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Oscars 2020: 'Parasite' was the year's best film, so why are many surprised that it won?

Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ is the first foreign-language film to scoop Best Picture

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho stole the closing stages of this year’s Oscars with a double triumph in the hugely coveted Best Picture and Best Director categories for his politicised social satire, Parasite. The Snowpiercer and Okja director had already scooped the Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film (formerly Best Foreign Language Film) awards earlier in the evening.

The win marks the first time a film not in the English language has taken the biggest prize of the night. Only 10 foreign-language films have even managed a nomination in the category in the history of the Academy Awards. Previous nominees include Roberto Benigni’s 1998 Italian drama Life is Beautiful and Ang Lee’s 2000 historical martial arts drama Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The first film to be nominated in the category was Jean Renoir’s French-language war film La Grande Illusion (1937). The most recent non-English film to pick up the nomination was 2018’s Roma, a Spanish-language autobiographical drama from Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, which had been tipped to both break the long-running stranglehold of English-language movies on the prize and give Netflix a controversial first win in the category. In the end, Cuaron had to content himself with the Best Foreign Language Film prize, as well as statues for directing and cinematography, as race-relations drama ­Green Book ­took the Best Picture prize.

Why everyone thought '1917' would win

It’s fair to say that no one would be shocked if told Parasite deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar – it had already taken home the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The surprise came in the fact that it did actually win. Many had concluded that a film more in keeping with the Academy’s tradition of choosing a ­thematically “worthy” effort would win out, with Sam Mendes’s First World War drama 1917 – which had also picked up the Best Picture prize at the Golden Globes, Baftas and PGA awards – the favourite to land the prize this year.

No one seemed more surprised than Bong himself, who already seemed fairly certain his night was over when he picked up the award for Best International Feature Film and suggested during his acceptance speech that he’d be heading off to start his party already. He clearly didn’t know he was about to make history.

Bong Joon-ho poses with the many Oscars 'Parasite' won, while at the Governors Ball following the 92nd Academy Awards in Los Angeles. Reuters 
Bong Joon-ho poses with the many Oscars 'Parasite' won, while at the Governors Ball following the 92nd Academy Awards in Los Angeles. Reuters

With the Oscars under constant pressure to diversify, some may dismiss Bong’s triumph as a sign of the Academy moving to redress the balance, but that’s a simplistic and offensive interpretation. Parasite does contain a cast of South Korean actors, to whom the director graciously handed the stage to collect the night’s final award having already been in the spotlight three times himself, but it would be churlish to suggest the film’s win was anything less than deserved.

While previous recent winners such as 2017’s Moonlight and 2019’s flawed Green Book dealt with on-­topic issues including race and sexuality, in Parasite, Bong returns to the class war themes of his 2013 action movie Snowpiercer, to deliver a biting satire on capitalist society, heavy on Marxist undertones, not really in step with any zeitgeisty campaign on Twitter, and utterly bereft of any feel-good ending that convinces us we can make the world a better place, or that the protaganists’ lot may ever improve.

The fact we finally have a non-­English language Best Picture, meanwhile, seems to be a genuine cause for optimism in the direction in which the Academy’s selection process is headed, and follows a drive in recent years to increase the diversity of its now 8,000 voting members.

The Academy has expanded its voting pool by around 30 per cent since 2016 in the face of protest movements such as #OscarsSo­White and #MeToo. Of the 842 new members invited to join the panel last year, 50 per cent were women, and 29 per cent came from ethnic minority backgrounds, although that still leaves the overall make-up of the judging panel at only 32 per cent women and 16 per cent non-white.

epa08208264 South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and his top secretaries react after hearing the news that South Korean director Bong Joon-ho won four Academy Awards, prior to a meeting at the presidential office in Seoul, South Korea, 10 February 2020. Bong Joon-ho’s movie Parasite won four Academy Awards on 09 February for Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film, Best Director and Best Picture. It is the first time a foreign-language movie wins the Academy Award for Best Picture. EPA/YONHAP SOUTH KOREA OUT
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, reacts after hearing the news that South Korean director Bong Joon-ho won four Academy Awards. EPA

By choosing Parasite for this year’s prize, the Academy’s voters have not only set a milestone for diversity – as the film’s producer noted on collecting the prize, she felt “a very opportune moment in history is happening right now” – they also avoided the accusations of tokenism that greeted Green Book’s win last year.

On that occasion, and despite huge support for both Roma and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, the Academy’s voters opted for a 1960s-set race relations drama that many cynics noted had been picked purely because it seemed to satisfy diversification criteria, despite an underlying subtext more in line with attitudes to race from its 1960s setting than the 21st century.

With Parasite, there are no such fears. The film, about a poor Seoul family of con artists who infiltrate the home of a rich family after their son scams his way into a job as a tutor, does not seek to address any particular cause celebre of the day.

Rather, it looks at social inequality on a grander scale, not as a matter of gender, race, sexuality or a headline-grabbing hashtag. It’s a good old-fashioned social commentary, albeit an often hilarious one, rather than a banner for the latest campaign against the ageing, white, male overseers of the Oscars, and its win seems all the more valid as a result.

Best Picture Award winners for 'Parasite' pose onstage during the 92nd Annual Academy Awards. AFP
Best Picture Award winners for 'Parasite' celebrate on stage

The Oscars is too old, white and male, but the fact a young, non-white director has picked up its two top prizes is without doubt a cause for celebration. Perhaps even more worthy of celebration, however, is the fact he did it entirely on his own terms, by simply telling a story that he needed to tell, not by telling one that almost self-consciously sets out to be the opposite of all the Academy’s worst points.

Bong’s star seems set to only rise further – he was already one of the first big-ticket directors to sign up to make a film for Netflix with 2017’s Okja. He now has the two most coveted Oscars available on his mantelpiece, and next he’ll be trying his hand at TV – he’s ­currently in the process of adapting Parasite into a limited series for HBO.

On stage in Los Angeles last night, Bong seemed somewhat overawed, and eager to praise his inspirations and heroes in the audience, including Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, both of whom he beat to the top prize. It might not be too long before he’s inspiring them.

Updated: February 10, 2020 06:42 PM

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