What does Parasite winning Best Picture mean for Foreign Film and the Academy?

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By Samuel Vickers, 1st Year, German & Russian

Bong Joon-Ho’s monumental win at the 92nd Oscars saw the first foreign language film to win Best Picture in the entire history of the Academy. But what could this mean for the category and the Academy as a whole?

There is no doubt that modern cinema is going through a period of rapid change, as Netflix, the #MeToo scandal and advanced visual effects reshape the landscape. Could this facilitate the integration of foreign language films within mainstream Awards? The Academy’s inflexible reputation may at last be subject to change as we see the Netflix Original Marriage Story (2019) winning Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern), among five other nominations and, crucially, the Korean tragicomedy Parasite (2019) taking home the coveted Best Picture Award.

Parasite swept up the nominations for its unique take on social constructs and conflicts | IMDb / Barunson E&A

The Academy’s history with foreign languages and film is long and varied, with some notable moments being Alfonso Cuarón’s sweep of nominations for his 2018 Roma - including Best Picture, The Artist’s (2011) 2012 win and Christoph Waltz’s double win for Best Supporting Actor, one for his chiefly German and French speaking role in Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Pedro Almodóvar and Roman Polanski have each had repeated recognition at the Oscars but, again never managed to win the Best Picture Award. Whilst global cinema has typically had some wider presence at the Academy, it is difficult not to view the International Feature Film Award as a token recognition that patronises foreign film. In winning Best Picture, Parasite has redefined the role of non-English speaking films in world cinema.

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A change was made to the remit of the category of Best Foreign Film in time for the 2020 Oscar season, renaming it the ‘International Feature Film Award’. Under the new guidelines, the nominations must be feature length - documentaries and animations included - predominantly non-English dialogue and from a studio outside the United States, with a maximum of one film from any one country. This takes the focus off the film’s language and puts it on global cinema more generally.

Ji-so Jung played Park Da-hye in the iconic Oscar sweeping film | IMDb / Barunson E&A

This perhaps encourages the Academy to consider film outside the Western cinematic tradition - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was previously the only foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture not from a Western country. However, it has also made it difficult for some films to compete: for example The Farewell (2019), whose American studio barred it from qualifying for the International Feature Film Award, despite its almost exclusively Mandarin dialogue.

It is difficult not to view the International Feature Film Award as a token recognition that patronises foreign film

But what is about Parasite that allowed it to at last clinch the award, where Roma, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life is Beautiful (1997) failed? Bong Joon Ho’s intensely detailed social study is both comic and chilling as he masterfully contrasts two drastically different families living in Seoul.

The seamless tonal shifts allow a full exhibition of Bong Joon Ho’s photographic talents, his painstaking story-boarding of every shot proving itself worthwhile, as almost every frame at once transfixes and intrigues.

Bong Joon Ho stole the nation's hearts with his honest and candid acceptance speech | IMDb / Frederic J. Brown / Getty Images

Parasite is the culmination of a chiefly Korean-language oeuvre, a hurdle that Bong Joon Ho has nevertheless overcome in achieving Western recognition for his films. Bong Joon Ho challenges cultural expectations with his portrayal of the squalid dwelling of the Kim family and palatial home of the Parks, and depicting a society that is unexpectedly accessible.

Parasite's intensely detailed social study is both comic and chilling

This, coupled with Joon Ho’s legendary attention to visual story-telling, could be the secret to its breakout global success. Parasite does have some universal qualities and, while the joy of foreign film can often lie in the cultural immersion that the audience engage in, Parasite is more available to the Western viewer for its languageless visual beauty and ubiquitous social dynamics.

It is a film that is flexible - Bong Joon Ho released a black-and-white version at the Rotterdam Film Festival - and multi-faceted and it is for this reason that it has garnered praise from the critics, film-goers and, at long last, the Academy.

Parasite plays on inherent class divisions in Korean society and capitalism on the whole | IMDb / Barunson E&A

Parasite is the chosen English translation of the original title, 기생충 (Gisaengchung), and translates specifically as a form of insect parasite - the ambiguity of the English title is surely deliberate, as the parasite referenced in the film’s title is never clearly identified. The film is ostensibly called Parasite to elucidate Joon Ho’s nodded references to his 2006 film, The Host, another of the director’s collaboration with Song Kang-Ho - Ki-taek in Parasite.

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Whether this has truly opened up the category for future international films remains to be seen, but Parasite has certainly gone a long way in making the top category more permeable to foreign language and international films.

Featured: IMDb / Courtesy of Getty Images


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