Immediately after watching Parasite, I knew I had just seen one of the finest films in many years. The unanimously-decided winner of last year’s Palme d’Or had achieved a remarkable feat, but questions still lingered over its ability to perform on the more mainstream award stage. No film that had won the biggest prize at the Cannes Film Festival managed to replicate the same feat at the Academy Awards since 1955. Likewise, many recent Palme d’Or winners, such as The Square two years ago and Shoplifters last year, never really got going into a commercial wave, and remained more or less niche productions. This is by no means a bad thing, but it was still unfortunate that they did not manage to reach the wide audiences they deserved to.
Parasite, the first of its kind
Until 65 years later, that is. Last year, Roma came quite close. Still, Roma’s case was a little bit different. Alfonso Cuaron was already a well-known name in internationally acclaimed cinema, and although Bong-Joon Ho also saw his share of wide success with Snowpiercer and Okja, the gulf of popularity between the two was still significant. And while films in the Spanish language have been a mainstay in international awards for a non-negligible amount of years, Korean cinema had a much reduced exposure, with the most mainstream hit probably being Train to Busan, a zombie film.
It’s entirely possible that through its tension-filled premise, its perfect balancing act between comedy and darkness, its indirect social satire and shrewd character building, Parasite managed to transcend traditional reticences that culturally-unique films with subtitles may frequently face. For the first time in many years, the best film actually won the biggest prize. The only viable ‘rival’ was perhaps 1917, and while the latter certainly was a masterclass in cinematography (for which it got duly rewarded), it didn’t go further than simply being one of the best war movies around. However, Parasite managed to re-invent itself time and time again, jumping through loop after loop and falling back as a very different project altogether than in the wake of the transition.
What does this mean for the future?
Technically, The Artist was the first ‘foreign language’ film to win the Best Picture award almost 10 years ago. However, even though it was a French film with a French director and (mostly) French actors, it was a silent film – thus, the ‘language’ element did not really apply. This way, Parasite is indeed the first film not in English to win the biggest award in filmmaking, with the inaugural honour thus going to South Korea. Coincidentally or not, this remarkable feat also occurred in the year that the award ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ was re-named as ‘Best International Feature Film’. By not referring to a non-English film as ‘foreign’, the Academy is seemingly willing to move away from an extremely egocentric way of thinking, which has characterised it for many decades, and has almost exclusively seen the US and UK swapping roles as the Best Picture winning countries. Compare this to the Palme d’Or, whose (mostly) European winners are super diverse, and alternate with productions from Asia, North America, South America, Africa and Australia.
South Korea has now stepped into the mix, and it remains to be seen whether or not this openness is here to stay or it is merely a passing fad. Personally, I very much hope for the former. I was never a fan of the the criticism the Oscars and similar awards got for not being inclusive enough in terms of race, because it also felt defined under the context of American society. Instead of pushing for a facade diversity, I would rather see the scope extended to other parts of the world, and the spotlight pointed at the undeniable abilities of filmmakers all around the world. I would rather see films from Central Africa, Scandinavia, the Middle East, China and many other regions fight for awards, than the same old productions made in California or London, but with a seemingly ‘diverse’ cast of American or British actors. I also hope that Parasite’s triumph and elevation into mainstream status brings about more openness in audiences in terms of their film selections and watching decisions. As Bong Joon Ho said during his Golden Globes acceptance speech, ‘Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.’