Weighing Parasite’s Wins

The Daily — Feb 11, 2020
Park So-dam in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019)

As the shock begins to wear off, critics, industry watchers, and actual movers and shakers within the business are beginning to sort through the implications of the history-making wins for Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite at the Academy Awards on Sunday night. Bong and Han Jin-won’s Oscar for best screenplay was the first ever to be presented to a film from South Korea. The best international feature award was certainly deserved, but as Rolling Stone’s David Fear points out, many Parasite fans feared that it would turn out to be “a consolation prize of sorts, the type of we-love-you-but-stay-in-your-lane message that voters gave to Roma last year.” But then Bong won best director and the evening was capped off with the first best picture Oscar for a film in a language other than English. “The steady, stealthy victory of Parasite,” writes Slate’s Dana Stevens, “was a movie in itself, complete with plot twists, drama, laughter, and tears: a thrilling mashup of genres, just like a film by Bong Joon-ho.”

On Monday morning, Manohla Dargis opened a conversation with her fellow New York Times critics A. O. Scott and Wesley Morris: “Well, that was fun, and delightfully unexpected.” Indeed, the day before the Oscars, the Film Independent Spirit Awards seemed to be going all out to show us how much fun an awards show could and should be, and in ways that the Academy would never be able to pull off. The Gay Men’s Choir of Los Angeles, for example, gave us a number that—on social media at least—was immediately catapulted into the pantheon of great moments in awards show history. As Lulu Wang, director of The Farewell, accepted the award for best feature, it was difficult not to be reminded that no women directors were nominated for an Oscar this year. Uncut Gems, completely shut out at the Oscars, won best director, and Josh and Benny Safdie delivered separate speeches—but simultaneously. Then their star, Adam Sandler, took a swing or two at the Academy in a goofy growl.

The Academy’s acting awards this year went to Brad Pitt, Renée Zellweger, Laura Dern, and Joaquin Phoenix, “four well-respected mid-career Hollywood veterans whose résumés (with many interesting detours) run straight down the center lane of mainstream American filmmaking,” as Mark Harris puts it in Vanity Fair. “But as the night proceeded,” he adds, “the winners were, collectively, a reminder that inclusivity can proceed on many fronts.” He mentions the African American winners of the Oscar for best animated short (Hair Love), New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi’s dedication of his Oscar for best adapted screenplay (for Jojo Rabbit) “to all the indigenous kids in the world,” best costume design winner Jacqueline Durran (Little Women), and Hildur Guðnadóttir, the first woman to win for best original score (for Joker) in twenty-two years.

But it’s the wins for Parasite that have “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,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all is forgiven; academy absolution is in the eye of the moviegoer. But my God, it matters that the best picture Oscar has gone to Parasite, a morally galvanizing, viscerally unsettling, and emotionally devastating movie about patriarchal sins, broken families, wealth inequality and the class hierarchy of Seoul as a microcosm of capitalist rot.”

Writing for the NYT, Walter Chaw is of two minds. “There is a quiet, yearning part of me that wants to just celebrate all of those faces that look like mine,” he writes. “But the nervous, weather-beaten part of me worries that Hollywood will simply start strip-mining Korean product and luring Korean talent to the United States to humiliate them as sidekicks in action cop franchises. Hollywood did this with Hong Kong’s cinema in the 1990s.”

The NYT’s A. O. Scott, on the other hand, suggests that Bong’s best director award “recovered and extended Hollywood’s history of internationalism. Back in its classical era, American movies built their glamour with the labor of émigré artists from fascist Europe. Over the past decade, the directing category has been at the vanguard of cosmopolitanism (though in the rear guard when it comes to gender equality): [Alfonso] Cuarón and [Alejandro González] Iñárritu each won twice; [Guillermo] del Toro, Ang Lee, and Michel Hazanavicius have also won. Of course the triumph of Parasite goes beyond those precedents, but in other ways it’s an almost ideal Oscar movie.”

At Vulture, though, Nate Jones argues that, of all nine best picture nominees, Parasite “was both the best film and the one that could lay claim to being the movie of the moment.” A good number of the other nominees “examined contemporary anxieties, but there’s no getting around the fact that most of them were set decades in the past, while Parasite was thrillingly contemporary. Despite being set in a specific slice of Korean society, its story of class warfare was universal enough to resonate across the globe.”

And then there was the extraordinarily well-orchestrated campaign. After Parasite won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, it disappeared from western eyes for a time while it cleaned up at the box office in South Korea. It wasn’t until the fall that the film began to emerge on the festival circuit in North America, and then, all along the march through awards season, we began to be introduced to the team. Producer Miky Lee is, as Rebecca Sun points out in her profile for the Hollywood Reporter, an “heiress turned media mogul whose $4.1 billion entertainment empire serves as the foundation of much of the country's cultural output, from television dramas streamed by millions of viewers worldwide to K-pop concerts packing arenas around the globe to movies dominating the box office in Asia and, perhaps soon, farther west.”

Bong’s interpreter, Sharon Choi, has charmed millions. She’s a filmmaker herself who’s currently developing a screenplay rumored to be set against the backdrop of an awards season campaign. E. Alex Jung has introduced Vulture readers to production designer Lee Ha-jun and the team that built that architectural wonder of a house. And of course, we’ve gotten to know more about Bong himself. “The effect of Bong’s personality on this Oscar race cannot be underestimated,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, adding that “the whole Parasite crew are utterly endearing, 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.” And Slate’s Sam Adams adds that “Bong might not have expected to win, but he acted as if he belonged.”

Credit, too, has to be given to Neon, Parasite’s distributor in the U.S. “Will there be a very foolish attempt by Hollywood to chase every single foreign-language film known to man, as it spends gazillions of dollars and pleads that it can make all of them into the next Parasite?” asks Neon’s Tom Quinn in his conversation with IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “Sure, that’ll happen, and that’s great. I love that. But every movie is its own film, and every release plan is unique to that film. We released this film the way that Cinema V released [Costa-Gavras’s] Z [in 1969]. That was our model, that was our goal. And it still worked.”

At the Ringer, Adam Nayman finds it “exciting to think Parasite’s best picture win could augur well for other movies like it, but I’m not sure how many other movies there will be like it. There will likely be more non-American imports that are far superior to what the Academy tends to nominate. But being good in the exact, Oscar-friendly ways that Parasite is good—fleet and funny; propulsive and political; thorny and digestible—is rare, even for those who will try to work directly from its template. Bong is a phenomenal talent, genuinely untouchable as a cerebral yet accessible populist entertainer; imitators are inevitable, and duplication is doubtful.”

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