Parasite’s Historic Oscar Wins Matter More Than You Think—Even if You Hate the Oscars
Becoming the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture is just one of many milestones “Parasite” achieved Sunday night. But the most significant might be what comes next.
I could spend eternity basking in the dramatic, four-second pause that Jane Fonda took before announcing that Parasite had won Best Picture at Sunday night’s Academy Awards. It was a microcosm of time that Fonda centered into an historic moment, triumphantly breathing in and staring out in stillness until the significance of what she was about to reveal had properly been elevated and the gravitas could be felt throughout the Dolby Theater—and, too, at home.
It wasn’t indulgent dramatic tension, but the byproduct of a cosmic realigning or a seismic shift. This may all sound like hyperbole, but it’s not when put in context with just how significant it is that Parasite took home this year’s top Oscars prize. The film earned that context, and, certainly, that moment.
Bong Joon-ho’s black-comedy thriller already ranks among the rarest of Best Picture winners, in that it was the film that was viewed both inside and outside the industry as the actual best picture of the year. The Academy’s track record in this regard could give you whiplash; in the same decade that Moonlight, Spotlight, and 12 Years a Slave became top Oscar winners, so too did Green Book, Birdman, and The King’s Speech.
Parasite’s superior perch this year tracks whether you’re a numbers person—at 99 percent “fresh,” it holds the highest Rotten Tomatoes rating of all Best Picture nominees—or if you’re merely a person with a soul who was swept away by the mastercraft of a movie so wildly uproarious in its twists, while also so puncturing in its insightful class commentary.
And yet its win collided with a storm front of surprise tied to the odds against it, with shock raining down like lightning bolts that the film pulled it off. It is the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, a historic moment coming as the Academy confronts its own history, its future, and the role it aims to maintain as both a reflection and driving force of cultural change.
Just how astonishing is it that Parasite won? Here’s just a short list of the records and milestones it set on Sunday night:
- It is the first film not in the English language to win Best Picture in the Academy’s 92-year history. Eleven others have been nominated before, including last year’s Roma, 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 1998’s Life Is Beautiful, and stretching back to 1938’s Grand Illusion.
- Bong Joon-ho is the only person besides Walt Disney to win four Oscars in one night, taking home Best Picture, Best Director, Best International Feature, and Best Original Screenplay. Disney accomplished the feat 66 years ago, in 1954.
- Parasite ties Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 Swedish drama Fanny and Alexander and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger… for most wins for an international feature. While both also won the newly renamed Best International Feature, their respective other wins all came in below-the-line technical categories.
- Parasite is only the sixth foreign-language film to win a screenplay Oscar, and the first since Pedro Almodóvar in 2002 for Talk to Her.
- Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won’s Best Original Screenplay win and Taika Waititi’s Best Adapted Screenplay win mark the first time writers of color took home the pair of screenplay categories.
- Parasite is the first South Korean film to be nominated for, let alone win, any Oscar.
- Parasite is the first movie in 65 years, since Marty, to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival and then also take home Best Picture at the Oscars, rebonding a long broken link between the Academy and international film.
- It is the first film to win Best Picture with no acting nominations since Slumdog Millionaire did 11 years ago, yet another spotlight on the barriers against international ensembles. (At least, within the Academy. The Parasite cast won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble.) In fact, every single film starring a predominantly Asian cast that earned more than five Oscar nominations has not received a single acting nomination to go along with them.
- Bong Joon-ho’s Best Director victory means that nine of the last 10 winners in the category were born outside the U.S. and do not count English as their native language.
It’s remarkable that Parasite won not only because of all these milestones or the fact that it triumphed over language or international bias, but because of what the Academy passed over to do so.
Sam Mendes’ 1917 is one of the most celebrated war movies in decades, counting a groundbreaking cinematography achievement among its accomplishments. Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, two of the most respected directors in modern American cinema, made movies that are respectively considered career capstones. The Irishman is a high-pedigree crime drama. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is a love letter to the film industry.
These are catnip choices for a navel-gazing voting body otherwise programmed to reward certain kinds of films from certain filmmakers that signal to them: “Oscar.” A Korean drama that blends humor and horror to depict the mortal consequence of the class divide, as viewed through the Petri dish of a rotting humanity and capitalist decay in Seoul? That had barely crossed $35 million at the box office—ranking among the lowest-grossing Best Picture winners of all-time? That does not traditionally appeal to the Academy.
Of course, after a tumultuous award season that both trumpeted efforts to diversify its voting body while also exposing its gross systemic failings when it comes to race, gender, and globalism, this year’s Oscars in many ways existed as a carcass circled by culture vultures ravenous to pick at and ravage that very tradition.
The Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang, whose writing on Parasite this past season has been an invaluable lens with which to look at the film’s significance—especially its presence stateside—distilled this in a piece published after Sunday night’s win.
“Parasite has dealt a much-needed slap to the American film industry’s narcissism, its long-standing love affair with itself, its own product and its own image,” he wrote. “It has startled the Academy into recognizing that no country’s cinema has a monopoly on greatness—no small thing at a time when trumped-up nationalism and xenophobia have a way of seeping into our art no less than our politics.”
There is an understandable instinct to dismiss the pageantry and the platform of an institution approaching its 100th year, especially at a time when its whims and tastes can seem at odds not only with where culture should be moving—at one point the Academy’s fiercest mission—but where it’s already gone.
But it’s also naive to ignore why, even at its most out-of-touch, an institution like this matters, when its body encompasses generations of the most influential cultural purveyors in the world, when its endorsements suggest to the world what stories are worth telling and whose voices matter, when its decisions dictate where the money goes, who is hired, and what versions of ourselves we will see reflected back.
It’s a very 2020 instinct to shatter things that appear cracked or broken rather than repair them.
The Parasite win isn’t any sort of “Mission Accomplished!” banner hung on a slow-moving freighter. Every inch of progress historically has met a harsh current of resistance that pushes it several feet back. But it is an historic movement in the right direction, proof of work done that matters, and validation of the stories that need to be told by the storytellers who deserve to tell them for a society—and world—that must hear them.