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The Current Debate: The Meaning of Bong Joon-ho’s Academy Awards Triumph

"Parasite" made history as the first non-English Best Picture winner—but what does that triumph mean for the Oscars and industry at large?
Leonardo Goi
A few days before the 92nd Academy Awards ended with what was possibly the most seismic Best Picture winner of this young century, over at the L.A. Times, Justin Chang wondered whether the Oscars needed a Parasite win more than Bong Joon-ho’s nominee needed the coveted statuette. “A best picture Oscar will not make 'Parasite' a greater movie than it is, and a loss will not diminish its greatness,” for the crucial question was ultimately one for the Academy to answer:
Do Oscar voters want to make this kind of history? Does an academy that has made sweeping efforts to diversify its ranks and broaden its international reach over the past few years actually care about achieving the logical outcome of those efforts? Will the membership ever acknowledge that cinema is and always has been a global medium, that no national cinema has a monopoly on greatness and that the best film every year is not always — perhaps not even usually — an American one?
As it turned out, Parasite did make history. Bong’s savage South Korean tale of haves and have-nots shattered a glass ceiling as the first ever non-English Best Picture winner. It was one of four awards Bong took home that night—together with those for original screenplay, directing, and international feature—turning February 9 into what swiftly dubbed as a "Bongslide." But what does the triumph mean for Hollywood and the Academy? Sharing his thoughts in a three-way conversation with Manohla Dargis and Wesley Morris at The New York Times, A. O. Scott argues that Parasite may have thrown a lifeline to a moribund institution:
The broadcasts of recent years have exposed some of the contradictions between Hollywood’s universalist aspirations and its parochial realities. How can the show continue to attract a global audience? By focusing on the big-budget, IP-driven franchise movies that are Hollywood’s leading global export? That has been an obvious, dreary answer for quite some time, but “Parasite” suggests a different one. There’s a whole world of movies out there — exciting, surprising, popular movies — that deserve audiences and accolades in America.
Bong had already poked at Hollywood’s parochialism in an interview with Vulture’s E. Alex Jung from October last year, when he called the Oscars a “local prize” quite unlike the more ecumenical ethos of an international film festival. Whether or not Parasite’s victory may pave the way for the Academy to be more global in scope—a point which Karen Han at Polygon and Charles Bramesco at Little White Lies both suggest—the accolade does mark a brusque and much-needed rupture from decades of navel-gazing. It has delivered, to echo what Justin Chang went on to pen at the L.A. Times in the Oscars' aftermath:
...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. It has startled the academy into recognizing that no country’s cinema has a monopoly on greatness — no small thing at a time when trumped-up nationalism and xenophobia have a way of seeping into our art no less than our politics.
Sure enough, Parasite might offer some antidote against the pestilential mood of our times, but I wonder whether Bong’s success will truly herald a change in the cinematic output that will sprout from U.S. soil in the near future. Does this landmark mean that producers will be more inclined to champion new stories, new voices? It’s a concern raised by Wesley Morris at the New York Times, when he ponders:
The real question is, what does it mean for the movies going forward? For American movies, in particular? Are there executives who’ll see this and not only want to produce more original scripts but will also want to market those movies and really stand behind them?
Robbie Collin may not necessarily offer a response to Morris’s questions, but over at The Telegraph, he does raise an interesting point when he claims that Parasite’s gain signals an unexpected break from a “leathery white machismo” that had traditionally been synonymous with Best Picture golden tickets (a lineage which he sees embodied, to various extents, in two of Parasite’s fellow nominees: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman). And at Variety, Owen Gleiberman reads Bong’s award as a telling response to the debate stirred up by Scorsese himself in that op-ed written for The New York Times a few months ago:
On Oscar night, Hollywood sent a message out to the world — as it always does during the Academy Awards — about the kind of movie it has now chosen to represent the industry. And in honoring a film that wasn’t even made within the industry, it was saying: We can look to lights from outside. In a year when the debate was framed as “Marvel vs. cinema,” the Oscars voted for cinema.
Still, I fear that hailing Bong's Oscar statuette as sign of forthcoming changes in the U.S. domestic output may be a little far-fetched. I side with Manhola Dargis when she warns A. O. Scott and Wesley Morris at the New York Times that the best we can hope for is that Parasite may lead to “some kind of cultural shift in the kinds of movies that are taken seriously, including by the mainstream media.” But the elation for the new dynamics that February 9 supposedly ushered in might well remain, for the time being at least, an anomaly. Over at The Ringer, Adam Nayman makes a very compelling case as to why Bong's work may ultimately be remembered as an outlier:
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. As for those filmmakers with a different sensibility, such a breakthrough is unthinkable. 
Progress is not a straight line, and it would be a mistake to conflate Parasite’s watershed moment with the issues of representations Hollywood still needs to reckon with. After all, the recognition may have signaled a shift in tides for the Academy, but as Karen Han remarks, this is still “an institution that failed to nominate any of the movie’s actors.” And her reminder finds a powerful echo in the distinction Walter Chaw draws at the New York Times:
Despite the initial euphoric reaction from many Asian-Americans, the “Parasite” victory has nothing to do with Asian-American representation. This is merely Hollywood recognizing, very belatedly, South Korea’s amazing film industry — which has been making superlative films for decades.
One need only look at the Academy’s track record—an institution capable of crowning a film as ground-breaking as Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight only to embrace the racial bromides of Peter Farrelly’s Green Book two years later—to realize that progress might unfold in a one step forward, two steps backward fashion. Parasite’s Best Picture win may not be followed by an immediate and long succession of equally daring offerings—English or non-English speaking as they may be. To borrow again from Justin Chang: “There will be reminders that the academy, in retaining its long-standing members while broadening its international reach, is an unwieldy organization often at cross-purposes with itself, where one hand scarcely knows what the other is doing.” But perhaps this is yet another reason to celebrate Parasite and its ability to sponge up something of our anxious, polarized zeitgeist—after all, “this may be the greatest movie ever made about, and for, a house divided.”  
The Current Debate is a biweekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.


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