated for Best Picture.
But that happened exactly once (“La Grande Illusion” in 1938), which is perhaps why, from 1947-55, a single annual award was unilaterally given by the Academy to a non-English film (“Bicycle Thieves,” and “Rashomon” were among the recipients of this award). That system got to seem a bit arbitrary, so then in 1956, the ever-controversial Best Foreign Language Film category was established, which was great because it gave telegram-Twitter something to get annoyed about.
As well-intentioned as the Foreign Language category (now International Film) undoubtedly was/is, it actually contributed to a parochialism in the Academy Awards, where it put any subtitled film into this tiny little silo and reinforced the delusion that the actual best picture in any given year was necessarily going to be in English. It made the rest of the world a little bemused (sort of like we are about the term “World Series,” sorry guys). Bong Joon-ho summed it up memorably when back in October, he told Vulture, “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.”
But even though, until last night, nothing has ever truly escaped that silo, the cracks in the monolith have been present for a while and have widened recently. Starting in the ’60s, directors of foreign-language films—sometimes even ones not named Federico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman!—have been nominated for Best Director with some regularity. Of the 10 other foreign-language films that made it into the Best Picture race, after “La Grande Illusion,” five of them have been since 2000. And the closest near-miss happened last year when “Roma” lost to “Green Book,” which stung badly, but even there, Alfonso Cuaron did win Best Director—itself a first for a foreign-language film.
The great irony, of course, is that in awarding “Parasite” and finally embracing a film not in its own nation’s first language as Best Picture, the “very local” Academy is suddenly in danger of reestablishing itself as the primary, central, internationally relevant awards ceremony it has always believed itself to be.
2. Because Bong Joon-ho. And team, of course, but mostly Bong Joon-ho.
Just look at him! [Fuck, yeah!] Truly, when exec producer Miky Lee (incidentally one of the most powerful Korean movie industry players in her own right — just check this THR profile and realize we will all soon be working for her) described loving Bong’s smile, his sense of humor, and his crazy hair, it was sort of weird and wifely, but also the exact way we all feel about him now. It could actually be a little bit aggravating to see the world and its “Mother” embrace Bong when we’ve been banging on about him—and about Korean cinema—for years. But that begrudgery does tend to evaporate into mush whenever you see him win over another roomful of people with a bashful grin or a seemingly unguarded moment gazing incredulously at his first statue of the night.
The effect of Bong’s personality on this Oscar race cannot be underestimated—the whole “Parasite” crew are utterly endearing (and translator/filmmaker Sharon Choi is basically on track to launch her own lifestyle brand should she so desire) but they orbit Bong, and he has managed to walk the exact right line between being dazzled and humbled by all the attention and being quizzically, sometimes almost caustically amused by it. As historical and anecdotal evidence supports (as well as those awful “brutally honest” Oscar ballot articles) there has to have been a certain contingent of Academy voters really looking for an excuse to downvote “Parasite” out of some sort of misplaced jingoistic or anti-subtitle/anti-intellectualism instinct, and a director one iota less charming might have given them just such an excuse. Considering the not-exactly-lacking-in-charm Alfonso Cuarón, who enjoys massive Hollywood popularity not to mention a track record within the Academy which dwarfed Bong’s, could not bring home Best Picture, you have to give enormous credit to the campaign that Bong has run, somehow being able to gin up enough plucky, gleeful, underdog/outsider energy to power the whole gang from a frequently mispronounced, incorrectly spelled standing start in October or so, all the way onto the podium for the very last and biggest award of the Hollywood year.
3. Because “Parasite” is the actual Best Picture of 2019.
It doesn’t have to be your favorite film of the year (it was all the way down at #7 for me!) for you to acknowledge that “Parasite” is, by about a million miles, the best choice the Academy could have made for Best Picture in the year of our lord 2020 (reflecting the year of our lord 2019 obvs). Wildly entertaining but also thematically rich, and so incisively topical it threatens to pierce the skin at times, “Parasite” is a film about class struggle delivered into the bloodstream of a social body that feels increasingly riven by the disease of economic inequality and marginalization.
Of course, there were naysayers on social media quick to point out the apparent hypocrisy of a room full of one-percenters fervently cheering on this acidic class satire. But that, too, misunderstands the real brilliance of “Parasite.” There have been plenty of well-received films that examine the injustice of social inequality before. Ken Loach has made a double-Palme d’Or career out of them, and already last night, we’d had Julia Reichert, co-director of the Obamas-produced “American Factory” call out “…workers of the world unite” from the podium after her film’s win in the Documentary Feature category.
But “Parasite” doesn’t preach, and doesn’t teach. Instead, it plays—a very dark game of its own devising—and most importantly it zooms out to show how the rich, though their circumstances are a great deal more comfortable, are as much products of an unjust system as the poor. Their blind privilege is enraging, but also not their own personal fault—almost something for which to pity them. The have-nots here are by no means morally superior to the haves—indeed, give them one sniff of the lifestyle they have been denied and they will turn into them, only very probably worse, more vicious, more grasping because they know how far they have to fall, and how very hard the cement steps are down to that particular basement.
