Parasite’s Best Picture Win: Real Change or Merely Symbolic?

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‘The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local’, Bong Joon-ho (now four-time Oscar-winner) told Vulture in October last year when asked what he thought of the exclusion of Korean films from nominations. ‘It’s not a big deal’, and for the most part, it’s not. The Oscars are not, and have never been, revolutionary.

In terms of a progressive outlook, the Oscars trail behind other award shows and the industry as a whole, representing only a small subsection – namely, Hollywood. They are tightly contained and exclusive by nature, even voted for by people within the same circle. They should, then, mean very little. 

Though they may seem meaningless, as one of the most prestigious film awards in the world, they still retain a huge impact. Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean film, Parasite, as the first non-English language film to win Best Picture, is revolutionary even if The Academy as an organisation are not. It is a triumph against those who lazily reject subtitled films. The impact of the win has spread far and wide, from online celebration and controversy to widening distribution of the film as a result of this buzz. 

This widening demand for a subtitled film demonstrates the real influence of these awards; thanks to The Academy’s recognition of Bong’s tragicomedy, more audiences were exposed to the film. Curzon and Studiocanal were forced to respond, increasing screening by 200%. This sort of demand for a foreign film in the UK is unprecedented. While, then, the Oscars should mean relatively little, their importance in distribution and production is evident. Award season success gets films seen and, through this, get future foreign films backing on a wider scale.

Despite taking home Oscars for best picture, directing, original screenplay and international feature, as well as nominations for production design and editing, Parasite’s stellar cast were unfortunately absent from the acting categories. This was an exemption quite specific to The Academy; the cast won the award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. 

Praise for performances across the film has been high, so why did The Academy fail to recognise this aspect? It is hard to explain without considering prejudice. Interestingly, the last film before Parasite to win Best Picture with no acting nominees was Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire at the 81st Academy Awards in 2009, with another non-White cast. 

This begs the question of whether Parasite’s win will open the floodgates for foreign cinema or if it is simply a one off, a token gesture before they return to favouring English-speaking, White, historical dramas again next year. Is a sustained change being made, recognising foreign filmmakers outside of the Hollywood bubble, or is the win purely symbolic, a ploy to avoid the backlash which would have inevitably followed any other outcome? Though I would love to be optimistic, witnessing the win of Peter Farrelly’s Green Book – with its white saviour narrative – just a year after Barry Jenkins’ ground-breaking win for Moonlight has filled me with little hope regarding The Academy’s consistency. 

Even if Parasite’s (well deserved) Best Picture win does not spark the beginning of a widening landscape of cinema at the Oscars, it is nice to see some real action. With award shows now permeated with speeches begging for diversification of the film industry, but often lacking concrete evidence of such activism, nominations and wins on this scale are an impressive feat. It is unsurprising that such a universally digestible film, with its themes of capitalistic inequality, was the one finally able to break the streak. 

It is also nice to go from watching people walk out of an Odeon Screen Unseen showing of Parasite last December to sitting in a sold out showing last week; the buzz surrounding the film does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon. For now, this is a win for foreign cinema, for widening film audiences and breaking down barriers of language. Though it may have taken 92 award shows, Parasite can now serve as an introduction for many to a previously unexplored area of cinema. 

Image: The New York Times