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Oscars 2020: Why the ‘Parasite’ Best Picture Win Was Revolutionary

Bong Joon Ho’s movie didn’t just become the first non-English language film to nab the big prize—it helped knock down one more cultural barrier

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

You could tell Jane Fonda knew she was making history by the way she smiled, pausing for a second before reading out the Best Picture title. Watch her face. It’s almost as fun to re-view that moment as to have witnessed, in real time, what happened right after it. Sorry, give us a second. We’re going to check it out one more time.

The 92nd annual Academy Awards gave us every sign that they would be largely predictable affair that most folks assumed it would be, down to the preordained wins for a quartet of actors who’d been cleaning up at other ceremonies. The speeches from Brad Pitt (charming and political), Laura Dern (inspiring and political), Joaquin Phoenix (challenging and political) and Renée Zellweger (um…?) felt comfortably familiar, yet just charged enough to stick out from the numerous other remarks they’d been making from podiums for the past month or so. There were the presenters who we knew would kill (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell! Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig!). There were the former hosts who weren’t hosting the hostless show, they swear, but hey, here’s a little host-lite sugar to help the next three and a half hours go down (Steve Martin and Chris Rock!). There were the Best Song performances, which ran the gamut from generic to goosebump-inducing. No one could have foreseen Janelle Monae going full dance-apocalyptic in a Fred Rogers cardigan as an opening salvo, singing “Because Oscars are so white!” and declaring her unequivocal queerness to the front row, or Eminem being there at all, much less to perform a 17-year-old hit. But those could still be respectively checklisted as “bold introductory flourish” and “left-field random choice that almost works,” two staples of 21st-century Oscar broadcasts. Even the famous presenters had their own famous presenters; shout-out to Kelly Marie Tran, who got more screen time introducing Keanu Reeves and Diane Keaton than she did in The Rise of Skywalker.

Even when Parasite won Best International Film, i.e. the newly renamed Best Foreign-Language Film award, no one was particularly surprised — many of us naturally, cynically assumed that this was a consolation prize of sorts, the type of we-love-you-but-stay-in-your-lane message that voters gave to Roma last year. Ditto its deserved Best Original Screenplay win; the writing awards have long been a safe place for voters to acknowledge groundbreaking, earth-shaking work while saving the “big” prizes for the more big-tent projects. Then they called Bong Joon Ho’s name for the Best Director award, a category which pundits and previous awards shows suggested was Sam “1917” Mendes’ to lose. There was a brief feeling that maybe, just maybe, this South Korean film go all the way? You remembered, of course, that Alfonso Cuarón won the same Oscar for Roma last year, and the Academy still didn’t give his movie the final award of the evening. But that glimmer of hope burned bright nonetheless.

Which brings us back to Fonda, the open envelope, that pause, hearing Parasite being declared the Best Picture winner, and the blissful sensation that the phrase actually synced up to the result. There were a number of other extraordinary, worthy movies competing for the honor. (There was also Joker.) But somehow knowing that, against all odds, voters chose to celebrate and coronate a non-English language movie about class divisions over a literary adaptation, a Hollywood movie about Hollywood, an “edgy” yet popular blockbuster, a performers-showcase drama and numerous other options that appeared more traditionally Oscar-friendly — it felt revolutionary. It felt exciting, in a way that the Oscars don’t always feel exciting. It felt unique. It felt like a first, because it was a first, given that no other foreign-language film had nabbed the top prize before. (Although, as someone pointed out online, we were “one oui away” from getting that with The Artist, but let’s not consider that right now.)

And for those of us who have long viewed cinema as a passport, it felt like a collective acknowledgement that there’s a whole world beyond the feedback loop of American studios and American screens, and that everyone would benefit from looking past their own cultural/moviegoing blind spots. To watch Parasite is to see the work of an artist who’s imbibed a lot of shared film history, from Hitchock to Scorsese (the standing ovation that director Bong prompted for the latter during the ceremony was just … sorry, we need a moment to compose ourselves). It’s also to experience a film that is both distinctly South Korean and completely universal, is an unclassifiable hybrid of styles and genres yet somehow remains coherent and recognizable, and that speaks so clearly to a moment while somehow also feeling timeless. From the moment it began what was an unlikely ascent to being a crossover hit, this was a movie that seemed to strike a chord regardless of language barriers and subtitle biases. When your teenage daughter and your septuagenarian mother are both singing its praises to the high heavens, you know that a film has slipped passed the arthouse/geekdom ropes and slithered into the larger public consciousness.

Whether that means more people will now seek out Bong’s past work (they should), or watch more South Korean movies (they should), or more Asian cinema in general (they should), or more non-English-language movies overall (ditto), it’s impossible to say. Parasite is now an Oscar winner, which means not only that many people have seen but many more will, and the chance for it to become not just an incredible movie but a gateway drug has increased a hundredfold. Suddenly, an “international film” doesn’t immediately autotranslate to eat-your-filmgoing vegetables. Suddenly, the “other” may not seem so otherworldly to people. Suddenly, a stage full of Asian faces may seem a little bit less exotic and little bit more normal. Suddenly, the Oscars just got a lot less “local” and lot more global. Suddenly, someone might have the opportunity to view the world at large differently, and move toward changing it. A person can dream all of this, at least. But isn’t that what the movies are supposed to do — inspire you to dream?