Everyone in “Parasite” is equally morally suspect because everyone is merely playing out their assigned role in a fundamentally unfair system. So rich or poor, privileged or marginalized, everyone can watch the film without feeling personally judged or blamed—which may dent “Parasite’s” revolutionary credentials somewhat, but it does mean it gets to win Best Picture, yo.
4. Because it’s “foreign”—and specifically Korean—not despite it.
So this one requires more of a conceptual leap, but bear with me [Fuck, yeah!]. Obviously “Parasite” had already been hailed as the Best International Film of 2019 in a more meaningfully international way when it won the Palme d’Or in Cannes. Now, the only other film to have achieved the Palme d’Or/Best Picture Oscar double was Delbert Mann‘s 1955 title “Marty,” which coincidentally also deals with class, (as had “On the Waterfront,” which won the Best Picture Oscar the year before). But over the intervening decades the social drama category in the US—and certainly those examples of it that are celebrated by the Academy—has morphed as society itself has morphed (usually lagging a little behind the real world, it should be said) to the point that now socially-conscious, topical US filmmaking tends to be more overtly involved with race and/or gender/queer issues. Admittedly, those spheres often intersect with class politics—as they undoubtedly did in, say, “Moonlight,” which was the last time we felt unalloyed joy at a Best Picture win.
But this intersectionality, if incorporated into a film like “Parasite” would likely further entangle the lines of an already hyper-twisty plot to a potentially confusing degree, robbing it of that almost clinical singlemindedness that makes its rollercoaster ride stay so firmly on its tracks, despite all the loop-the-loops. In being set in South Korea—one of the most ethnically homogenous nations in the world—with an all-Korean cast, in which the women and the men are all equally terrible, audiences are free to consider it purely as a commentary on class and to apply its allegory cleanly without having other issues of representation or the lack thereof complicate matters. Simply put: in order for “Parasite” to feel so easily applicable to any social environment and therefore to resonate so well across all segments of the American Academy’s membership, it sort of had to not be American.
5. Because it was going to piss off this guy.
Oh ok, not really, but social media wokeness, the #BongHive, and the much-maligned Film Twitter did perhaps actually play a role this time, however small.
Sure, that dude is clearly a loon with mad “drunk guy at a Renaissance Fair” energy. But like a big, blind, rage-infected bat flapping frantically around a belfry, he does bump into a few salient truisms about “Parasite,” despite himself. Take the “wokeness” against which he so eloquently rails: It’s a horrible word and no one wants to apply it to themselves, but the truth is the movement for which it has become the go-to derogatory label is fundamentally a progressive one, and its wins, like this one, should be celebrated.
One of the reasons so many of us felt hesitant to actually predict a “Parasite” win (as opposed to lamely wishing it might happen) was because no one wants to seem naive. A lot of us had burned those bridges last year with the “Roma”/”Green Book” face-off and had also had a whole year to further absorb the cynicism of a divided and separated political discourse, where everything bounces crazily round the same echo chamber and it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. We learned well the lesson that we live in a bubble and just because everyone you know is leaning one way doesn’t mean real people—or even real Academy voters—are even remotely on your same page.
But maybe we learned that lesson too well. Just because the Academy does not always like a film that is championed by the critics, cinephiles, and commentators of Film Twitter, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these are oppositional entities. That is, just because a film is beloved by the extremely online and extremely invested, doesn’t mean it’s not going to be embraced by other audiences. Anyone who went to see “Parasite” with a paying crowd and felt it just play in the room has to have felt the stirrings of real, well-founded hope—and maybe we played that down because we didn’t want to get burned again.
Couple the Film Twitter seal of approval (however little that means) with the great campaign that Bong & Co. ran (major props to NEON too) and its online visibility through the so-called #BongHive and suddenly it seems like social media actually worked this time out. One can be a little dubious as to the whole #BongHive thing, which to my (snobby, elitist) frame of mind does apply the mechanics of “standom” (shudder) to a category of filmmaking that will not ultimately benefit from it, even if individual titles within it might. But there’s little doubt that here, as an amplification tactic even within the narrow echo chamber of Film Twitter, it was very effective, and it operated in such absolute good humor that it’s hard to stay mad at it.
Finally, loath though we ought to be to talk up the importance or the impact of as mercurial and nebulous an entity as Film Twitter, it does feel like just a little of the disgust that greeted last year’s regressive “Green Book” win did register on some level with an Academy that is actually quite concerned with being seen as progressive, forward-thinking, and liberal. Even the defenders of “Green Book” can’t mount a particularly impassioned defense of its win, and if there were even a few voters who may have been hovering on the fence otherwise, but who bumped up “Parasite” a notch or two on the ballot because they remembered the black eye of “Green Book,” well then maybe Film Twitter is sorta worth it after all. Maybe.
6. Because [Fuck, yeah!]